A Third Way is Possible

How do you recommend that churches engage with LGBT individuals and why? 

Les Chuchoteuses – cc 2.0 by Serge Melki – editedRather than treat LGBT Christians as a sexuality to be affirmed or disciplined, churches should walk with LGBT people with curiosity. Churches should ask the same question of an LGBT member it asks of all its members: how is God at work in this person’s life and how can we cooperate with that?

Churches should model the difficult practice of loving each other in spite of differences—differences like affirming vs. non-affirming. This is preferable to demanding doctrinal correctness (on either side) concerning a small aspect of sexual ethics­: something that affects around 3% of the population, a topic on which there are six explicit verses in the Bible.

Practically this means allowing for differences of belief and action on both sides. LGBT people—acting with a clear conscience—should be able to marry the same sex, transition genders, and be leaders in a congregation. On the other hand, an affirming theology should not be officially adopted by the church. Non-affirming members should be free to hold dissenting opinions. Just as many churches tolerate a range of opinions concerning pacifism and just war (and whether it is permissible to serve in the military), churches should allow members to hold and practice different beliefs on this topic.

I advocate this not because I think the topic is unimportant. I’m gay and I care deeply about it. But this debate should not divide the church. My conservative Bible professor used to quote the helpful adage, “In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity.” This is a non-essential matter that feels essential because of the supercharged emotions that accompany it. It is a clash of conservative and liberal presuppositions that are more products of culture than of Christ’s teachings. I’ll unpack that below.

Finally, the church should adopt a “third-way” stance not just because the reasons this argument gets so heated are misguided (though they often are). This is a chance for the church to witness to a beautiful and important aspect of the gospel: that because of Christ people who disagree over important things can still live together in peace.     

A Non-Essential that feels Essential

Some of us like to think of ourselves as objective computers that collect data, analyze it, and formulate unbiased conclusions. But human beings don’t work like that. As neuroscientist António Damásio has demonstrated in his work with patients—patients who due to brain damage have limited emotions—humans use emotions to make decisions about everything. His patients agonize over which restaurant to choose or which day to schedule an appointment. Emotions play a large role in little decisions, and also in decisions about things like the morality of same-sex relationships.

In his book Unclean, psychology professor Richard Beck observes that homosexuality has been seen by the Christian tradition as disgusting. Disgust is one of seven human emotions for which people have universal facial expressions across cultures. While core emotions such as surprise, anger, joy, and sadness can be observed in babies, disgust comes later because it is taught by culture. Beck relates the story of his son who, in the New York subway, grabbed some gum off the floor and chewed it (16).

At times, we might talk ourselves through disgust. We might feel disgust at the notion of eating chicken feet and yet do it in order to receive hospitality, or decide to touch a disheveled stranger’s lips with our own in order to administer life-saving breaths. But when some Christians experience the feeling of disgust in regard to same-sex relationships, they take it as a God-given moral compass meant to help them tell right from wrong.  

I’m not accusing conservatives of manufacturing disgust. Growing up in this culture, even though I’m gay, I sometimes feel disgust at things like the sight of men kissing. But I believe I was taught this feeling. Some cultures, after all, regard men holding hands or even kissing as normal. The fact that I feel somewhat differently about women engaging in public displays of affection makes me think that this sense isn’t directly from God.

Being gay I often—in place of disgust—feel joy at the sight of two men kissing. Joy is another core human emotion. The longest stretch of joy I ever felt came from being infatuated with another guy. I loved being loved. I loved loving. It is tempting to take this feeling as a sign of approval from God. Jesuit priest and philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin wrote that “Joy is the infallible sign of the presence of God.”

This is the problem. One person’s disgust collides with another’s joy. Disgust, designed to protect us from ingesting harmful food from which we get sick or die, is a potent and powerful emotion. Joy, on the other hand, taps into our brain’s reward centers and sends the command: you’ve done something right! Do it again!

