Why There’s No “Third Way” on Gay Marriage

Rachel & Ratchet and Courtney & Tony are legally married on 11/11/13. Photo by Caroline Yang

Every week now, there’s news about gay marriage. Today it’s that Oregon is allowing same sex marriages. Last week it was the Religious Broadcasters Association forcing Multnomah Publishers to resign from the trade group.

It strikes close to home for many of us as well. I regularly hear from readers who wither A) are gay and can’t get married in their state, or B) have recently gotten married and are overjoyed. In my own personal case, last month I lost out on a potential six-figure grant from a church foundation exclusively because of my affirmation of marriage equality — someone connected to the foundation didn’t like my stance.

I’ve got a few friends to graciously and tenaciously hang on to the idea that a third way can be found on this issue, a middle ground between affirming gay marriage and condemning it. And I agree with them, to a point. I know many churches that are studying the issue — the church council is reading books and discussing it; the pastor is offering Wednesday night classes, etc. Those are practices of a middle ground, but that middle ground is necessarily temporary.

That’s because the same-sex marriage debate in the church is always determined by practices. Let’s take World Vision, for example. For three years, the WV board of directors studied and prayed about the issue, and no one complained. But as soon as they decided to institute a new practice — that is, hiring legally married gay persons in their U.S. offices — conservative Christians went postal. Spokesmen tweeted, pastors called, and recording artists threatened. In less than 48 hours, WV reversed their decision.

The same goes in church. A denomination can study the issue for years as the PC(USA) has. But at some point, they will take a vote. Then they either will or will not allow their clergy to perform same-sex weddings. It’s at that point that congregations will leave for the conservative ECO denomination (some already have). The UCC, ELCA, and EC(USA) held their votes in the past, the UMC will confront it in the future.

And the same goes for an individual congregation. At some point, every congregation in America will decide either, YES, same-sex marriages will take place in our sanctuary, performed by our clergy; or NO, same-sex marriages will not take place in our sanctuary, performed by our clergy. There is no third way on that. A church either allows same-sex marriages, or it doesn’t. 

I’ve heard of cases where a pastor is allowed to perform same-sex weddings, but not on church property. That’s a kind of third way, but it usually takes place without the knowledge of the majority of the congregation. And it is also a temporary (and possibly deceitful) practice.

What I’m saying is that a church or an organization can study the issue in theory, and they can even do so for years. But this isn’t really a “third way” or a “middle ground.” Instead, it is a process. And at some point, that process has to end and practices have to be implemented. At that point, there’s no third way. You either affirm marriage equality in your practices, or you do not.

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  • Scott Paeth

    Well said.

  • Andrew Watson

    when i first saw the caption under the photo I thought you were announcing yourselves as a quadruple.

  • Joe

    Tony, this seems to disregard things you’ve said in the past about “two marriages.” Am I wrong about that? It seemed that your previous position would have allow churches (denominations, individuals, whatever) to support equality in state marriages while holding different standards for their sacramental marriages–since they are in fact two distinct practices. Do you know longer regard this a legitimate “middle way”? (Or, did you ever?)

    I mean, I get what you’re saying here: at some point you’ve got to shit or get off the pot. And until you do you shouldn’t think that you’re doing something significant. But isn’t it at least possible to make a real, and somewhat permanent policy decision (beyond “we’re studying the issue”), that’s somewhere in-between the Southern Baptists and the UCC?

    • Andrew Dowling

      I would say the experience of the UMC says no . . the sentiments are so high that a general “agree to disagree” declaration won’t suffice.

      • Joe

        Well, I’m not really talking about agreeing to disagree. I’m asking what if some hypothetical denomination agreed to adamantly advocate for equality in state marriages, but not to extend the sacrament of marriage to same-sex couples. Would that count as a legitimate “third way”?

        • Andrew Dowling

          I don’t think any church that won’t have gay marriage under their roof would concurrently “advocate for marriage equality” in the civil framework. The best that could happen is silence on the civil issue and simply not performing gay marriages in the church (which I think many churches already adhere to, especially on the local level).

        • http://brgulker.wordpress.com/ brgulker

          If the church isn’t performing a religious ceremony, then it’s still not practicing a third way, which is Tony’s point.

