Al Mohler Is Right About One Thing When He Says, 'No Third Way!'

Danny Cortez, pastor of a church in the Southern Baptist Convention, recently drew the criticism (calls for his ouster, etc.) of noted SBC theologian Albert Mohler. Pastor Cortez did so by announcing that he would pursue a "third way" on the gay issue. The nub of the third way involves regarding the morality of same-sex covenantal partnerships as a "disputable matter" and refusing to exclude people who are gay from full participation in the church. Cortez cited my recent book A Letter to My Congregation: An evangelical pastor's path to embrace people who are gay, lesbian, and transgender into the company of Jesus as a resource for this approach. Mohler, claiming support from progressive theologian and blogger Tony Jones, contends that there can be no "middle way" between excluding and including people who are in gay partnerships from full participation the church.

I couldn't agree more. People who are gay come to churches as indivisible beings. Like the seamless garment of Jesus, they cannot be split into parts that can be included and other parts that can be excluded. Churches have to choose between excluding and including, even if, like the Roman soldiers at the foot of the cross, they are reduced to casting lots. Thus dooming any "middle way" that seeks to split the difference.

But this is where words matter. The approach I advocate is a "third way" and not a "middle way," for precisely this reason. It is not a middle way in that it does not seek to split the difference between exclusion and inclusion. Just as you can't split the difference on equality for women in leadership ("woman can do everything but..."), it doesn't work to seek a middle ground between inclusion and exclusion of people who are gay. Partial exclusion is a form of exclusion. In that sense, I agree with Mohler and Jones: we should all own up to the effects of our positions and stop trying to fudge things. To say, "You are welcome here, but your same-sex relationship is too sinful for you to serve in this or that capacity" is to say, "You are not fully welcome here." And most of us feel less than welcome -- that is not welcome -- when we are not fully welcome. So let us agree that a middle way lacks coherence and won't work on this particular vexing pastoral question. (I say "pastoral question" because pastors are the ones who normally enforce any exclusionary policies in local congregations.)

Having enjoyed that moment of agreement, let me summarize what I have called a third way forward through the gay controversy. A third way is contrasted with the current binary that has the church in a deadlock. The two sides can be characterized, clumsily, as "love the sinner, hate the sin" and "open and affirming."

The third way is distinguished from the first because it eschews congregational sanctions against anyone who is committed either to celibacy or faithfulness to one partner -- male, female, or ambiguously gendered. Thus, it calls for the full inclusion of men and women who seek to honor God by pair bonding with someone of the same sex alongside those who are same-sex attracted but seek to honor God through lifelong celibacy or same-sex attracted men and women who choose marriage to a member of the opposite sex.

The third way is not based on a congregational discernment that covenantal same-sex relationships are either categorically moral or immoral. Individuals in the congregation differ on this question and their convictions do not label them as "unfaithful to God." Rather, the third way is rooted in a discernment that the time has come to regard this narrow question as a "disputable matter" -- something over which faithful Christians can differ while maintaining the unity of the Spirit. (There are many grounds for arriving at a non-exclusionary approach, but this is the biblical ground for my articulation of the third way, using the principles of Romans 14-15 as a guide.)

The third way is not "love the sinner, hate the sin" or "open and affirming" because it doesn't rest on a congregational consensus regarding the morality of gay unions. It is similar to "open and affirming" in that it rejects exclusionary practices aimed at the covenanted same-sex couple. For this reason, critics might say that the third way is rooted in a distinction in search of a difference. But the difference I see has to do with something deeply significant: the meaning of the gospel and the power of the risen Jesus to hold a diverse community together -- to do what Caesar did in the Roman Empire, but without oppressive and violent force, demonstrating the more powerful lordship of Jesus and his rule of love.

Words matter, especially in times of controversy, and like eggplant, they absorb the flavors of their immediate and particular contexts. In the context of this heart-numbing controversy, "affirming" has come to mean, "granting a declared moral approval grounded in a community-wide consensus on the categorical status of gay covenantal relationships." Phew! It's hard work communicating carefully in a time of intense cultural-political-religious identity and boundary defining controversy! To repeat the distinction for emphasis: The third way is not based on a community wide consensus on the morality of same-sex relationships and that is a key difference.

Before offering more reasons for the difference between the third way and "open and affirming," let me give the latter due credit. The phrase "open and affirming" emerged as a protest against a traditional consensus in the church that morally stigmatized gay people for a long time, in ways that harmed the sinner while hating their sin. People who are gay were stigmatized by referring to sex even between two men who love each other as "sodomy" thus linking it to the violent crime of gang rape in the Biblical story of Sodom and Gomorrah. They were stigmatized by deeming homosexual practice of any kind as worse than incest, worse, even than rape, as Thomas Aquinas taught. While the Roman Catholic Church no longer promulgates this teaching, neither has the view of Aquinas been officially denounced, so far as I know, as false, degrading, and abhorrent, contributing, even, to a moral climate in which it is easier to justify discrimination and violence toward people who are gay.

In light of this historical context, one can appreciate the instinct to insist on granting a community-wide and categorical moral approval to gay relationships, especially those that are committed to the Christian virtue of lifelong fidelity (what I take to be the "open and affirming" position.) But I will advance three further reasons (I'll admit to a fourth later) for not characterizing the third way as "affirming."

First, I think the term "affirming" plays into an unexamined "morally privileged" status that we have improperly given to the state of being married. After losing my wife of 42 years, I took off my wedding ring and noticed that I felt a twinge of shame when I sat next to a woman my age in a plane. I imagined my seat neighbor glancing at my bare ring finger and wondering whether I was divorced or never married and why. Especially in the church, being married is often viewed, contrary to the clear teaching of Scripture, as a morally superior status, not just an honored one: ask one of the less then 2% of Protestant clergy who are not married whether they agree with me on this perception. When we attend a wedding or offer support to any two people committed to each other through thick and thin for life, perhaps we are called to rejoice with those who rejoice more than we are called to affirm what we deem to be morally correct, especially a morally upright status in the categorical sense. In other words, the language of affirmation puts the emphasis on the wrong syllable when it comes to the implications of the gospel.

