Why we need a ‘Third Way’

Social change happens slowly, awkwardly and by degrees.

By Alan Bean

Danny Cortez is the pastor of a small Southern Baptist Church in La Mirada, Calif. A few weeks ago, he created a stir in Baptistland by calling for a “Third Way” on gay marriage.

In a letter to his congregation, Rev. Cortez said:

“I recently became gay affirming after a 15-year journey of having multiple people in my congregation come out to me every year. I scoured through your whole website and read everything I could. And it was especially the testimony of my gay friends that helped me to see how they have been marginalized that my eyes became open to the injustice that the church has wrought. … In August of 2013, on a sunny day at the beach, I realized I no longer believed in the traditional teachings regarding homosexuality.”

The real kicker came when the pastor’s 15 year-old son, Drew, confided that he was gay.

The pastor’s letter was as controversial as you would expect it to be; but rather than calling a hasty vote and sending their preacher down the road, the congregation brought in speakers to address both sides of the issue. Eventually, the church voted to retain Cortez and become a Third Way church that agrees to disagree on the contentious issues raised by the gay rights revolution. They have decided to kick that can down the road and just welcome everyone to church. The church decided to love and minister to LGBT persons without judgment.

The Third Way concept was first advocated by Ken Wilson, the pastor of a large Vineyard church in the Midwest, in his book A Letter to my Congregation.

Al Mohler, president of my alma mater, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, has led the charge against Cortez his congregation. To Mohler’s frustration and sorrow, convention delegates recently refused to address the issue, a sign of how rapidly the traditional evangelical position on marriage equality is eroding.

Dr. Mohler says that when it comes to homosexuality there is no Third Way. The Southern Baptist Convention has moved to disfellowship gay-friendly congregations in the past (including my home church, Broadway Baptist in Fort Worth), and Mohler sees no reason why the famously conservative denomination should shy away from its disciplinary obligation now. To fail to do so, Mohler says, “will be nothing less than a tragic abdication of responsibility and a violation of theological integrity.”

Al Mohler speaks for the evangelical establishment when he explains why there can be no Third Way:

“A church will either believe and teach that same-sex behaviors and relationships are sinful, or it will affirm them. Eventually, every congregation in America will make a public declaration of its position on this issue. It is just a matter of time (and for most churches, not much time) before every congregation in the nation faces this test.”

It’s hard to argue with that logic. But logic isn’t driving the debate over homosexuality in American Christianity. Logically, the churches of the segregated South had to decide whether to accept or reject the civil rights movement. Instead, denominational officials crafted tepid resolutions affirming Brown v. Board of Education or the Voting Rights Act and calling for racial harmony. Contrary-minded congregations (and they were legion) were not drummed out of the denomination for refusing to open their churches to African American Christians. SBC pastors weren’t forced to sign off on racial equality to remain in good standing.

Instead, the SBC, with other evangelical denominations in the South, adopted a Third Way approach in which the subject of race was avoided whenever possible, ostensibly in the interest of keeping the focus where it belonged — on saving souls.

We have handled issues like the death penalty in a similar manner. Denominations may endorse or reject capital punishment, but no one has ever been expelled from a congregation, Baptist or otherwise, for being out of step with the majority on this issue.

Initially, most Southern Baptist leaders made their peace with Roe v. Wade, but when pro-life orthodoxy came into vogue the denomination didn’t divide into pro-life and pro-choice segments; instead we had a proxy battle over the Bible. Conservative insurgents knew they could count on the rank and file to fight for the Good Book, but few were willing to go to the wall on the issue of abortion.

When moral issues are hotly contested there will always be three ways (at the very least): traditional, progressive and uncomfortable.

President Obama isn’t the only person whose opinions on gay marriage are evolving; more than half the nation is evolving right along with him. If we weren’t, the president would have kept his evolving opinions to himself.

The slavery debate in the 19th century spawned three distinct positions: pro-slavery, anti-slavery and uncommitted. Now it would be hard to find anyone willing to publicly embrace the pro-slavery position, but it took generations for the nation to turn its back on the peculiar institution.