      • Richard H

        That’s where Tony’s identification of the role of PRACTICE is so important. Agreeing to disagree still leads to some practical position.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/tonyjones/ Tony Jones

      Yes, I still believe that an evangelical church could affirm civil (legal) gay marriage but refuse to perform ceremonies in their church. However, I have yet to see even one church take this position. So I think it’s yet another hypothetical that won’t actually happen. Like Andrew says, the sentiments are so high that no one seems to be able to really take a third way.

  • Robert Terrell

    I just can’t get past the idea of there being a 6 figure church foundation grant. That’s like seeing a sasquatch.

  • ChuckQueen101

    Very good point. I would agree that all “third ways” on this issue are temporary. At some point decisions have to be made. Maybe that is true of the gospel in general. I can spend my life investigating the credentials of the Christian faith and spend all my life in limbo, not really in or out. At some point it would make sense to make a decision and get on with it – to decide to be a follower of Jesus or not. I can dive in and discover perhaps wonder and mystery in the depths, or just kick around in the shallows. I think there is something important and transformational about commitment,

  • Josh Jinno

    There is a third way… I don’t have an official position on how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, or whether Obamacare is good or bad… I simply don’t have to take a position. People are people – they can be treated based on the situation in which they are without having to make sweeping generalized statements about political or cultural ideology.

    • WonkishGuy

      The problem is that, unlike these two examples, whether non-celibate LGBT people can fully participate in the life of the church has practical consequences. Can they attend as a couple? Can they teach Sunday school? Can they become part of the leadership/pastoral team? Can they have any kind of responsibility?

      There is no middle ground as far as all these questions are concerned. Either you’ll answer ‘Yes’ and you’ll be an inclusive church, or you’ll answer ‘No’, and you won’t be. Either you think it’s a sin, or you don’t. You may also be unsure about it. But, then, it boils down to whether you’ll choose to treat it as a sin or not. Which, again, will lead you to being either inclusive or not.

      • Josh Jinno

        That’s assuming a lot about my theology and definition of “sin” which I do not believe has anything to do with actions. A situation ethic in which we consider a human being’s intrinsic worth, gifts and competencies should trump petty cultural capital, which is what this whole debate is about. It saddens me that with so many bright minds pondering these issues, we fail to see the bigger sociological, ethical, and practical dilemma caused by reducing people to the “It” of their cultural capital, and not drawing them up to participate in – for lack of a better illustration – “Thou.”

        I understand many of my friends seek to be inclusive out of a sense of compassion, but true compassion seeks intimacy, and “knowing” and can never be accomplished on the ill fated broad road of labeling everything. But as they say, the road to hell is paved…

      • jules

        That’s exactly it. Either the practice of homosexuality is sinful, or it is not. There’s no middle ground there.

    • cajaquarius

      [People are people - they can be treated based on the situation in which they are without having to make sweeping generalized statements about political or cultural ideology.]

      That is affirming, as I understand it. If you judge people based on actions and who they are in their various situations rather than what they are (eg black, gay, liberal, etc) then you would be on the affirming side, unless I have misunderstood what you are saying.

  • http://twitter.com/dangerousandy Andy

    While I admire the spirit of asking for a third way like this, I think it confuses peace with a ceasefire.

    I try to never use us-vs.-them rhetoric or look at ideological opponents as enemies, but that gets harder and harder when some of these groups are often prioritizing their discomfort with issue X (gay marriage, birth control, whatever) ahead of actual human lives. Even fighting the fight with World Vision meant that the very existence of starving, impoverished children was at stake. They may have their “victory,” but how many infants will die because someone didn’t like how inclusive WV was?

    Blech. Blech blech blech.

  • Eric B

    In my experience, the “third way” really isn’t so much a position as it it the road between opposing and affirming. It’s the process of people who want to be affirming but are trying to the their “theological ducks in a row.” It’s my own journey, and I can see that now that I’m coming out on the other side of it.

  • Steven Knudsen

    why not just study the issue forever?

    • Lamont Cranston

      That sounds deceptive, a sort of “the check is in the mail” answer.

      • Steven Knudsen

        Right — that’s why my statement was sarcastic! Thanks for your interest, and I wish you well!

  • http://late-emerger.blogspot.com/ Andrew Martin

    And this has been the pattern of schism and split in the church through many centuries.

