One way forward? The Third Way.

by Dave Schmelzer

Editor’s note: The featured image is of Paul writing his epistles. You’ll see the connection to this essay a little later on. It’s from the 17th century and is by Augustin de Boulogne. Yes, if I’m guessing, de Boulogne knows that a bound Bible sitting on Paul’s desk (along with other curious items!) is an anachronism. Kind of a cool painting, though, don’t you think?

I didn’t grow up in the churchgoing club. That turned out to matter.

I entered faith in Jesus from outside of the churchgoing club, which made for some rip-roaring early discussions with my wife. Grace started following Jesus—quite intentionally—when she was five years old. She grew up in the Bible Belt, and judged her mainline church’s Sunday school and her youth group as not being serious enough about God.

So for instance. We’d been married about four years. We were sitting on our floral couch in front of our picture windows on a sunny morning as—serious Christians that we were—we connected about our thoughts on the Bible passages we’d read that morning. I talked about how powerful my experience reading Genesis 2 and 3 had been. But Grace was troubled by some of my language. “Hold on, hold on, hold on,” she said. “Are you implying you don’t believe that there was an actual Adam and Eve?”

My training was in literature. I said—tentatively—that, to my mind, the Garden of Eden story didn’t need to be literal to be profound and helpful and true. She scowled, so I resumed backpedalling. “Look,” I said, “surely whoever wrote these chapters…” More scowling. “I mean, right, tradition says it was Moses. So, fine, let’s say it was Moses. Can we agree that Moses wasn’t an eyewitness to this story? I don’t think it’s controversial to say that he wrote this by way of oral tradition, right? Of hearing stories passed down for hundreds of years? So he’s not passing on a transcript of, like, what God said to Adam and Eve. And, while we’re on that subject, should we note that ‘Adam’ means ‘the man’ and ‘Eve’ means ‘life’ or ‘Mother of All Living?’ Does that seem suggestive to you? Is the author—Moses! I’m sure it was Moses!—trying to tell us something about who we are as people? About why the world is the way it is? It seems to me that the rest of the Bible builds on the insights in these two chapters and that they’re among the deepest and most useful stories ever written, that they’re as true as true can be. It’s entirely possible that in the next life we’ll discover that, what do you know?, the world was indeed created in seven 24-hour days and this actual guy named Adam named all the animals and this actual woman named Eve was indeed literally created from one of his ribs one night and that God said exactly what he’s recorded as saying here. If that’s the case, no problem! All I’m saying is that the power and helpfulness of these chapters doesn’t, to me, rest on those things. And we seem to be given lots of hints that suggest a different purpose to what the author—Moses!—is trying to do.”

After a longish pause, I asked Grace what she was thinking. “Thanks for asking,” she said. “What I’m thinking is ‘I can’t believe I married a heretic!’”

Now she said it with a twinkle in her eye and our discussions to follow were only encouraging and fun, for reasons I’ll elaborate on below. But we’d seen very different things when we’d looked at those same passages.

As someone who entered the Jesus thing from outside of the churchgoing bounded set, I saw lots of early examples of differing perceptions.

In my first-ever church service, the conservative megachurch was—per Matthew 18—excommunicating a leader for his (they said) unrepentant adultery. In the spirit of “taking [this man’s sin] to the church,” they put his phone number on the screen and encouraged us all to call him and urge him to repent. Afterwards I asked my friend if this happened often in the church. No! he said. This was super-rare and I should come back the next week. I had another question: Was I, a visitor who was only just considering this God stuff, supposed to call this man? No, my friend said, that was only for the members.

So the next week I went back and they preached about how women weren’t allowed to teach men, per 1 Timothy 2:12.[1] I had another interesting conversation with my friend on that drive home. So… I mean… I knew lots of really smart, accomplished women. Whenever I listened to them tell me about fascinating things they knew, was I—Satan-like—tempting them to sin?

The six distinctives of Blue Ocean

This is the fourth in a series of essays about the six distinctives of Blue Ocean faith. Here’s a reminder.

  1. Our primary framework is SOLUS JESUS.
  2. Our primary metaphor is CENTERED-SET.
  3. Our approach to spiritual development is CHILDLIKE FAITH.
  4. Our approach to controversial issues is THIRD WAY.
  5. Our approach to other churches is ECUMENICAL.
  6. Our approach to culture is JOYFUL ENGAGEMENT.

Maybe we’re helped by looking at more than one perspective on religious squabbles

Squabbles like this might seem…I don’t know…charming to you. Or not. But these and similar squabbles prove to be a big deal indeed in terms of how Christians relate to one another. The markers we use when we discuss Christianity’s history are customarily when big, unresolvable disputes happened. The Orthodox Church split from Rome in 1054. The Protestant Reformation hit in 1517.[2] And so on. As I write this, churches are in a cage fight about the place of LGBT people. In my relatively brief time of following Jesus, similar fights have happened around whether divorced and remarried people can have full standing in a church, or—per the anecdote above—whether women can preach.

I have many thoughts on what the misfire is in conversations like these. I’m not sure which one is right.