One side thinks, “Given the obvious sinfulness (read: the disgust I feel) of same-sex relationships, those people have forsaken what it means to be Christian.” The other side thinks, “Those people are so opposed to human flourishing (read: the joy I feel) they’re clearly the self-righteous religious leaders Jesus would have condemned.”

So let’s begin by taking a deep breath. The Christian doctrine of sin teaches that our feelings can deceive us. Disgust might help us detect sin or it might be a sign of a Pharisee heart. On the other hand, our culture tends toward an idolatry of romantic love so our joy may be in the service of worshipping a false god.

At the very least, let’s humbly admit that our feelings may influence how we think about this. Given the powerful emotions associated with this topic, we tend to feel that being right about this question (either affirming or non-affirming) is central to faith. In fact, there is good reason to believe this is an important matter but ultimately peripheral to an orthodox Christianity. There is good reason for a “respectful conversation.”

Beyond the emotions that make this conversation so tense, conservatives claim that this is an essential matter because it is about “the authority of Scripture” and liberals that is it about “justice.” Both of these claims are mistaken.


The debate over same-sex relationships and the Bible is not one about Scripture’s authority, but of Scripture’s interpretation. This may seem preposterous to some conservative Christians. After all, there are six verses about same-sex relations and they all speak against it. Anyone, conservatives assert, who denies that Scripture speaks against homosexuality is engaged in rationalizations for a cherished yet sinful behavior.

At its most simplistic, this view sees the Bible as a kind of moral encyclopedia—pick an ethical question, look up the entries about it, obey the answer. But a few quick tests reveal the inadequacy of this view. Is it okay to wear clothes that blend fabrics? Have multiple wives? Eat road kill? Look up the verses. The answers are: no, maybe, no. Perhaps more disturbing, look for the verse that says definitively that slave-holding is a sin. It is not there.

The Bible is more a storybook than it is a morality textbook. It is a story in which the father of our faith, Abraham, sets aside previous promises of God about becoming a great nation through Isaac and attempts to sacrifice Isaac to demonstrate his faith. It is a story in which Jesus sets aside Sabbath laws related to harvesting and claims that “The Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27). It is a story in which the early church sets aside Biblical prophecy that the Gentiles would learn the law from Israel (Isa 2:3, Mic 4:2) and deem the law an unnecessary burden (Acts 15:10-11).

The Bible is less like a law book than it is a mystery novel in which all is revealed and interpreted through Christ. A reader of Scripture, seeking to submit herself to the authority of Scripture, might ask questions like the following with integrity: Since the primary expression of same-sex relationships in the first century was older men with 13 to 17 year-old boys, could it be that Scripture is condemning that practice rather than modern day relationships of equals? Since Christ said “Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice’” (Matt 9:13), what does it mean to learn mercy in relation to LGBT Christians? Have we been sacrificing LGBT people for our own sense of righteousness? Might we Gentiles, for whom the law was put aside, now need to “put aside” the law for the sake of yet another group thought to be “far off” from God (Eph 2:13)?

I could list many more honest questions. The point is, the question is not whether to accept the Bible’s authoritative teaching on homosexuality. The question is, how do we understand the different Biblical strands in relation to this topic? It isn’t, as Misty Iron’s pointed out, “are you for or against the Bible?” It is a question of how we interpret certain Biblical texts (those that command love for the marginalized) against other Biblical texts (those which seem to condemn same-sex relations).

Obviously, a sophisticated case, one which takes into account the narrative arc of Scripture, can be made against same-sex relationships. See, for example, Richard Hays’s masterful The Moral Vision of the New Testament. But a case can also be made for same-sex relationships which takes the authority of Scripture seriously. For a recent example, see James Brownson’s excellent Bible, Gender, Sexuality.


Just as conservatives think that this is an essential issue because it has to do with respect for the Bible, so too liberals think that this is essential because it is an issue of justice. A typical rejoinder to a third –way stance might be, “and would you also advocate a position that officially allows racial prejudice in your church?” 

