Finding a Third Way

With the recent decisions regarding DOMA still punctuating media, I’ve done a lot of thinking about same-sex marriage, church, and my role as a pastor. In my role, I have to think about this. I’ll often sit down with people after they have visited our church a few times in a “get to know you” session where I learn about them and they learn about me and the church. Inevitably, there will come a point in the conversation where I am asked about my stance on homosexuality.

Frankly, in this day and age and at this time in history, we have to think about this. It is one of the most pressing questions our society is facing. How do we respond to LGBT individuals desiring to be in long-term, committed relationship with the full rights as a heterosexual couple? As Christians we are called to give an account of what we believe. First and foremost that applies to the gospel and the question of who Jesus is, but I think it also applies to issues like this.

So I have thought about this. I’ve prayed about it. I’ve read about it. And honestly, I hate how the conversation is framed . It seems Evangelical culture is forcing a person into one of two camps. Either I am for same-sex marriages and don’t take the Bible, truth, and the gospel seriously; or I am against same-sex marriage and don’t take the words of Jesus, grace, and the gospel seriously.

Really? Those are my options? Can’t there be a third choice?

This was the genius of Jesus. He had an uncanny ability at finding the third way. Confronted with the woman caught in adultery, Jesus avoided harshly condemning the pawn in the plot while at the same time avoiding being accused of ignoring the law. He found the third way.

Might there be a third way for us?

In order for us to find that third way we will have to be creative and imaginative. Therein lies the problem. The system of evangelical Christianity is too anxious to be creative.

At this time, Evangelical Christianity is an anxious system. Culture is rapidly changing around us. As these changes occur, our influence is diminishing. Christendom is crumbling around the church. Morality is shifting. Church buildings are emptying. Anxiety is high. Imagination is low.

When people become anxious they begin doing things they wouldn’t normally do. Reactivity rises. Conflict becomes normal. People give up their most deeply held beliefs to try and “keep the peace.” As emotions run high, our ability to think rationally, and imaginatively, drops. Edwin Friedman, in a Failure of Nerve, writes that, “In order to imagine the unimaginable, people must be able to separate themselves from surrounding emotional processes before they can even begin to see (or hear) things differently.” If we want to find a third way, then we have to shift the emotional processes driving our decision making. More learning will not help. Developing better processes will not make a difference. Conferences will be a waste of money. Breaking our imaginative gridlock will happen only if we can step outside of the emotional anxiety surrounding us .

But if you do that you “don’t care,” “need to pick a side,” “don’t understand the importance of the issue,” and “aren’t willing to take a stand.”

In other words, our ability to find a third way is being threatened.

Quite simply, this is an anxious response. The anxiousness in Evangelical Christianity has led to a reactive response that Friedman refers to as “herding.” At its simplest, herding is surrounding ourselves with people who think like us and requiring others to think like us.

It literally is a “Think like us or get out” reaction. The goal of this action is to alleviate the source of anxiety.

Anybody else see that at work in the evangelical cultural of today?

Friedman elaborates on this herding force by saying,

It is more a stuck-togetherness, similar to the kind of oneness that is characteristic of cult. The chronically anxious, herding family (or system) almost seems to develop a “self” of its own to which everyone is expected to adapt…feelings are more important than ideas, peace will be valued over progress, comfort over novelty, and cloistered virtues over adventure. Problems are formulated in rigid either/or, black-and-white, all-or-nothing categories.

Pick your issue: homosexuality, gender roles, modesty, politics, the Bible, atonement, hell, or Tim Tebow. Herding is a very present force. On all sides. The rigid thinking that is characteristic of anxious herding is crippling our ability to imagine a third way.

Which makes me dread getting into conversations about homosexuality. It isn’t that I don’t think it is an important conversation. Quite the contrary. I believe it is an extremely important conversation to have. But that’s just it. I believe it should be a conversation. In our current state, where herding is modus operandi, you can’t have a conversation. You simply get pressure to join the exercise in group think.

Herding isn’t just present in Evangelical culture. It is present in American culture. It’s the reason our politics have become so polarized. The gridlock in congress is a result of herding. The church is not operating any different than the surrounding culture. We are losing our prophetic voice by not modeling a different way of dealing with our differences.

We have to fight both the pressure to force others to think like us, and the pressure to think like others. The beauty of the church is found in its diversity. We cannot lose this. So we have to be more than our anxiety. It’s the only hope to finding a creative, God-honoring, graced-filled third way when it comes to dealing with same-sex marriage, or any other divisive issue that comes before us. It is the only hope we have to fulfill Jesus last prayer for unity and loving our Christian brothers and sisters in such a way as to display the manifold wisdom of God through the church.

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  • pastordt

    Any ideas about that third way on this issue? I’ve wanted the conversation to happen for a long, long time – and wanted there to be room at the conversation-table for ALL voices on the topic, as long as they refuse to become shrill, reactive or shaming. Thanks for this call to civility and imaginative thinking – we need it.

    • Nate Pyle

      Thanks for the comment. I’ve got ideas, but I’m not sure their solutions. I do believe the only way the conversation happens is if we begin to make space with grace, posture ourselves with humility, and learn to really listen.

  • Nacole Simmons

    Amen. and Amen.

  • Nate Pyle

    A friend of mine couldn’t comment on this for some reason so I am posting on their behalf.

    “Beautifully written and clearly expressed Nate. I find myself in
    the same place. I want to have a dialogue. But, to even suggest that a dialogue
    is needed gets you labeled by someone, and the process of labeling only
    intensifies anxiety and all of its impact.

    I find the same sex marriage and the church’s anxiety around the questions that
    raises to be similar to divorce in the church when I was your age. Perhaps
    there is something to be learned there.