    Because, on a great many issues, people get to the point where there is a stark binary decision, with two sizeable bodies of people behind each. And then binary division is inevitable (except for the odd case where the fracture goes in lots of directions simultaneously). A few generations later, some people passionately hold on to that divisive issue; many more can’t really recall what it was all about. And many bemoan the number of divisions and denominations.

    It was ever thus. It is happening over equal marriage now, and it will happen over something else in half a generation’s time. Lord, have mercy.

    • Steven Knudsen

      this also explains polarization between conservatives and hyper-conservatives

    • Adam King

      Pretty soon there’ll be one denomination per Christian.

  • Andrew Dowling

    BTW . . .Tony, do you just never smile in pictures? :)

    • https://twitter.com/RollieB RollieB

      He IS smiling!

    • JeanM

      I think he’s frozen. It was, like, 90 below that day.

  • Billy Davis

    what part of SEX is it that you don’t understand?

  • http://quijotefelix.blogspot.com/ rick allen

    The lack of a “third way” means, of course, that every communion with a significant number assenting to or dissenting from the new approach will split. When I was young all the talk was of churches reuniting. I would never have imagined major schism over whether marriage was a relationship of opposite sexes.

  • Brad

    Why not offer a blessing over gay couples, but not offer the ceremony? That way you can affirm them as people, but you don’t offer them the rite that doesn’t belong to their type of relationship. You can affirm it as a legitimate relationship without affirming it as marriage. It would be similar to the way Baptists “bless” babies but don’t baptize them.

    Many socioeconomic problems arise from cultures/groups not being recognized by a society or recognized by some organized group of people. The problem doesn’t arise from offering indistinct privileges, protections, etc. They arise from not offering a different way to recognize the cultural group in a distinct way. I imagine there are all sorts of “middle ways” (like the one above) to offer affirmation but not eliminate the ontological order of a specific sacrament or rite. I don’t know why you would want to marry gay people, in this way. It appears patronizing.

    • Brad
      • Brad

        And I’m pretty sure you would like Habermas, so it’s definitely worth the read.

    • https://twitter.com/RollieB RollieB

      No one, nor institution, can continue to marginalize LGBTQ persons by withholding sacraments, or any other affirmation, in this case marriage, and then ask to be considered worthy of legitimate recognition. Withholding full acceptance of any person as a child of God, made in God’s image, fails the love test. God is love.

      • Brad

        ANY person? Are you sure you want to go by those rules?

        Why do you have to look at marriage as a privilege? How is that “marginalizing”, and what do you mean by that?

        • https://twitter.com/RollieB RollieB

          Take my words, and their plain meaning as you like. It is what I believe. You seem to be reading your own biases into my statement and using your own words to try and reframe what I stated. It’s really not that complicated.

          • Brad

            Well, thanks for marginalizing me, then. I don’t think any person deserves that.

      • Relatively Conservative

        That’s odd – Christ said marriage was made for a male and a female. So, in your defense of gay marriage, you denounce Christ. God is indeed love, but love “does not rejoice in unrighteousness, but rejoices with the truth.”

        • ExpertExpat

          Jesus then said, but not all can accept these teachings, and that some are “born that way.”

          • Relatively Conservative

            He said some are born EUNUCHS (sexless), not homosexual. So, the two choices Jesus gave were heterosexuality in a monogamous marriage or sexlessness. Nowhere does he say homosexuality is O.K.

            • ExpertExpat

              The original word used by Jesus referred to both castratada and gay men. As rare as gay births are, persons born without testes are so rare they would not bear mention in so sensitive a subject as this. Most scholars agree the three Eunuchs He referred to are Gay, Castrated, and Celebates. These were encountered often enough to be referred to. Nowhere did He condemn gays. (And, before you ask, I’m a straight Southern Baptist minister.)

              • Kullervo

                Eh, my understanding is that “gay” as an identity didn’t even exist then, so I am having a ahrd time giveing much credit to your argument.

              • Relatively Conservative

                Not really. “Most scholars” agree this means sexless people – either born that way or by choice. Even if we gave way to you contention, Jesus said Marriage is for a male and a female. He doesn’t say it is for the “Eunuchs.” He says you either marry or are one of the eunuchs, which means Jesus specifically did not recognize gay marriage.

      • jules

        And God is holy. You can accept that someone is made in the image of God without accepting their actions.

