Let’s Talk About the “Third Way”

Pink Menno hymn-sing; Pittsburgh, 2011. Photo credit: pinkmenno.org

Pink Menno hymn-sing; Pittsburgh, 2011. Photo credit: pinkmenno.org

If you have been reading recent statements by Mennonite Church USA leaders, or even engaging in more private conversations about the inclusion of LGBTQ people in the Mennonite church, you have heard the term “third way.” A lot.

Coming from denominational leadership, third way seems to be code for status quo. Calls for people to adopt the third way boil down to: “Let’s everyone just calm down about all of this gay people stuff so that the church doesn’t split.” The “third way” is presented as simply a complacent middle ground.

And that’s a fine way to use the term “third way” in the secular world. The Wikipedia entry for “Third Way” defines it as a political philosophy that “tries to reconcile right-wing and left-wing politics.” So for the sake of political sanity, if we’re seeking political expediency, we can talk about about the third way as a coming together of two opposing sides, as a place to be concerned about our “rhetorical tone”, as Ervin Stutzman puts it.

But I am not looking for political sanity or expediency in my denomination. I am looking for faithfulness to the way of Jesus. In our church discussions, we should not be invoking the secular meaning of the third way, we should be thinking hard about the theological meaning of that term.

Walter Wink uses this term to describe Jesus’ teachings about turning the other cheek and walking the extra mile. In Jesus’ day, a Roman soldier was allowed to force a Jewish peasant to carry his gear for one mile. So if a soldier thrust his gear on a peasant, the two obvious responses were for the peasant to throw the gear down and refuse to walk or to carry the gear one mile. The third way is to carry the gear two miles. The first mile is required, but the second mile is a choice–a choice that would probably confuse the soldier, possibly even get the soldier in trouble if his superiors thought he was breaking the rules.

From a theological perspective, there are a few things we need to understand about the “third way.”

First, the third way is not for white, middle-class, straight men. Theologically speaking, the third way is for those who are oppressed. It’s for the one who gets slapped on the cheek–not the one who does the slapping. It’s for the Jewish peasant weighed down with military gear–not the Roman soldier. And, in the context of our discussions about sexuality, it is for queer Mennonites who have been demeaned and excluded by the church–not for us straight people.

Second, the third way is not synonymous with being nice to each other. I mean, there is nothing wrong with being nice to each other, but that is not what the third way is about. The truth is that Jesus’ “rhetorical tone” varied widely depending on who he was talking to–and possibly how tired and cranky he was. He spoke gently to the children and the woman caught in adultery. He got testy with the disciples. He called the Pharisees and Sadducees a “brood of vipers.” He turned over the money-changers’ tables in the temple. If the third way means following Jesus, then it cannot also mean smiling and nodding and trying to make everyone happy all of the time.

Finally, the third way does not have to do with compromise, or even synergy. There are plenty of texts in scripture that do talk about the early church–the gifting of the Spirit, the way that disagreements were negotiated, the importance of love and humility in community. So there is a place for synergy–and even compromise–when it comes to many of the questions we face as churches. But if we are talking about compromise, we are talking about something different from the third way. The third way is for people who have no power to negotiate a compromise or participate in the decision-making synergy.

If we are going to continue to use the term “third way” in our discussions of sexuality and the church, we need to start using it based on its theological meaning, not its political meaning. Theologically, the third way is not increased complacency to be negotiated by those in power. Theologically, the third way involves creative, peaceful resistance to oppressive forces.

Which means that, ultimately, our goal should be to have no need of a third way within the church. When all people are respected and power is truly shared, then the third way is not needed. When there are no longer oppressed people within the church, then we will be better able to live as the true church, walking the third way together with the powerless out in the world. Just like Jesus did.

26 thoughts on “Let’s Talk About the “Third Way”

  1. quoting –
    Theologically, the third way involves creative, peaceful resistance to oppressive forces.
    Which means that, ultimately, our goal should be to have no need of a third way within the church. When all people are respected and power is truly shared, then the third way is not needed.