    Jesus is crystal clear about divorce. Yet as more and more church members got
    divorced, we were forced to a more thoughtful nuanced response. Many of us were
    accused of being liberal because we violated the clear teachings of Jesus. Yet
    over time, in the most conservative churches people who were divorced we
    allowed to be deacons, elders, and yes, even pastors.

    As I see it, divorce violates God’s intention. Yet, in a fallen world I am
    required to learn to live creatively and redemptively in the face of a plethora
    of circumstances that fall short of God’s intention.

    The conversation raised by the Supreme Court’s action gives the Church yet
    another opportunity to reframe this conversation. Thanks for challenging us to
    do that. I think there is something to learn from a previous generations’
    struggle with divorce that could help us in this conversation. Based on that
    experience, I am hopeful that we can find our way forward in this experience as
    well. It will require courage and creativity.”

  • martin troyer

    Nate, this is to me one of the most important pieces you’ve written yet. It’s clear you are equipping your tribes to be less-anxious so that space can be cleared to have these “thirdway conversations.” I love this, though that’s probably obvious with my current series going on. But to apply it to evangelical culture in general terms is remarkably helpful. it’s important to me that your post is applicable to so much more than just DOMA/prop8. These are object lessons to help us grasp the larger point, which is so clear and compelling. THank you for setting the stage, creating the space, for us to nonanxiously enter in.

  • Eric Peltz

    Healthy discussion is necessary. But when my dear friend committed suicide because his whole life well-meaning faithful tried to re-orient his orientation, this becomes a life-and-death issue. In all things in the church, I seek brothers and sisters that address the problems of our day with urgency- and then act. Discussion without action is an interesting development, a form of “well I don’t see that side of town so I won’t deal with it”. Cognitive dissonance aided by suburban separation, if you will.

    That said, I like to think that I am a third-way, LGBT-affirming, Bible-loving, gospel-proclaimin’ and missional disciple. I also like to think a lot of good things about myself; however, my sense is that mainline pastors from our crop of seminary grads share the same sense of the equal importance of radical hospitality and unabated proclamation of the Good News. My question is this: why do older generations have such a great sense of urgency about this particular issue, when our divorce rates are so high, pornography use runs rampant, and more people are likely to throw $80 at a Colts jersey than a food pantry?

    I pray it’s the faithfulness of our future witness together, the healthy, humble discussion AND faithful action, that is seen by the world. We must pull the mic from the belligerent; but how?

  • Martha

    THANK YOU!!!!!!

  • Jay Davis

    I see Jesus as being black and white on sin….and smothered in Grace and Love!

  • Beth

    I wish you had kept going. It was presented…now what? I’m not asking you to think for the rest of us but i feel we gathered around this signpost, said “wow, great point!” and now it’s time to go home.

    This issue in particular sits on my front porch We have 5 children. Our oldest son, raised in a Christian home, “came out” in high school. He now lives with his partner.

    He came over on Father’s day to cook a meal to honor his father (my husband). My parents happened to be in town. Also Christians. When my son arrived my parents left immediately claiming not able to eat/have fellowship with him. There was pain in every square inch of our home.

    It stinks and i’m tired of being heaped, on one hand, with guilt and

    accusations of not being “faithful” to our son and on the other hand filled with my own questions of how do I honor the One who gave me His life and live in fellowship and community with my son. We are together frequently….us and our son….but questions loom of the future.

    If they decide to get married. Do we attend? If we go on a family vacation together, do we just give them a room like they are a couple and all is well?

    It’s one thing to say “love” (and I heartily agree) and another to know what does loving look like.

    This is a gaping issue in the fabric of our family and I don’t find the church at large with any direction for families like us. It’s all very vague and filled with mixed messages. We’ve lost our “salt” and clarity….our power as a community of Christ followers.

    Never thought I would say this….but I’m beginning to think less of myself as a Christian. That title and its connotations in today’s world seem often in stark conflict as I read the heart walk of Jesus here.

    Where are we?

    I appreciate your writing Nate

    • Nate Pyle

      Beth, thank you so much for sharing. I’m sorry I couldn’t offer more. I feel your struggle as your wrestle with how to love your son and follow Jesus. I cannot imagine the tension in your house on Father’s Day, and I am sorry it is such a reality for you. It saddens me that loving your son and following Jesus have been made it into conflicting choices. They should be the same. I believe, with a lot of conversation and dialogue, they can be. But I think you have to figure that out with your son. I don’t think there is any one answer that is true for all people in these situations.

      I agree with your point about the church losing it’s saltiness in this area. If for nothing else, we are not showing the world how to have this much needed conversation. The conversation is so very important for families such as yours.

  • Brian Victor

    Greetings Nate. I could be mistaken, but I sense you are in the position I am in. There is no defense in Scripture for the practice of homosexuality, though I have tried to find one through the eyes of sites like gaychristian101. We can’t affirm it and yet we don’t want to drive the sinner away. That does more than end the conversation. It ends relationships and there is little more difficult to endure than a family’s rejection. No wonder suicide rates are high for homosexuals. Will embracing their choices help, however? How do we continue to love them without approving of what they do? I cannot approve of what God will not. At the same time, what is going to be most loving, in the end, for the homosexual’s soul? Looking for answers.

  • Susan Cottrell Freedhearts

    I’ve been thinking about this Third Way too, and it finally hit me: Jesus showed us to apply the third Way to RULES, but unconditional love to PEOPLE. That is, he always deftly set the rules aside (the Third Way, not “yes or no”), but valued people without condition (no subclass). I posted it on my blog, today and last Thursday. I hope you’ll read.