So maybe the misfire is cultural. Again, I hadn’t grown up in the same settings as the folks who ran the church I visited. My background was secular. These folks were very churched. It was hard for them not to see those differences as entirely my problem. After all, their culture was God’s culture! If—as seemed true to them—the scriptures were “clear” on any areas in dispute, well, that should settle it. If I mentioned that my experience of life—and my educational background—would suggest some different grids and perspectives at play in the scriptures we were talking about, some perspectives that perhaps they hadn’t considered, they might bring up that a huge fallacy (and sin!) was letting the hostile, secular culture influence my practice of faith. Having read the earlier essays in this series, you might recognize a bounded/centered set conflict at play here.

Maybe Stage Theory has something to offer us

And I discovered another way to look at this that really helped me.

It was a four-stage perspective on emotional and spiritual development[3] proposed by psychologist M. Scott Peck, who wrote a 1980s bestseller on related themes called The Road Less Traveled. In a later speech, he wondered if human emotional and spiritual development would each progress through four different developmental stages in a perfectly healthy, non-traumatized person.[4] The dilemma was that we all went through trauma, some of which could keep us from further progress. What was most useful to him was how these stages might explain why we miss each other and so engage in endless, hopeless conflicts.

Stage 1 you might call “criminal.”

It corresponds with being a toddler. Toddlers don’t entirely know where they end and you begin, and so they’re prone to being grabby and self-focused. It’s not their fault—they’re toddlers! I have children, and I can say with confidence that I’ve never arrived home to find a toddler melting down because another sibling was denying them a favorite toy who then was able to pull themselves together, stop crying, look at me, and say, “But, Daddy, it’s not all about me. How was your day?”

Peck suggests two institutions that interact with this stage: jail and the boardroom (or any other position of power). Jail serves Stage 1 people, because it provides clear boundaries—the bars of the cell if nothing else. And high-functioning Stage 1 people can also become the kind of effective narcissists that get power because you and I don’t realize that they’re criminals doing everything for their own gain. Think Bernie Madoff. Or Stalin.

Stage 2 you might call “rules-based.”

Now we’re six or seven and we want to obey Mommy and Daddy’s rules. Peck suggests two institutions which serve and promote Stage 2. First is the military, which is famously excellent at transitioning young people out of Stage 1 and into Stage 2, at teaching them discipline and honor and making them productive citizens. Second—of greater interest for our purposes— are churches. Peck argues that churches (and mosques and synagogues and other places of worship) famously teach people right from wrong, good from bad. He’s at pains not to judge this, pointing out that Stage 2 creates the backbone of most societies, the good people who volunteer and pay taxes and obey the law and raise great kids.

If I can go global for a moment, a friend of mine has given a lot of thought to the stages as they map out over world history. He grew up in a third world country and he tells me that the most important transition in societies is between Stages 1 and 2, which happens as a given country gets the rule of law. It’s a pretty big deal to be able to walk down one’s street at night in safety! Or to trust that the leaders of one’s country, while perhaps self-interested, are not Stage 1 criminals looting the treasury.

Stage 3 you might call “rebellious.”

This corresponds with being a teenager. Suddenly the Stage 3 person is asking, “Who died and made all those Stage 2 rules the rules?” They become skeptics. If the Stage 3 young person is surrounded by a Stage 2 community, they might feel suffocated. Where’s the open questioning? Are all these Stage 2 “truths” just shallow grabs for power? Peck says the institution that best promotes Stage 3 is the university. For one thing, universities are filled with kids in this age range. And often their stated mission is quite Stage 3—to get students to question everything they’ve been taught.

It seems to me that whole communities—or countries—can stereotypically fit into these stages. Clearly each place has people throughout the spectrum of the stages. But perhaps a single stage dominates the cultural perception of a given area. So Grace’s childhood home, in the Bible Belt, would be stereotypically Stage 2. France might be stereotypically Stage 3. A war-torn country might be stereotypically Stage 1. Places that I’ve lived in, like heavily-educated Cambridge, Massachusetts, would neatly fit into Stage 3.

Per our conversation in this essay, stages 2 and 3 mostly fight. Stage 2 looks at Stage 3 as lawbreakers, as bad people who think the rules don’t apply to them. Hence the Bible Belt’s denunciation of “the Eastern, liberal elite.” Stage 3 usually looks down on Stage 2 people as buffoons, as stupid. To them, Stage 2 people seem unable to entertain that they prefer a black and white world that doesn’t require actual thought. So Stage 3 responds to Stage 2 with a sneer. I wonder if Twitter and Facebook controversies are mostly Stage 2 versus Stage 3 squabbles, in an endless dance.

But what Stage 3 doesn’t realize is that its skepticism might not be the final word, that there might actually be answers to their questions, but answers that look quite different than the answers proposed by Stage 2.

Stage 4 you might call “mystical.”

Stage 4, in Peck’s view, isn’t the end of the process. At the earliest, we hit this stage in our early 20s, and then we spend the rest of our lives walking out the implications of this. But in Stage 4 we realize that many of the things that we were taught in Stage 2 do, in fact, seem true, but in a more expansive perspective than we’d understood then. So, for instance, take a Christian truism like, “Believe in Jesus and be saved.” In Stage 2, we might say, “Well, at 3 p.m. yesterday I did believe in Jesus, so I can write in my journal that, whatever else may happen in my life, now I know for sure that I’m going to heaven.” That, of course, may be entirely true. But in Stage 4, you might instead find yourself saying, “Wow! I think I do believe in Jesus! This is amazing! I never knew this kind of connection with God—and with myself and the world around me—was possible! So how do I keep believing in Jesus in just this way, day in and day out, year in and year out! And ‘saved’—clearly if this means I’ll get to go to heaven, I’m all in! But it feels like I’m being saved right now! What does it look like to keep that going?”