No. But that is unfair. It is one thing to discriminate against a person because of an immutable biological trait. It is quite another to discriminate against a behavior because of a sincerely held belief about Scripture’s teaching.

As simple as the above statement is, I can imagine a storm of protest from some of my LGBT affirming friends. In the next three paragraphs I’ll try to explain why this is so contentious. If you find the above unproblematic, you might want to skip ahead.

In modern western culture there are dearly held principles which are usually assumed rather than debated. These principles include the importance of freedom, individualism, rights, and equality (FIRE, my former pastor John Alexander used to call them). Think for just a moment about how important these principles are to us: 

  • Freedom is one of the few things for which people are willing to die.
  • Anthropologists say that the trait that most differentiates western culture from others is individualism. For instance, a non-western person with a strong tribal identity might report thinking first about any occurrence, “how does this affect my tribe?” rather than, “how does this affect me?”
  • Rights form the foundation of our democracies.
  • Equality is one of the most hard won values we have whether it be the civil war, women’s rights, or #blacklivesmatter.

 Given these values, self-expression and authenticity as seen as great goods. Freud’s legacy concerning the centrality of the libido has formed us and made us think that sexual-expression is crucial to healthy human flourishing. All of this combines to make us think that each individual, has the equal right to freely express her sexuality as she sees fit. Any restriction of this is fundamentally unjust. As sociologist Robert Bellah writes, “Anything that would violate our right to think for ourselves, judge for ourselves, make our own decisions, live our lives as we see fit, is not only morally wrong, it is sacrilegious” (Habits, 140).

While I believe the FIRE values have done great good, and have their roots in the Judeo-Christian story, they should not be ultimate. At the center of the Christian story is a person who gave himself for others in obedient, self-sacrificing love. It is consistent with the Christian story to ask people to take up costly behavioral disciplines such as monogamy in marriage, or celibacy for singles and the same-sex attracted.

I wish conservatives would have more empathy for the power of this argument. I recently had lunch with an intelligent, conservative man who had a thorough knowledge of the traditionalist arguments.  I knew there would be no possibility of him doubting his condemnation of same-sex relationships.

Because our sexuality is deeply interconnected with our personhood, it was hard to not take this personally. My feeling was, “you just don’t get it.” I wish I had attempted something like the following:

I grew up in the conservative church, and because it didn’t distinguish between orientation and behavior, I grew up loathing myself. It is difficult to communicate the cost of this. It contributed to significant sadness and self-destructive behaviors aimed at medicating my self-hate. The same church that caused such pain is telling me that I’m not allowed to enter into a bodily, healing, reciprocal relationship of covenanted, faithful love. That is hard to take. It doesn’t feel like Christ’s love. It doesn’t feel like mercy.

I can imagine him responding, “Well, the traditional church needs to do much better at distinguishing between orientation and behavior, but that doesn’t mean we can condone the behavior.” And I have to concede that such logic is rational.

Here is a little disclaimer. For some LGBT people, going to a third-way church, a church in which some people might condemn same-sex relations, gender-transition, etc., may trigger PTSD symptoms. For such people, I recommend a “welcoming and affirming” church. But for most of us, church shouldn’t be an exercise in relating to “people like me.” Rather, it ought to be a place where we engage the difficult practice of relating to people who, in all kinds of ways, are unlike ourselves. To say that most LGBT people can’t hack a church in which people disagree with us is ultimately patronizing, and its own kind of prejudice.


Even if this debate were about “the authority of Scripture,” or “justice,” (which I dispute) it still would not justify dividing from one another.  Just before Christ goes to the cross Jesus prays for his disciples, in what one enthusiastic preacher called “Christ’s most important instructions, in the last huddle, before the big play.” He prays that his followers might “become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me” (John 17:23). He prays that they “may be one, as we are one” (17:22).