That’s the way social change happens — slowly, awkwardly, and by degrees.

So why should it be any different with the debate over gay rights and marriage equality?

Churches agree to disagree whenever the consequences of disagreement are perceived to be deadly. Most of pastor Cortez’s parishioners will eventually embrace marriage equality, and they know it; but they aren’t quite there yet and they don’t want anyone pushing from behind.

Compromise is neither elegant nor inspiring, but sometimes it’s the best we can do, as individuals and as congregations. Had they really wanted to, the messengers (delegates) at the most recent Southern Baptist Convention would have drummed pastor Cortez and his congregation out of the denomination, but they didn’t. If asked, a solid majority of SBC messengers would have come down on the traditional side of the gay rights debate, but that doesn’t mean they were as comfortable with their position as Dr. Mohler would like.

It took a lot more courage for Danny Cortez to embrace a third way stance than it took for Al Mohler to reinforce the traditional view. Dr. Mohler ascendancy to the presidency of Southern Seminary in Louisville came with the proviso that he would uphold the party line on every conceivable subject. He is very good at drawing lines in the theological sand because he never has to worry about blow-back.

But the vast majority of Southern Baptists are neither paid nor applauded for holding conservative views. They are Christians first and conservatives second, and many are beginning to fear that, on this issue at least, their conservatism and their Christianity are in logical tension. They want to believe the Bible, but, as true disciples of Jesus, they don’t want to be be unloving or cruel.

Forced into a vote, the vast majority would side with Dr. Mohler; but if they can sidestep a vote they will — and they did.

Christians on the conservative side of the gay rights debate see homosexuality as a species of sin, a chosen “lifestyle” that can be tamed by repentance and “reparative therapy”.

But this view is no longer tenable. Alan Chambers, the former leader of Exodus International, once believed that reparative therapy could “cure” same-sex attraction. But Chambers was forced to admit that his organization’s methods were ineffective and frequently damaging. After apologizing to the gay community, Chambers created an organization called Speak.Love with a mission to “serve in our pluralistic culture by hosting thoughtful and safe conversations about faith, gender, and sexuality; and partnering with others to establish trust, reduce fear, and inspire hope.”

Chambers is now a Third Way Christian. He isn’t ready to say that homosexuality is an expression of God creative intention; but he is no longer willing to offer a robust defense of the old consensus. Like Rev. Cortez, Chambers prefers loving conversation to culture war demagoguery.

The gay rights debate has been co-opted by the culture war. As a consequence, only congregations solidly entrenched on one side of the ideological divide have the luxury to pick a side and staunchly defend it. But culture war boundaries run straight through the heart of most American congregations. It doesn’t matter if 70 percent or 30 percent of the people in the pews are ready to welcome the GLBT community into fellowship; so long as the congregation is divided on the issue most pastors will refuse to address it.

The upside of our silence is institutional harmony; the downside is that we relinquish our prophetic voice. Moderate Christians can rarely be found in the vanguard of social change. When the shooting starts, we head for the bunkers and wait to see which side will prevail. If no winner emerges, we stay in the bunker. Many pastors can’t imagine life outside the bunker. They are people without opinions, skilled at navigating around the elephants in the room.

Tragically, our world is now so full of elephants that avoidance is no longer an option. So we adopt a Third Way stance that allows the church to move beyond stalemate.

Eventually, we will confront the obvious. God isn’t going to condemn people for being the way he made them. Therefore, whether you are gay or straight, the sexual rules are the same. We believe that committed relationships grounded in covenant love are superior to a life of random promiscuity driven by a need to make it through the night. When people find a loving partner, we celebrate.

Most congregations aren’t there yet. Some are pretty close, but fear keeps us from giving voice to new commitments. Some churches will remain stuck in the traditional perspective, but, unable to use opposition to gay rights as an effective wedge issue, will gradually drop the subject.

Some day we will all declare ourselves, just as Al Mohler insists we must. It will probably happen in my lifetime (I am 61). But we’re not there yet, so we need a Third Way.

OPINION: Views expressed in ABPnews/Herald columns and commentaries are solely those of the authors.