Think back to the essay on childlike faith, which talked about the dynamics of a childlike trust in a communicative God and what such a faith would look like as it faced all the challenges that all lives face. A central scripture for this might come from Jesus, in John 10. “My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one will snatch them out of my hand.” Now, on the one hand, entering Stage 4 offers a kind of maturing that you can’t find in any other stage. Stage 4 is just a starting point, is endlessly expansive, is growth-central. In Stage 4, you do, as I’ve said, suddenly realize that the most useful Stage 2 rules point to something—and that last part is what’s actually helpful and interesting.[5] But the mechanism for this maturing remains a sort of childlikeness. Stick with me and I think you’ll get a sense of why that’s so.

One way to think about this is that Stage 2–again, the rules-based stage–is dominated by answers. If the key is to be a good person and to get things right, we need to know what is and isn’t right. In a Christian world, it of course might take some work to know what you need to know about the Bible. You might need to read not just the Bible, but the current favorite Christian thinker of your friends. But, after you’ve done this, you’re good. Maybe you won’t know everything, but you’ll have the answers you need.

Stage 4, though, the mystical stage, is dominated by questions. You’ve realized that reality is way bigger than you are and that the way to navigate its vastness is relational. You are the sheep listening to and following the good shepherd. This will make Stage 4 Christians seem slippery to Stage 2 Christians. They seem to use the same language, but they mean different things with it.

Imagine three stick figures

Maybe a stick figure diagram can help us. The first stick figure has a circle above its head. The circle represents Truth. Call this “Primitive People.” Primitive people believed that there was truth out there, but they didn’t have access to it, and so they needed shamans or mediums or primitive priests to help connect them to that truth, to bring it down to where it could help them.

The second has a circle about the same size as the stick figure itself. Call this “Stage 2 People.” (Or, if you’re into thinking historically, you might call this “Modern People.”) Now we realize that, while Truth is out there, thanks to the scientific method and good thinking, it’s about the same size as we are. It will, yes, take some work to explore it, but it’s very do-able. Truth is about the same size as we are.

The third has a massive circle with a tiny stick figure just inside of it. Call this “Stage 4 People.” As Stage 4 people, we realize we’ve just popped through a bubble into this vast, amazing world of Truth. It’s huge! Way bigger than we are! The good news is that, as we traverse this vast circle throughout the rest of our lives, we have no hope of making our way across it—it’s just too big. But wherever we look—in front of us, behind us, over our heads, wherever—we’ll only see truth. It’s everywhere. It surrounds us.[6]

Stage theory is the greatest. It’s so useful. But I have cautions. Having taught on this, I can confirm that some people find it elitist. If they feel targeted as Stage 2, they understandably feel an intrinsic pressure that—given that these stages are numbered—they’re being told they’re not as hip or worthy as those in the later stages. Anticipating this, Peck emphasizes that these stages are mostly useful as we consider why we end up in unresolvable conflicts, that there are strengths in each stage (even Stage 1, where we are in touch with what we actually want) and that, as we continue on through the stages, we don’t leave the earlier stages behind but instead add to them. And I vividly remember an early experience of teaching this to a large group of mostly 20-something people. After the talk, I heard several of them animatedly holding court at tables in the lobby. They loved this! This explained why they had such a hard time with their family and with their churches—they were Stage 4 and the others were Stage 2! This was so helpful! Of course, what I was thinking was that their conversations were telling me they were in fact the rebellious Stage 3—living in reaction to their conservative upbringing and using stage theory to put words to the superiority they felt.

But onto the good stuff.

Religious squabbles tend to be fights between stages 2, 3 and 4. As I mentioned, in the public sphere, they’re almost always between stages 2 and 3, with Stage 4 watching as onlookers (usually cheering on Stage 3, but recognizing the limitations of the solutions their Stage 3 friends are promoting). The Stage 2 impulse will always be to say, “But the Bible is clear on my position! There’s no further conversation to be had unless you want to abandon the Bible—in which case there’s also no further conversation to be had!” Again, the Stage 2 person will customarily feel that their Stage 3 antagonist has “capitulated” to secular culture—that their theological enemy has shamefully given in to their craving to be regarded as cool by the hostile, godless world. What else could explain their disagreement with the “clear” truth of the Bible that all of the Stage 2 person’s other friends regard as obvious? It must be a moral failing. The Stage 3 person will be exasperated that their Stage 2 antagonist doesn’t seem capable of having an actual conversation about the stakes of the conversation, but relies on name-calling and intransigence. If the Stage 3 person is a Christian, they’ll feel that they’ve deeply considered the same scriptures that the Stage 2 person has only looked at in passing before locking into their belligerence.