    Joanna – This is my understanding of the third way, as well. Thank you for stating the goal of eliminating the need from within the fellowship. The third way should be a strategy the church extends to the oppressed and hurting in our communities. Keep preaching Sister!

    • Thanks, Jeff. It was helpful for me to flesh out for myself why I have been so bothered by the use of this term in the current discussions.

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  3. Joanna, you read Wink much as I preached him across the church. Jesus was offering poor oppressed people a way to respond to bullies. The Third Way provides dignity to the underdog by flipping the situation and an opportunity for oppressors to realize and repent of their sin. Perhaps Stutzman is describing “Agreeing and Disagreeing in Love.” Preach it, Sister!

  4. I agree that the Mennonite conference USA’s third way is just a way of calling for less of “conflict” , because they are traditional Mennonite conflict avoiders and political beings in a political institution trying to save their skin, which is irritated by discord. I also find that I think of Jesus’ third way a little differently from yourself. In my spiritual experience and theology I would describe the “third way” as sudden, unexpected (and perhaps uncontrollable) transformation, which will change both oppressor and oppressed. Your definition seems to be closer to what I would call “civil disobedience”, which I agree, can only be used by the oppressed. I doubt that Rev Stutzman refers to what either of us is talking about. As one representing the oppressed we must always examine our motives, for when we are not open to our own transformation or our actions become coercive we close the door to the opportunity for the breathtaking transformation that is the “third way”.
    Peace sister, and many blessing on your journey of transformation and in your role bringing the voice of the voiceless into the open. I will be praying for you,

    • Thank you. And yes, I do understand the “third way” as something akin to civil disobedience, I guess. Transformation for oppressor and oppressed is definitely part of this.

  5. Thank you! I’ve been in a situation where people told me I was powerless. I didn’t know I wasn’t until they said I was! Then I found ways to wield that power. So I kinda owe the pitiers.

  6. I don’t think it is possible, practical, or desirable to define a “third way” so that it connotes the acceptance of a particular viewpoint. While Harader’s advocacy for the term to mean radical commitment to values other than prevailing societal values, it’s use to describe a mediate way between two extremes is commonly understood. In that sense, is it possible for persons on different sides of the same-sex marriage issue to find a way to live within the same denomination. That would be a third way for Mennonites in the current conflict and institutional crisis. To berate Erv because he seeks that end of avoiding schism is to misunderstand what’s at stake.

    In following some of the links—to Erv’s then to Albert Mohler—I find the idea that an individual, a congregation, or a denomination has to decide if it accepts variously gender oriented people and their marriages. In this sense, there is no third way. But as Ken Wilson advocates in his *A Letter to My Congregation: An evangelical pastor’s path to embracing people who are gay, lesbian and transgender in the company of Jesus* there can be a third way following Paul’s exhortation to the the Roman church in Chs. 14-15 of his letter to them, i.e., that this be considered a “disputable” matter on which persons hold strongly variant positions and remaining part of the one church. Paul’s recommendation is that the “strong” (i.e., more open or liberal) not despise the weak (i.e., more strict or conservative) and that the weak not judge the strong.

    In the current brouhaha in MC USA, I’d say that’s a third way to be desired and I laud Erv for seeking to guide the denomination to such a landing.

    • It is not my intent to berate Ervin, but simply to call into question his use of the term “third way.” Yes, the term is commonly used to describe a middle way between two extremes. My contention is that this is a political understanding of the term; I would prefer we use the theological understanding of the term in our discussions within the church. Susan Mark Landis’ comment above is helpful–I think a better term for finding our way amidst the disagreements is “agreeing and disagreeing in love.”