      • jabez6311

        As many as I love , I rebuke and chasten : be zealous therefore, and repent . Revelation 3:19

    • Brad

      Oh, and I meant to say “The problem doesn’t arise from *NOT offering indistinct privileges, protections, etc.”

  • http://thediscerningchristian.wordpress.com/ Chris

    Good article. I agree, as there simply isn’t a third truth value besides true or false, and acceptance by degrees might as well be “false.” A church that accepts gays with conditions is no accepting church.

    Third way churches in general have struck me as misguided and perhaps not really as different from everyone else as they would like. This is one place where such attempts have definitely failed.

  • Scot Miller
  • http://www.rruuaacchh.org/ John Fairfield

    I wish the following were a true description of us:

    Our unity is not based on our common understanding, vision or practice. Our unity is based on our Lord’s desire that we be one. It is a unity that is not dependent on our common ethics. We are in communion with people we think are doing mortal wrong. We refuse to give up on treating each other with respect and dignity even as we struggle with each other over these deeply held differences.

    We will behave differently. Some of us will bless same-sex unions, some of us will refuse to bless them. So be it. We stay in communion. Communion does not mean approval–communion means commitment to a good fight, a clean fight, a fight that entails vulnerable listening to others’ voices because it’s the only way you can expect a vulnerable listening to your own. A fight that might last generations–we’re not very bright, it takes us a long time to sort things out.

    Jesus didn’t eat with prostitutes, tax collectors, pagans and Pharisees because he agreed with them. He declared his communion with them first, and then brought on his disagreement. God desired communion, a covenanted relationship, with an Israel who’d offended often in the past and would offend again. That is the spirit of God.

    –John Fairfield, rruuaacchh.org

    • Relatively Conservative

      Jesus reached out to them, but He didn’t “declare His communion with them.” In fact, the only ones He “communed” with were His followers. He specifically told the others that they needed to repent and they needed to go and sin no more. Jesus’ attitude and teaching was that people are flawed and sinful, but we need to be working to help them improve themselves and not simply accepting a chosen sinful lifestyle as part of who they are. Immediately after saying “Judge not,” He explains that this is because they were judging hypocritically. He goes on in that passage to explain that when He says that you don’t take a speck out of someone’s eye with a plank in your eye, but you also don’t leave the speck in their eye. You remove your plank and then you can see clearly to help them remove their speck. (and elsewhere He declares we are to “judge righteous judgment)

      • http://www.rruuaacchh.org/ John Fairfield

        Why did the Pharisees criticize Jesus for eating with publicans and sinners (Mark 2, Matt 9), if it implied nothing?

        I agree with you that Jesus called the people he ate with to repentance, to sin no more, and that Jesus taught that people are flawed and sinful. I agree with you that within the church we, following Jesus, should exercise judgement and call each other to account for what we see as immoral behavior.

        But we need to do that within our commitment to each other, within our community, within the church. That’s what our commitment is for. We are joined in the body of Christ. That body is forged by something more fundamental than either behavior or unanimity of doctrine.

        John Fairfield, rruuaacchh.org

      • Andrew Dowling

        i) Jesus never demanded repentance as a condition for anything

        ii) Jesus never taught that people in general are “flawed and sinful” . . not even conservative theologians try to posit original sin back to Jesus.

        • Relatively Conservative

          Jesus said “Unless you repent, you shall all likewise perish.” He said that more than once (Luke 13:3 and 13:5). That sounds like the danger of not repenting is perishing. In John 8 He says to the woman caught in adultery “Neither do I condemn you, go and sin no more.” Sounds like He is demanding repentance there. He also says in John 8 that everyone who sins is a slave of sin. We know from numerous Scriptures that everyone sins, so everyone is a slave to sin and needs salvation. Where did I say “original sin?” Oh yeah, nowhere. (and He said in John 16 that the Holy Spirit would be sent and it would convict the world regarding sin and righteousness and judgment – but if the world isn’t sinful that’s not necessary, is it?)

          Not only that, but anybody who says “Jesus never said X” and ignores the rest of the New Testament ignores what Jesus said in John 16 – that He was going to send the Holy Spirit to guide the apostles into “all truth” so they would be able to teach the world. You can either ignore Jesus by ignoring the rest of the New Testament, or you can accept Him by accepting the rest of the New Testament.

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