“Soft” and “hard” stages

Reflecting on our conversation over the Adam and Eve story in Genesis, Grace would now say that it helped her discover that in many ways she was “soft Stage 2.” Meaning that she’d only ever been in Stage 2 Christian settings and so had never considered other alternatives of how to look at the stories we were discussing. But also that she wasn’t in any way committed to the trappings of Stage 2. Those people would be the combative “hard Stage 2” people who love the certainty and safety of Stage 2 and defend that—rather than Jesus—to the death. Grace just wanted to know Jesus better. If anything could help her in that, it was all good to her, if initially jarring. By contrast, perhaps the leaders of the conservative megachurch I’d visited would present as hard Stage 2.[7]

Perhaps there are also hard and soft Stage 3 people. Soft Stage 3 people would be skeptics, but open to truth and growth wherever they could find it. Hard Stage 3 people would be committed to skepticism and anti-religious sneering, no matter what new information came their way.

To mention just one more challenging dynamic in conflicts between these stages, it seems that many Stage 2 people, understandably, only believe there is one other stage—Stage 1. This can lead to them treat every opponent as Stage 1, as an out-of-control criminal. Hence their tendency to condescension and shaming in these fights. Not having experienced Stage 3 or Stage 4, they can’t imagine other alternatives.

The starting point: We’re doomed

So here’s our question: Are religious squabbles fated to go badly, because they’re usually conducted by people coming from different stages? If you and your Christian debate opponent don’t share the same way of looking at the world (or at God or at humanity), maybe there’s no way these squabbles can be resolved.

Let’s use a current case study. It might be old news as you read this, but as I mentioned a moment ago, as I write this, the hot religious controversy is about the place for LGBT people in churches.[8]

When we were at the very start of our church in Cambridge, I met a thoughtful young woman who was an out lesbian, which was still a bold choice in an evangelical church at the time. I asked her if I could buy her coffee and pick her brain for a few minutes.

We had a wonderful conversation that ended on a sobering note.

I’d long had a feeling that a black mark on most Christianity was how it treated gay, lesbian and transgender people. I knew many stories of sincere LGBT people who hoped to follow God with a given church who ultimately felt driven out. That seemed crazy to me, and I wondered if my new acquaintance would have any advice for me.

She did. “Your church will never help LGBT people, Dave,” she said. “I’ll tell you that right now. I might be an exception, although even I can’t claim that I’ll last with you. [She didn’t. I saw her maybe once more.] Look, I believe you that you want to be helpful to LGBT people and to invite us to follow Jesus alongside you. But you’re embedded in a system that’s a lot more repressive than you realize. So I’m saying you’re naïve. Unless you completely start over, this is a settled conversation.”

So lots of cultures were at work in my conversation with this woman.

One was my culture. Having grown up secular, it had always been a mystery to me why gay people couldn’t follow Jesus alongside straight people. So, even early on in my pastoral career in an evangelical church movement, I was pressing an unpopular issue. I was quite aware of the scriptures in play in this dispute, and my read on them was quite different than that of my conservative friends. And, having read the earlier essays in this series, perhaps you can see how my (at that point) newfound fascination with centered-set would play in. If the whole ballgame in centered-set faith was pointing our own arrows Jesus’s direction and encouraging others to do that as well, then doing this would be a good thing—the ultimate good thing—for all people, from all cultures, gay or straight. It seemed jarring to me to exclude groups of people from this.

One was evangelical culture. My friends who’d grown up as regular churchgoers in conservative churches didn’t remotely come at this from my perspective. They were aware of the six or seven verses in the Bible that seemed hostile to homosexuality and those seemed conclusive to them. Why I’d even ask the question seemed mysterious and unsettling. Had I read those verses? I’d read them, right?

And one was this woman’s culture. As someone who’d worshiped in conservative churches, she was aware in ways that I wasn’t of the barriers to LGBT people being supported and embraced by those churches. Much as she might like me personally, it was hard—even painful—for her even to talk openly with a pastor of a church in an evangelical denomination.

On stage theory terms, we seem doomed here. What seems to one culture to be a justice issue is seen by another culture as a holiness issue. Having had hundreds of hours of conversations on this, I have hard data on how this conversation goes. Among soft Stage 2 and Stage 3 friends, it goes great. It’s challenging and painstaking and doesn’t move quickly, but we find lots of common ground and hear each other out and look at the Bible together and the conversation does progress.

But the public debate is conducted by people in hard Stage 2 and hard Stage 3. And so we’re told either that “liberals” are godless appeasers who don’t care about the teachings of the Bible or that “conservatives”[9] are bigots who will answer for their sins on judgment day. And this particular conversation likely is hopeless because each side, with the agenda set by the intransigent members of their camp, is dug into their stage. And, knowing the stories of many churches that have engaged this issue, this absolutely is the way it tends to go.

Yes, over time, the wider culture does tend to force these issues forward. To most of my evangelical friends, the thought that women shouldn’t be permitted to preach seems crazy, while it was mainstream in their circles a quarter century ago. And even among evangelical youth, support for gay rights is quickly rising. So these fights are eventually resolved. But, in the moment, while I’ll suggest a way forward, let’s not kid ourselves. Most religious squabbles, in the short term, are destined for an unwinnable war for just these reasons.