      • One can advocate for a specialized use of the term, one that Joanna prefers in the way it has been defined by radical Anabaptism. It seems to me, however—and I recognize that as a “white, middle-class, straight” man, and old at that, Joanna considers the third way not for me—that it is unfair to critique another for legitimate usage when seeking to speak to the broad spectrum of church and society. The elite circles of feminist and radical perspectives surely need to be heard, but their call to others to faithfulness needs to be couched, to quote another male, “full of grace, seasoned with salt.”

        And yes, I do find in the barrage of critiques of Erv a harshness that must make his role of leadership more painful.

  7. As opposed to jeff and joanna, I would say that we always need the third way within the church, and it is fundamental to being church. The church is not a magical or special place where conflict will disappear because we are all good people and good listeners. It is a community where tension and questioning will always exist, and must be brought into the open and where the spirit will guide us to transformative responses instead of logical ones which come from our own egos.
    I think that the Quakers’ concept of Sense of the Meeting is a profound example of this. Their focus on listening and changing themselves, following the guidance of the spirit even though it may be against their teachings and cognition, and their emphasis on being open to transformation that opens up opportunities for the mysterious third way to appear. That is when, historically, whole communities of Quakers got behind women’s suffrage, anti-slavery etc. and not necessarily because they agreed with it! But from what I understand they still have many conflicts in and around their meetings but rely on the spirit to guide them and surprise them.
    Jesus also had many conflicts, within himself, with his disciples. I believe that he really didn’t know or understand the miraculous transformation that would happen to him on the cross (my gut instinct is that this was mostly written in centuries latter to make him look more all-knowing) but was able to be open to this as he himself discovered the third way. Jesus aptly learned how to let go of his control, listen and be open to transformation which egged on the Mystery to appear and change the everyday. The curtain was unexpectedly torn asunder.
    In these discussions I feel like many are suggesting, as “an old disciple” has, that the third way is clear and involves one group being more accepting and another not judging etc. I would say that the third way is much more mysterious and can hardly ever be predicted. No one knew or expected that a poor man’s execution would transform the world for centuries to come, or that turning the other cheek might transform reality. I am not theologically sure why, but instinct tells me that if you knew it was going to work it would no longer be the third way! I for one could never really tell you what the third way in this congregational schism might be. I only feel that if we don’t have that attitude of searching and love, we might all miss the opportunity for that strange third way to pop up.
    Sorry if I have rambled on with some of my silly ideas, but enjoy hearing your thoughts. I too am being transformed and secretly hope that pink may appear like wildflowers, suddenly, where no one expects them.

    • JM, I love your description of being open to the Holy Spirit’s movement in our lives as individuals and as a community. The Quakers do indeed have a rich tradition of being open to the transformative power of the Spirit. In the Anabaptist tradition, the term I’ve heard for this is Gellassenheit. (No guarantees on the spelling there.) I just hear people talking about the “third way” in so many different ways, I think it would be helpful if we acknowledged one meaning for that term and found other helpful expressions for the variety of things we mean when we think about how to move past-through-beyond the current tensions. I don’t want to lose sight of Wink’s conception of the “third way.” Thanks for the discussion.

  8. I’m curious what you mean by “oppressed people” in the church. Do you consider folks who openly live in sinful rebellion toward God oppressed when other believers confront them with love and respect regarding their sin oppression? I think the lines seem to be getting blurred regarding the sin issue by placing one’s perception of comfortability over the seriousness of their sin (whatever that may be). Jesus came as one full of grace and truth, both, inseparable, he didn’t blur the lines about sin, he simply and emphatically stated “sin no more.”

    • If I believed that confronting sin was the same thing as oppression, I would not be confronting the sin of homophobia and heterosexism in the church. Based on my understanding of scripture, intimate, loving, committed same-sex relationships are not sinful; quite the opposite.

