Embracing the Third Way

In the church today there are two ways of thinking—either one is conservative or one is liberal. As a result, there are two ways of living out one’s faith—either conservatively or liberally. With the present condition of the church in America, neither way is acceptable. These inflexible ways of thinking are causing the church to become ineffective because it is pushing people away. We must embrace a different way. We must follow postliberalism’s attempt to “revive the neo-orthodox ideal of a ‘third way’ in theology” (Dorrien, p. 1).

Reinhold Niebuhr argued that “fundamentalism was hopelessly wrong because it took Christian myths literally, while liberal Christianity was hopelessly wrong because it failed to take Christian myths seriously” (1). As one who has grown up in the church and has questioned most ideals passed down in Sunday school, neither side of Niebuhr’s argument is appealing. The fundamentalist, who often leans toward rigidity or legalism, seems unrelenting about Scripture. This leaning pushes people away because there is no room for error. If one sins, then one must not be a Christian. If one does not accept Scripture literally, then one must be an apostate. The liberal side, on the other hand, pushes people away because there is no standard of behavior. If the Bible is not to be taken seriously, then why read it? Why go to church?

There must be a happy medium, a medium that upholds the authority of Scripture, while at the same time examines it for what it is—a book of God-inspired doctrines written by men who wanted to describe God within the context of Judaism and later Christianity. Though limited to a small geographical area—compared to today’s standards—and only written by forty different writers over a span of thousands of years, the Bible is remarkably consistent in its presentation of God. By appreciating the culture of those authors and gleaning timeless truths from Scripture rather than adopting specific behaviors unrelated to our culture, Christians have a moral compass by which to live.

If this moral compass and our interpretation of Scripture are to be taken seriously in our postmodern age, then Christians must be flexible and loving. Christians, whether liberal or conservative, have the reputation of not countering what they are taught. Theologian Hans Frei said that once the ‘real’ meaning of a biblical text is determined “no one who pretended to any sort of theology or religious reflection at all wanted to go counter to the ‘real’ applicative meaning of biblical texts…even if one did not believe them on their own authority. The ‘real’ meaning became all-determinative.” (3).

When Stanley Hauerwas criticizes the theme of the movie The Dead Poet’s Society, which is about young people learning to think for themselves, I heartily disagree in this light. Christians who take everything that the church says as gospel, without studying Scripture themselves are merely learning how to parrot what is taught. How can the message of Scripture appeal to our thinking postmodern age when Christians refuse to think for themselves or are unwilling to apply Scripture in an intelligent manner?

Giving up the ability to think creatively, while using Scripture as a guide, leads to the dogmatism that is so repulsive to the postmodern age. This rigidity lacks the compassion that Christ extends to those whose actions are sinful. On the other hand, a liberal doctrine that accepts all behavior because “everyone is God’s child,” is not helpful because there is no requirement of holiness for those who are crying out for help. The “third way,” or the mid point between conservatism and liberalism, extends Christ’s love to everyone without judging and helps people understand the truth of Scripture at their level.

An example of this occurred in an online group at our local church. Several people were involved. One person was not a Christian and had not grown up in the church. In one discussion a Christian in the group refused to explain the meaning of certain Scriptures to the non-Christian, stating that the person was deceived. Other members of the group, who knew that the non-Christian simply did not understand, were trying to explain to that person what the Scripture meant. Their efforts, however, were thwarted by the dogmatic member’s complaining. The non-Christian left the group and the group disbanded within a week.

If the church is serious about reaching the lost, we must learn to explain the gospel in ways that the lost will understand. Jesus did this by telling parables, or stories, to which people could relate. He did this by meeting needs and touching the untouchables. He did this by telling people to “go and sin no more,” while at the same time saving those people from religious zealots. Jesus did this by spending time with the lost and also by pointing out the hypocrisy of the established religious order. Jesus also showed us how to accept those in the “established order” who are searching through his conversation with Nicodemus in John 3. Through Christ’s example, we are shown never to exclude those who recognize their need for him.

George Lindbeck said, “When or if dechristianization reduces Christians to a small minority, they will need for the sake of survival to form communities that strive without traditionalist rigidity to cultivate their native tongue and learn to act accordingly” (4). To keep that reduction at bay, Christians should take Lindbeck’s advice now. We need to follow Christ’s example to reach those who are lost rather than clinging to “what we’ve always done,” or “the way it has always been taught,” and think about the people outside. We must follow more advice from Lindbeck: “…if the world is to be saved from …demonic corruptions …it will need a revival of biblical religion to accomplish this saving work. Christianity is most redemptive as a force in the world when Christian churches focus their energies on building formative Christian communities that are rooted in the idioms and practices of biblical faith” (4).