Saint Paul would like to interject a thought

Feel free to push back on this, but as I scan the Bible, it seems to me that the savviest thinker on cultural issues is Paul. He, of course, grew up in one culture—one bounded set—and it took one of the most famous supernatural conversion stories in recorded literature to jolt him into a centered-set. Suddenly he was learning from another, very different culture. For the rest of his life, he reflected quite a lot about the difficulties that different cultures have in working through their different perspectives. He’s the guy who argued that among Jesus’s most important, most central miracles was “breaking dividing walls” between cultures.[10] To Paul, doing this one thing was Jesus’s in-your-face “to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms.”[11]

Paul’s most pointed message on the subject comes in Romans 14. (Remember that this is not a scriptural look at the issue we’re using as an example—LGBT inclusion in churches. It’s a scriptural look at how to have such conversations in the middle of profound disagreement.) Here’s the whole chapter.

Accept the one whose faith is weak, without quarreling over disputable matters. One person’s faith allows them to eat anything, but another, whose faith is weak, eats only vegetables. The one who eats everything must not treat with contempt the one who does not, and the one who does not eat everything must not judge the one who does, for God has accepted them. Who are you to judge someone else’s servant? To their own master, servants stand or fall. And they will stand, for the Lord is able to make them stand.

One person considers one day more sacred than another; another considers every day alike. Each of them should be fully convinced in their own mind. Whoever regards one day as special does so to the Lord. Whoever eats meat does so to the Lord, for they give thanks to God; and whoever abstains does so to the Lord and gives thanks to God. For none of us lives for ourselves alone, and none of us dies for ourselves alone. If we live, we live for the Lord; and if we die, we die for the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord. For this very reason, Christ died and returned to life so that he might be the Lord of both the dead and the living.

You, then, why do you judge your brother or sister? Or why do you treat them with contempt? For we will all stand before God’s judgment seat. It is written:

“‘As surely as I live,’ says the Lord, ‘every knee will bow before me;     every tongue will acknowledge God.’”

So then, each of us will give an account of ourselves to God.

Therefore let us stop passing judgment on one another. Instead, make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in the way of a brother or sister. I am convinced, being fully persuaded in the Lord Jesus, that nothing is unclean in itself. But if anyone regards something as unclean, then for that person it is unclean. If your brother or sister is distressed because of what you eat, you are no longer acting in love. Do not by your eating destroy someone for whom Christ died. Therefore do not let what you know is good be spoken of as evil. For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit, because anyone who serves Christ in this way is pleasing to God and receives human approval.

Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification. Do not destroy the work of God for the sake of food. All food is clean, but it is wrong for a person to eat anything that causes someone else to stumble. It is better not to eat meat or drink wine or to do anything else that will cause your brother or sister to fall.

So whatever you believe about these things keep between yourself and God. Blessed is the one who does not condemn himself by what he approves. But whoever has doubts is condemned if they eat, because their eating is not from faith; and everything that does not come from faith is sin.

So here Paul thinks he’s helping us all avoid quarrelling over “disputable matters.” But, of course, the trick is to figure out which fights are actually “disputable” by reasonable people—whatever is the current hot controversy often feels life-and-death in the moment, feels a long way from being disputable. You might say that allowing divorced-and-then-remarried people to lead in your church is disputable; I might say it’s a clear outrage.[12] Therein lies our problem.

But Paul anticipates this question in a number of ways.

His examples of disputable matters in his own day might seem trivial to modern readers. A key dispute of his era was about whether faithful believers could eat meat sacrificed to idols. Most likely you haven’t run across that moral dilemma. But in Rome, all meat was sacrificed to Roman gods as it was being butchered. This was no minor deal to faithful Jews. A large swath of the Hebrew Bible talked about the centrality of keeping oneself pure, of not being contaminated by the evils of the pagan neighboring countries. This was about as big of an issue to observant Jews as you could find. The entirely holy God spoke out quite directly about spiritual adultery. But Gentile converts to Jesus felt no such compunction. They didn’t have that history. To them whatever ritual the butchers did over the meat meant precisely nothing. The conservatives in this dispute, mostly made up of observant Jews, had a simple solution—just do what we say, eat only vegetables, and we’ll all be good. But Paul himself could never agree to that, because that would mean that the gospel had become cultural—one culture had to adopt another culture in order to know God, which would deny that God was a God of the whole world. A challenging problem!

His other example also seems trivial to modern readers: “considering one day more sacred than another.” What are we talking about here, moon festivals? Who cares! Well, if the day in question is the Sabbath day, that’s a pretty big deal to observant Jews, one of the Ten Commandments in fact.

So the issues he’s chosen aren’t any less difficult than the ones in our day.

Given how hard this is to sort out, let’s consider a category distinction that’s had some staying power that was articulated by a theologian named Roger E. Olson.[13] It’s the distinction between three types of biblical beliefs.

A key distinction: three types of biblical beliefs

  • Dogma
  • Doctrine
  • Opinion

These theologians understand “dogma” to be the basics of Christian faith, which are statements about who God is, particularly who Jesus is. The Apostle’s and Nicene Creeds would be the most central formulations of Christian dogma. If you differ on these points, you’re talking about a different faith than Christianity.