Given this, the criteria for Christian division ought to be very high. The clearest case for division is when someone persists in heresy. What constitutes heresy? Theologian Steve Harmon defines it this way, “A heretic is someone whose account of the Christian story is so dangerously inadequate that’s really an altogether different story than the biblical story of the Triune God” (Ecumenism, 21) Justin S. Holcomb, Episcopal Priest and author of Know the Heretics, writes “The apostles were not afraid to denounce heresy. If a teaching or practice threatened the gospel’s integrity, they strongly condemned it. . .” [emphasis mine] (CT, 42). Writing in the evangelical magazine Christianity Today he commends the creeds as a guide to identifying heresy and writes, “If a believer genuinely accepts the Nicene Creed, they should not be dubbed a heretic” (CT, 45).

Clearly, by these definitions, one can hold either an affirming or non-affirming view, without being a heretic. Still, it is a long way from “not being a heretic” to “someone we actively welcome in our church despite views on sexuality with which we disagree.”

Ken Wilson in A Letter to My Congregation, a book that beautifully blends a pastoral heart with incisive theology, lays out the case for a third-way approach which urges the welcome of such differences. Wilson examines Romans 14 and 15 in which Paul gives counsel to the Christians in Rome about a “disputable matter.” The matter appears to be an argument about food sacrificed to idols and the observance of special days such as the Sabbath (Rom 14:2-6).

For modern believers, these issues appear to be of little consequence. We’re tempted to think, “Yeah, the whole vegetarian vs. vegan vs. carnivore controversy. That again.” Or, “Saturday versus Sunday worship. Get a life!” But for those early Christians, meat sacrificed to idols posed the specter of idolatry. Idolatry not only violated the first of the ten commandments, but was the most denounced sin of Israel in the Old Testament. The Sabbath command was also one of the ten commandments—the foundation of Judeo-Christian ethical teaching. For early Christians, these were crucial, critical, central issues.

Paul concludes his treatment of the controversy with the exhortation to both sides to “Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God” (15:7). This may be the conclusion not only of this passage, but of all of Romans. Gentiles and Jews, the “weak” and the “strong,” (people some commentators compare to liberals and the conservatives) were in conflict with each other. Paul urges them to live a unity borne of the confession that “Jesus is Lord.” This heals the fundamental Jew-Gentile divide in the ancient world, and can heal the polarized liberal versus conservative divide in the modern world.  

Good News

As our world suffers conflict, I doubt our best witness is to “get it right” and seperate from those who are “wrong.” Our most prophetic witness will be as we bridge divisions of race, class, gender, and the liberal versus conservative chasm. If we can live with each other in love and peace across those dividing lines, then we will have something to offer the world that others will know as “good news.”

We’ve had so many causalities in this conflict. We’ve ruptured families, churches, and denominations. We’ve hurt sexual minorities and alienated sincere Christians. We’ve neglected crucial topics like mission, service, and worship for the sake of the fight. We’ve maligned each other and thought the worst of each other. We’ve brawled so that it has spilled over into the press. We’ve eviscerated the Gospel witness that because of Jesus we can be reconciled not only with God, but with one another. 

Because of these things, most of this essay appeals for less anxiety about this matter. This topic, as important as it is, should not be a cause for separating from one another. Obviously, it will take some creative thinking to imagine how people on different sides of this question can welcome one another in the context of a local church. Please see Wilson’s A Letter to My Congregation on this as well the third-way website for more help with practicalities.

Faith, as I suggest in my book Oriented to Faith: Transforming the Conflict Over Same-Sex Relationships, is not being certain of every ethical issue. Faith is the “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (emphasis mine, Heb 11:1). In the midst of all the causalities and conflict, God is at work for the good. Knowing that, we can participate in God’s good work by welcoming people who believe differently than us—knowing that as we do so—we imitate Christ who so generously welcomes us. 

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