Conservatives Warn Against 'Third Way' Approach to Sexuality Debate

WASHINGTON – Conservative leaders from across denominational and geographic borders issued a joint letter warning against “third way” proposals that may change mainline church teachings on sexuality.

“This letter is a shot across the bow of those who, having failed in a frontal assault on biblical standards barring sex outside the marriage of man and woman, are now trying to subvert the standards indirectly,” said the Rev. James V. Heidinger, chair of the Association of Church Renewal that sent out the letter.

According to a Nov. 21 press release from ACR, the letter is meant to inform U.S. mainline Christians of the “new strategy” used by gay-rights advocates in changing current standards on ordination and marriage.

Traditionally, Christians either believed homosexuality is a sin or believed homosexuality – if examined closely in today’s context – is not a sin. This new strategy introduces a “third way” viewpoint on the sexuality debate, where churches agree that homosexuality is a sin but gives room for individuals, churches, and bodies room to dissent.

“This new strategy is less direct." The letter stated. “Yet the effect would be the same: to undermine and ultimately to set aside the historic Christian teaching that affirms God's good gift of sexual intimacy solely within the marriage of man and woman.”

Such a strategy has already been adopted in several denominations, including the Episcopal Church U.S.A. and the American Baptist Church. The ECUSA, which is currently embroiled in an international brawl over ordination standards, in 1996 adopted a decision that said that Christian teachings against homosexuality were not “core doctrine.” In the ABC, the denominational policies say the practice of homosexuality is incompatible to Christian teaching, but the church allows some congregations to dissent.

Similar strategies have also been introduced in the United Methodist Church, the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America – the largest Methodist, Presbyterian, and Lutheran denomination in the United States, respectively.

Each of those denominations has dedicated several years to study the thorny issue of homosexuality and has affirmed that it will remain united in spite of obvious differences.

Reformed leaders have long complained about such an approach with some suggesting the denominations split into dissenting factions. In the United Methodist Church, for example, Heidinger was involved with the circulation of a letter that called for an “amicable separation” over the differences in understanding homosexuality, during the denomination’s 2004 General Assembly.

While the UMC never adopted the informal proposal – delegates to the Assembly instead adopted a statement affirming their unity – the thought of separating continued to surface periodically among conservative circles.

The ACR reiterated such concerns.

“No promise of ecclesiastical peace and unity can justify these distortions of the church’s theology and polity,” the letter stated.

The letter also suggested that the “third way” approach signifies a “retreat” by advocates of gay rights.

“Tacitly, they are conceding that the weight of biblical and traditional Christian teaching is against them,” the letter stated. However, the statement continued, “it would set a terrible precedent of a church openly acknowledging a biblical command and then treating obedience to that command as optional.”

“We stand opposed to this false ‘third way,’ with the same firmness with which we opposed the earlier attempts to re-interpret the Bible,” the letter stated. “We warn you to beware such ‘compromises’ that give away too much.”

The Association for Church Renewal is a roundtable of leaders of renewal groups, mostly within the North American mainline Protestant churches. The ACR letter was signed by 29 individuals from 21 organizations. Among the denominations represented were: the United Methodist Church, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the United Church of Canada, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Episcopal Church, the American Baptist Churches, the Church of the Brethren, and the United Church of Christ.

The text of the ACR letter, the list of signatories, and other information on the Association for Church Renewal is available its website at ird-renew.org/acr.