“Doctrine” boils down to what you regard as implications from your dogma. The hot disputes of a given era usually fall into this category. So the conservative Jews of Paul’s era would regard not eating meat sacrificed to idols as a key implication of their dogma of who God is. God is perfectly holy and so we, too, must maintain holiness. Not eating this meat would seem quite tied to their view of God, to dogma. But that’s the key thing to realize—it’s tied to one’s dogma, but it is not itself the dogma. It’s an implication. It’s doctrine. Doctrinal disputes tend to be the things that cause Christian movements to splinter.

“Opinion” is everything else. Like everyone I know, I think some worship music is lousy, even though other (evidently-thoughtless!) people like it and seem to be able to worship to it just fine. I recognize that these opinions are just my preferences, but I’m still quite tempted to argue that my preferences are in fact right. In fact, I do argue that not infrequently. There’s nothing wrong with theological opinions so long as we recognize they’re not doctrine or, even more importantly, dogma.

Now, of course, the challenge is that people dispute what belongs in each category. The observation over the last hundred and fifty years or so has been that theological conservatives are tempted to call everything dogma, even opinions. And that theological liberals are tempted to call everything opinion, even dogma.

But let’s work with this for a moment.

What constitutes a “disputable matter?”

  • It’s not a matter of Christian dogma.

Again, we don’t want to mess with the Apostle’s and Nicene Creeds.

  • It brings two biblical truths into dynamic tension.

In the case of meat sacrificed to idols, you could make a case that the two truths were purity and freedom—both major biblical themes.

  • Otherwise faithful believers disagree over it.

By definition, it’s a disputable matter when thoughtful Christians in fact dispute it. Now this doesn’t work when talking with hard Stage 2 or hard Stage 3 people. To them, any disagreement means that that the person disagreeing is apostate. So good will is required here. But if, up to this point, the person disagreeing with you has seemed like a fellow follower of Jesus—and the dispute doesn’t involve Christian dogma—you’ve just entered into disputable matter territory.

So what does Paul advise us to do?

  • By all means hold the beliefs that you hold and never violate your conscience.

“Everyone should be fully convinced in their own mind.”

“But those who have doubts are condemned if they eat, because their eating is not from faith; and everything that does not come from faith is sin.”

So I have beliefs about all of the issues we’ve talked about in this essay and I feel my beliefs are the right ones or I would have different ones. My beliefs, obviously, have affected how the churches I’ve led have been run—for instance, women preach in them and I won’t baptize a baby because it would go against my conscience.

The key distinction is that any congregant is free to believe differently.

In the membership classes I led, we encouraged each member to be baptized. Despite my belief about infant baptism, if a listener was baptized as an infant and it seemed like baptism to them, that was fine with us, whatever my belief, if only because half of the entire Christian world disagrees with my belief, so clearly faithful people can differ.

  • Shun contempt and judgment and trust God to judge wisely.

“You, then, why do you judge your brother or sister? Or why do you treat your brother or sister with contempt? For we will all stand before God’s judgment seat.”

Again, rules-based Stage 2 tends to dismiss rebellious Stage 3 as immoral and “appeasing”—which I think we can agree doesn’t follow the general debate principle of “think the best of your opponent” and does qualify as judgment and showing contempt. Of course, Stage 3 also tends to sneer at Stage 2.[14] So we need pretty strict ground rules to have any hope in these conversations. Paul gives us strict ground rules.

  • Make clear to yourself and others that you understand that your belief is not dogma and that reasonable, faithful people could disagree with you.

“So whatever you believe about these things keep between yourself and God.”

This is tricky in all theological disputes that actually mean something to you. And, as I talk about above, we all do in fact believe whatever it is we believe.

And it could have particularly unfortunate consequences in the dispute we’re chatting about here regarding LGBT people and churches. I mean, is “keep this between yourself and God” code to LGBT people to stay in the closet, at least as far as churches are concerned? (To foreshadow: No.) And even trying to translate the issues Paul is describing to the dispute at hand—while I hope you’ll grant that his issues were every bit as challenging to him as any of ours will be to us—could lead to unfortunate conclusions. Eating meat or celebrating the Sabbath are behaviors; the great bulk of my friends regard LGBT as an orientation.

But here’s the value I see, even with all these challenges, from what Paul’s pitching. Sincerely held religious disputes, as processed by fellow believers who are doing their best, require some patience and perspective. And history tells us that most disputable matters do, in fact, resolve within a reasonable period. While Christians haven’t settled the infant-versus-believer’s baptism question and that one’s been ongoing for millennia, whether interracial marriage is okay took about twenty years to become so settled that people forgot it had ever been questioned.

  • Do not exclude anyone from full participation in the community over disputable matters—so long as they also abide by these four principles.

“Therefore let us stop passing judgment on one another. Instead, make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in the way of a brother or sister.”

And herein lies the rub. To talk more about this, let’s take a look at Paul’s loaded use of the terms “weak” and “strong.” In what must have felt galling to most of the conservative Jews of his day, they were “the weak” in this analogy, because their consciences weren’t “strong” enough to handle eating meat. The progressives—mostly Gentiles—were the “strong.” So those who take the restrictive role in any religious dispute—women shouldn’t preach to men; divorced and remarried people can’t have full participation in the church; LGBT people can’t lead and enjoy whatever privileges anyone else enjoys in the church—are the “weak” believers here.