Second, "open and affirming" (and increasingly "love the sinner, hate the sin") flies in the face of reality in most congregations. For better or worse, faithful people, people of conscience, informed by Scripture, do have mixed feelings and differing discernments about the moral status of gay covenantal relationships. This is the reality in most congregations, including conservative and progressive ones. When a congregation says, "We are open and affirming," how is the reality of differing conscience even recognized, let alone honored? Similarly, the new soft language for the exclusionary position "welcome but not affirming," fails to recognize the growing number of faithful people in conservative congregations who can no longer, in conscience, justify the inevitable exclusionary practices associated with the position.

Third -- and this is where the gospel comes in -- since when is our unity in the Spirit meant to be contingent on our granting each other moral approval for all sorts of things? I say, "meant to be" because sadly, contrary to the gospel, it often is. In many congregations, one can have moral opinions that differ on much bigger moral questions without causing a fuss. Such questions include "Is killing in war forbidden to Christians?" (as it seems the early church taught). Or, "What are the acceptable grounds for remarriage after divorce (or annulment)?" Are they extremely limited, according to the traditional consensus that held until the divorce rates shot up after World War 2, or are they more accommodating as virtually every major tradition, including conservative ones, now claims? Yet our views on this rather narrow question, "Are covenanted same-sex relationships allowed?" -- a question directly affecting a small minority of us -- often determine our belonging to a local church or denomination, especially if one is a leader. Meanwhile we virtually ignore questions like "How should 'Love your neighbor as yourself' affect my sexual practices?"

This state of affairs is rank hypocrisy, the sort that might elicit a withering diatribe from the Son of Man who alone judges justly. Do we grant or withhold moral approval regarding the way we each spend our money, so long as we tithe? The way we consume resources and spend money is certainly a "lifestyle issue" with moral implications equal to or greater than same-sex relationships. (If the average American consumes four times his or her fair share of natural resources, would a poor Christian in the developing world be justified in characterizing that as "greed"?)

But apart from hypocrisy, isn't the point of the gospel, precisely, that we belong to God and each other, because of the faithfulness of Jesus Christ, and not because of our respective moral standings, let alone the moral opinions that we adopt on the controversy du jour? Is my unity in the Spirit with you contingent upon my moral approval of you? Is the gospel just another moralism? No! It is radically something other than that, or else it is no gospel at all.

Let me now admit to another reason for not adopting the "affirming" language of "open and affirming" -- a less than noble reason, having little to do with concerns for truth, faithfulness, or God. For an evangelical to adopt this language would be to signal, "I am not an evangelical." In my world, "open and affirming" is code for "We don't care so much what the Bible says -- homosexuality is fine, case closed." In saying that, I realize it is grossly unfair to many who use this language to describe their position. Just as there is less narrow-minded literalism among evangelicals than many liberal Christians think, there is less dismissing of the Bible among mainline progressives than we evangelicals think. Perhaps we are all equal opportunity Bible-dismissers. We just ignore different parts of Scripture.

Still, I openly acknowledge a merely rhetorical incentive not to adopt the phrase "open and affirming." How sad that this is so! That I would be powerfully tempted to avoid using a phrase like "open and affirming" simply because it would label me as one of those "liberal mainliners." Unfortunately in the religious world, there is a lot of this: dismissing opponents by labeling them, especially in the absence of offering actual reasons for our disagreement that can be subjected to scrutiny. We do it all the time in the body of Christ, and shame on us for doing so.

Perhaps this merely rhetorical incentive is the proximate cause for subjecting the "affirming" language to greater scrutiny as I have, only to find its theological implications wanting. Nevertheless, the term, in my view, does not pass muster for the reasons cited. Of these reasons, the theological reason matters most to me: it unintentionally obscures rather than clarifies what is at stake in the gospel. Our unity in Christ does not, cannot, depend on us affirming each other's moral standing for any other cause than the faithfulness of Jesus Christ. If our unity is grounded in such affirmations, it is not the unity of Christ, but the unity we ourselves cobble together in the land of sinking sand.

Besides, without a third way, when the next big controversy comes along, as it surely will, what will we do but replay this tired old drama over and over: Christians separating from each other until it's just you and me and I'm not too sure about you. Leaving, eventually, me. Alone. Which, come to think of it, is hell.

Now for a final admission: Albert Mohler and Tony Jones may yet be proven right. This third way may not work. (In that eventuality, Jones, who recently read and reviewed my book, would be disappointed to be proven right.) That great sifter, time, alone will tell. I'm betting that the Vineyard Church of Ann Arbor will continue to bear the halting witness that churches bear to kingdom realities often beyond their reach. If it does, it will certainly not have been without cost and pain. We've lost good people over this. Can you hear me? Dear to me people. I am spending as much equity on advocating this third way as a founding pastor can accumulate over nearly forty years of ministry in one congregation. In the end, congregations may simply fall onto one side or the other of the time-worn binary. But I don't believe this state of affairs will have been a fruit of the gospel so much as an effect of the gospel not having been trusted and tried. And to be evangelical means nothing without the willingness to at least give the gospel we preach, a try.

Ken Wilson is the founding pastor of Vineyard Church of Ann Arbor and author, most recently, of A Letter to My Congregation: an evangelical pastor's path to embracing people who are gay, lesbian, and transgender into the company of Jesus (ReadTheSpirit 2014).