“Christians and Third-Way Thinking”

“Christians and Third-Way Thinking” October 17, 2022

These days it seems like everything is polarized. It’s Republicans versus Democrats, pro-life versus pro-choice, gun rights advocates versus gun control advocates, Black Lives Matter versus Blue Lives Matter. With all this black and blue, maybe you’re feeling a bit bruised.

Photo by Cottonbro on Pexels

If you grew up in a Christian home, you might have been raised with binary thinking too. If you came to the faith later in life, you’ve definitely picked up on it. The Bible has a lot of binary thinking in its pages. Two examples are “us vs. them” and “sacred vs. secular.”


Us vs Them

In the book of Exodus, God made a distinction between Israel and Egypt. There were heroes and villains, good and evil, us and them. When Israel left Egypt, they fought with the Canaanites over the land they believed was promised to Israel. So, the Indigenous population became the enemy. Later, the Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, and Romans conquered Palestine. The Hebrew response was to develop an us-versus-them attitude and label everyone as either Jews or Gentiles. It was one or the other. There was no in-between. Christianity continues this with its black-and-white understanding that everyone is either saved or unsaved.


Sacred vs Secular

Spiritual leaders divided their world into binary categories of holy and unholy, sacred and secular, clean and unclean. These dualistic designations applied not just to moral action, but to neutral objects as well. Food was kosher or non-kosher. Certain fabrics were permissible or verboten. Christianity continues this as well, by baptizing and marketing “Christian” products. You can go into a Christian bookstore and buy not just Bibles, but Christian house decorations, Christian pencil erasers, and Christian leashes for your dog. Many devout families only listen to sacred music, not that secular stuff that the world listens to. In this way, much of Christianity promotes binary thinking.


Jesus and the Third Way

Jesus refused to play the binary game. His detractors tried to trap him with dualistic thinking, asking, “Is it good to pay taxes to Caesar or not?” But Jesus offered a third way: It’s not a competition of either-or, but a collaboration of both-and. “Give to Cesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.”

They came to him again with binary thinking.According to the law of Moses, this woman deserves to be stoned to death. Should we or should we not execute her for her sins?” Jesus never said that they should or should not follow the law of Moses. He simply said, “Let the one who has never sinned throw the first stone.” Then he bent down and started writing something in the dust—probably a list of all their sins. Thus, he showed that the law was neither to be ignored nor followed strictly but administered with grace. He also showed that sin is something neither to be overlooked nor judged harshly but treated with compassion. Again, Jesus would not be backed into a corner with black-and-white thinking. He knew how to present a third way.

I could give more examples of Jesus and third-way thinking, but I would rather invite you to study the Gospels and find them for yourself. Frequently people presented him with questions that anticipated a dualistic, binary answer. Just as frequently, Jesus gave responses that baffled his listeners with a third option. What if Christians could do the same?


Christians and Third-Way Thinking

Those who follow Jesus can learn the same kind of thinking. To do this, we must have a non-binary source of Truth. Many Christians believe in the binary of scripture vs error. They espouse Luther’s sola scriptura, the idea that the Bible is the only source of Truth. Anything else they label as secular and therefore tainted by the world. But a non-binary viewpoint allows for a greater depth of understanding. The Wesleyan quadrilateral, for example, utilizes scripture, tradition, reason, and experience. The Anglican three-legged stool is similar, calling upon scripture, tradition, and reason. Or, to put it the way my grandfather did, “Sometimes the best way to understand God’s will is to use what he put between your two ears.”


The Third Way of the Holy Spirit

While these methods are good, and even revolutionary to the Bible-only crowd, I might suggest another non-binary source of Truth for third-way thinking: the Holy Spirit. The Bible cannot contain all the instructions we need for life. John writes that besides what’s written in the Gospels,

Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written.

So, Jesus taught much more than is recorded. He also refrained from teaching everything that he wished to say, knowing that there was more Truth available, that his disciples could not yet receive. Jesus himself attested to this when he said:

“I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come.”

Sometimes, the Bible’s black-and-white text can trap our understanding into static binaries. But the Holy Spirit gives us the flexibility to adapt to evolving understandings in a changing world. The wind of the Holy Spirit blows where it will and cannot be contained. This same untamable Spirit that was the Source of Jesus’s inspiration is available to everyone who wants to escape dualistic thought-traps. The third person of the trinity is our source of third-way thinking.


A Nonbinary Approach

You might use a nonbinary approach like this when you evaluate dualistic problems like questioning whether the universe came to exist through evolution or a literal six-day creation. Or whether salvation is a simple heaven versus hell dichotomy. Or if the Bible is either divinely inspired or the product of human imagination. This approach can help you understand gender fluidity both in the Bible and in everyday life. It can help you look past the dualisms of gay or straight, married or single. Paul writes that

There is no longer Jew or Greek; there is no longer slave or free; there is no longer male and female, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.


What If…

From this scripture and others, it is evident that the first generation of Christians learned nonbinary thinking from Jesus and continued it into the early Church. But somehow it got lost. Soon, the church became trapped in black-and-white thinking. What would Christianity look like if we practiced this more often? What if, like Jesus, we refused to judge anybody? What if Jesus’ followers became a source of creative problem-solving in the world, rather than a polarizing influence? It would change the face of our spirituality, and our planet.

The Spirit looks beyond dualities. When you can look at life through the lens of the Holy Spirit as Jesus did, it allows you to get creative at problem-solving. It lets you encounter people without judging them. When life presents you with a situation that can only be solved one of two ways, Jesus invites you to take a step back and find the third way. The Spirit helps you see beyond black and white, and view the world not in shades of gray, but through the shining rainbow of Truth.


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