Paul’s counsel is that the strong mustn’t rub the weak’s faces into their dispute. Meat-eaters shouldn’t eat meat in front of the vegetarians. Conversely, the weak can’t insist that the strong not eat meat in their own houses. “The one who does not eat everything must not judge the one who does, for God has accepted them. Who are you to judge someone else’s servant?”

In our current dispute about LGBT, this means that, even during this time of dispute, LGBT people have full inclusion at all levels of our congregations—are treated in all respects like everyone else. They are not “welcome but,” to pick two examples, “we won’t perform your wedding or you can’t be a pastor.” They are all-the-way welcome. In the spirit Paul is emphasizing in Romans 14, the LGBT person who is gifted and called to serve as a pastor is free to do so. Just as straight people in the church are free to marry, the LGBT person who wants to marry a person of the same gender is free to do so. LGBT people, again, are treated in all respects like everyone else.  By the same token, more-conservative brothers and sisters don’t need to change their convictions. They don’t need to perform the wedding of a same-gender couple or do anything against their conscience so long as they entirely welcome and embrace those who feel differently, their LGBT friends very much included.

A central Blue Ocean leader has written an excellent book on this, as applied to the LGBT dispute, and has become a national leader on this approach which he calls “the Third Way.”[15] You might wonder if, as applied to the LGBT dispute of the moment, this turns out not to be a Third Way at all, but to be the progressive way, often called “open and affirming.” In practice, it does have things in common with “open and affirming,” most notably in not excluding gay people from full participation in our churches at any level. But, maybe strangely at first glance, the “affirming” part of “open and affirming” seems to go against Paul’s command here not to judge. To “affirm” someone, in this context, often means something like to “grant them moral approval.” I have to meet them and ask myself, “As best as I can figure out, do I morally approve or disapprove of this person?” And then I decide, “I approve!” Which, for all its approval, seems weird in its own way. Along with Paul here, Jesus quite profoundly commands us not to judge anyone.[16] The issue in Third Way is not passing judgment positively or negatively on anyone; it’s to include all people who hope to follow Jesus as the disputable matter works itself out.

 “But what if I’m wrong?”

Paul is guiding us towards a Third Way that is neither conservative nor liberal, at least in times of disputable matters.

I can assure you from lots and lots of examples that Paul’s Third Way doesn’t work for people in the hard stages. They can’t live in the tension that the Third Way demands. They need to have confidence that they’re “right” even when times of genuine dispute arise, and so they usually withdraw from Third Way churches, often with cursing. Relationships get broken, often with maximum pain.

But Paul’s Third Way does, happily, work for people in the soft stages, people who want Jesus more than they want the form of a “correct religion.” And let’s be sympathetic for a moment. Can you imagine the tension Paul was in over eating meat sacrificed to idols? What if he was wrong? On the terms of much of the Hebrew Bible, he’d be in huge, massive, unbelievable sin! Sin so severe it could separate him from any hope of heaven! How could he ask anyone to put themselves into that kind of tension! No wonder Paul calls the conservatives the “weak” ones! Aren’t we all that kind of “weak?” Which of us is willing to risk the consequences of being wrong on matters so heatedly disputed?

And yet.

Is it worth mentioning that the possibility of being wrong cuts both ways? Yes, you can be wrong by being too permissive. But you can also be wrong by being too restrictive. It seems entirely possible to me that, on Judgment Day, God will wonder why we kept so many people away from the Kingdom of Heaven. What gave us that right? Jesus even weighs in directly on this side of the discussion. “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces.”[17] The Third Way emphasizes that, during times of heated disputes, we err on the side of inclusion.

And the tension we embrace with the Third Way turns out to be at the heart of centered-set and of Stage 4. It forces us to trust in the God who speaks and guides. This centered-set God doesn’t, in my experience, tell me that I’d better never hold the wrong views on disputed matters or I’m going to be in big, big trouble. This actual, interactive God consistently encourages me to listen to him and read and enjoy the scriptures and talk to people I respect and go back to check in with him and to do my best. The God we’re talking about in these essays on our six distinctives is, to review, only good. The pressure is not on us to be right. The pressure is on God to be powerful and loving.

Think of how this ties in with Stage 4. In Stage 2, as we look at the circle of Truth that’s about the same size that we are, what excuse do we have for not “standing on such clear truths?” But in the vast circle of Truth that we’ve entered into in Stage 4, we recognize that “Truth” doesn’t come at us from just one direction. It’s consonant with the Bible and people’s actual experience (“by their fruit” you’ll know the truth[18]) and the interactive God and many more things. In the end, we trust that our good shepherd will guide us into all Truth.[19]

And the Third Way turns out to be central to Christian missions. Missionaries historically have often vastly damaged native cultures by Westernizing very non-Western people in the name of “following Jesus.” But you can imagine the tensions for these missionaries! One commonly discussed example concerns polygamous cultures. Western missionaries, for reasons you might guess, commonly commanded polygamous converts to choose one of their wives, to embrace monogamy. The consequence of that was devastating—the rejected women and their children were cast off from their families and thrown into poverty and, for the women, often into prostitution. It had society-wide, horrible repercussions. And yet, to the missionaries in question, the Bible was clear! When the Bible appears “clear” even as a given interpretation causes fruit that is clearly bad, we’ve entered into disputable matters territory. But moving forward takes real confidence in a living, speaking God. It’s not possible to take such a risk with a distant God who will condemn the poor missionary who “gets it wrong” on such a consequential thing. Those missionaries have only one, destructive option.