      • Thanks for clarifying and that is where the problem lies. I certainly agree that the church’s treatment of folks who struggle with the sin of acting on homosexual temptation has been horrible. However, to misread the Bible as condoning same sex relationships in the same context as covenental marriage is grossly incorrect. I agree we should encourage more churches to be inviting of struggling homosexual people, however we should not impose a new interpretation on Scripture to say that sin is ok based on the changes in contemporary culture. As I said in my original comment, we should respond with grace and truth just as the Lord Jesus did.

      • Bill, I appreciate your commitment to grace. You think I am misreading the Bible. I think you are misreading the Bible. The graceful position here is to say that we both understand scripture differently, to trust that we are both faithful people who will continue to read and study and pray and grow in our faith, and to open ourselves up as fully as possible to the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives and in our church.

  9. I’m drawn to continue this discussion because I think we need to get this one right if MC USA is to continue as a viable denominational structure. As I’ve reviewed this thread, I have a couple more thoughts I submit for consideration.

    First, I have to enter a caveat to “Coming from denominational leadership, third way seems to be code for status quo.” It seems to me the denominational status quo of the past ten years is rejection of any acceptance of GLBTQ marriage. It has included the stance—that I consider unviable—of “hate the sin but love the sinner.” In effect this has resulted in GLBTQs feeling condemned for being who they are. This “status quo” has been implemented in dis-membering of congregations by conferences and disciplinary action against ministers who perform marriages for other than heterosexual couples. With this as the status quo, I consider that the third way being proposed is to step away from this rejecting stance and find a way to coexist in the same denomination.

    A status quo response to this in terms of Mennonite history is to divide. I recognize that both sides believe that they are required to hold their position to be faithful to Scripture and their confession that Jesus is Lord. There’s nothing new in that. “My way or the highway” is not a third way. I recognize the passion of those who see the oppression of GLBTQs as sin and demand repentance. I also understand the conviction of those who think they need to remain true to Scripture by not approving an illicit relationship. I once was there, though I didn’t understand the implications. Only because Lin Garber and Ted Grimsrud patiently argued the meaning of Scripture with me did I change my conviction.

    I think the statement, “Theologically, the third way involves creative, peaceful resistance to oppressive forces” provides a key. I know there is anger among those who cry out “When are we going to call sin, sin.” And I think there is anger—probably justified—in the impatience with the denomination that has temporized. I don’t condemn those who turn over the tables at national assemblies or on blogs. Nothing in my advocating for a third way that accommodates for deeply held divergent positions posits muting the voice of either faction. What I seek as a third way is to define ourselves in a way that allows us to continue in the fellowship of the gospel even though we disagree. And to respect Erv and other leaders who are seeking to lead us towards that goal.

    Someone of my congregation recently said, “I don’t expect (name) to have a woman pastor in my lifetime [to my chagrin], but we can fellowship with congregations that do.” I would hope that conferences and the denomination be able to say the same about welcoming GLBTQs and their marriages.

    • I think you and I have the same hope for the denomination. I also understand that there is fear and frustration on both sides. I sense that you know Ervin better than I do and I am encouraged by your trust in his leadership. I do not mean any disrespect of Ervin as a person or a Christian. I just wish we could come up with clearer language to use as we move forward together. As we prepare to celebrate Pentecost, perhaps we can pray for a renewed ability to hear each other in our own native tongues.

      • Yes. I can’t say where the denomination or [my own] Lancaster Conference will end on this issue. It will take a fresh wind of the Spirit. And speaking truth in love. I agree—we pray and continue.

  10. Someone sent me an email message about this post. It was my intent to respond to you, but now I cannot find the email. Please do get in touch again if you would like.

  11. I have enjoyed following this conversation. It began with Joanna calling for clarity of language, which I think is a reasonable request. An Old Disciple expressed, with some degree of clarity that he believes Ervin and other leaders are trying to lead MCUSA to a place where we can continue in the fellowship of the gospel even though we disagree about what scripture says on this issue. This is an honest question: If that’s the case, why don’t they just say so?

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