The Third Way allows us to recognize fellow lovers of Jesus who didn’t grow up in our culture, who come to the table with different assumptions. It allows us mutually to learn from one another. It seems to me that the lack of a Third Way is a consequential reason that churchgoing collapsed throughout Europe, the onetime seat of Christian faith. European countries in that era were largely monocultural. Swedes lived in Sweden, Italians in Italy. In each case, when monocultural Christianity came under attack in a given country, there were no countervailing, faithful voices to offer a different perspective, and so the house fell. Ecclesiastes teaches us that “a cord of three strands is not quickly broken,” but we’re doomed if we’re alone.[20] In a nice bonus, the Third Way allows us to learn from faithful people in other cultures without asking us to violate our own consciences! That’s quite a gift.

It’s not a cure-all. It is crucial.

Disagreeing over consequential things is just flat hard. Religious disagreements can strain and sometimes end relationships.  The Third Way doesn’t avoid that pain.

But, as Paul knew it would, it does provide a way forward for the gospel to thrive in a changing time. It teaches us a new way to rely on a living, speaking, loving God who is calling the whole world to himself.

[1] “I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet.”

[2] These are two of the big every-500-years-Christianity-utterly-changes dates that Phyllis Tickle talks about in The Great Emergence and that we discuss in the Solus Jesus article.

[3] Psychologists just love stage theories of development, so Peck’s is one of many. You might be familiar with similar theories from Maslow or from a Christian like James Fowler. And it’s not just psychologists. Brian McLaren proposes one. I know of one from Catholic spiritual direction. So let me affirm the wonderful value of whichever is your favorite! For our purposes here, I find Peck’s really helpful.

[4] This was published in Further Along the Road Less Traveled: The Unending Journey Towards Spiritual Growth. It’s chapter 7, a transcript of a speech he gave as president of the American Psychological Association, called “Spirituality and Human Nature.”

[5] My friend Tom Wassink puts it this way as he reads this paragraph: For me, the Sermon on the Mount statements by Jesus: “You have heard it said…, but I say…” are explicit Stage 4 reinterpretations of Stage 2 rules. Jesus is not abandoning the rules, but describing the deeper reality that they point to, that they are referencing. So Jesus doesn’t say, “Those are dumb rules, and rules are by nature dumb,” but rather, “Pay attention to what the rules are pointing towards.” Or, to me, another classic Stage 4 moment is when Jesus and the disciples pick grain and eat it on the Sabbath, are challenged by the Pharisees, and Jesus says, “Man is not made for the Sabbath, but the Sabbath for man.” Rules are for our benefit, meant to serve us. We are not meant to be ruled by them, but to be over them and administrate them with the ultimate goal of fruitfulness.

[6] It’s always fun to get a chance to quote Mr. Quotable, G.K. Chesterton. This is from his wonderful book (free on Kindle!) Orthodoxy. For this to work in our current context, substitute “Stage 4 person” for “poet” and “Stage 2 person” for “logician:” “The poet only asks to get his head into the heavens. It is the logician who seeks to get the heavens into his head. And it is his head that splits.”

[7] To say it another way. Hard Stage 2 is committed to the stage itself. That’s what it’s motivated to defend.

[8] At the exact moment I write this, there’s also a hullaballoo in religious circles about Planned Parenthood. I wrote about it here. Didn’t go all that well, reinforcing that we’re doomed.

[9] In quotation marks because, in my experience, neither side embraces these labels, at least as applied to themselves.

[10] He argued this most directly in Ephesians, which a whole, whole lot of scholars—many of them conservative—don’t think he wrote, so there’s that. But if he didn’t write it, it was likely written by one or more people “in his school,” who regard themselves as representing Paul’s point of view. So perhaps attributing some of these sentiments to him isn’t crazy talk. Here are a few key verses on this subject. “For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility”(2:14-16). He’s talking specifically here about the massive division between the Jews (his birth culture) and the Gentiles (everybody other than the Jews, mostly Greek-born in his experience). So maybe we should just regard this as applying to this one cultural division and not make it represent all cultural divisions. The central scripture we’ll be considering, from Romans 14, also focuses on a Jew-Gentile fight. But we find suspicious parallels with other cultural squabbles here. For instance, in this passage, we have conservative “defenders of the Bible” standing their ground against the godless hordes assailing them, hordes that—with Paul now in their ranks—nonetheless seem to feel that they have a needed vantage point on the scriptures that the conservative defenders haven’t seen.

[11] Ephesians 3:10

[12] I wouldn’t, in fact, say that.

[13] He talks about this in his book Reformed and Always Reforming: The Postconservative Approach to Evangelical Theology.

[14] It goes without saying that these ground rules would apply to social media disputes which, in the worlds of hard Stage 2 and hard Stage 3, often use political loyalties as stand-ins for godliness.

[15] Ken Wilson, A Letter to My Congregation.

[16] Matthew 7:1

[17] Matthew 23:13

[18] Matthew 7:16-20

[19] John 16:13. “But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all the truth.”

[20] Ecclesiastes 4:12