third way practices.

the third way verb

once in a while i click on a facebook link that i sort of know i shouldn’t read but do anyway (you know that feeling?) and yeah, i usually end up groaning.  sure enough, i clicked on the “there’s no third way” post by al mohler, who agrees with tony jones that when it comes to the issue of same-sex marriage there’s no third way for the christians.  their premise is that people are going to have to choose. churches are going to have to split.  people are going to have to draw their lines in the sand to hold their convictions and advocate for their own sense of biblical justice–even though they are opposing views of it.

the whole thing feels really nuts to me but i recognize the attraction of having things just one way or the other. the first or the second ways, fight or flee–are easiest, cleanest, most efficient.  they make the most sense on a practical level.  battle the scriptures until you’re blue in the face. stick by your guns and make your point clear.  leave your church. be the God police.  stay with your own kind.

for me, as a full and passionate supporter of marriage equality and full inclusion for all, i know there are some who do not understand why i co-lead a church with someone who holds to a different view on same-sex marriage.  here’s why:  because he’s my friend and i can’t just flee because we disagree on this issue. we’ve fought it out and we see it differently. and it’s not just me staying with him; he’s stuck it out with me, too, when he could have run away.

yes, there’s a cost. it makes it a little trickier for both gay and straight because there’s a mix of beliefs on this at the refuge as opposed to a more purely progressive church or a more purely conservative evangelical one.  as a family the refuge met together–praying, discussing, and deciding how we would go forward on this issue; as a community we landed on a prevailing desire to allow for a space that honors theological diversity and for people to hold their individual views while upholding a collective view that our differences should be honored and valued as part of the body of Christ.

the first two ways–fighting or fleeing–is so much easier. 

it quickly solves a surface problem.  it puts us in company with people who agree with our views, no matter which side we are on.  it is comforting.  it make sense.

a long time ago when i was wrestling with why the refuge was so freaking hard all of the time, i remember a little sweeping-in-of-something-that-sure-seemed-like-the-Holy-Spirit-to-me.  it was somewhere along the lines of “if it makes sense in the world’s eyes and is easy and clean and efficient, then it probably is not the way of Jesus.”  i know that is a broad statement, but it resonated deeply and i often come back to it.  it gave me a new lens to see some of this craziness through. and i can back it up not only with biblical examples but also with real-life experience, too.

i can’t think of one thing about the kingdom of God here on earth that is easy, clean, and efficient.

that’s because we don’t learn much that way.

when it comes to the issue of diversity and the church, there is definitely a third way.

the third way is the radical, doesn’t-make-sense-sometimes way of Jesus.

the way of deeper love than only agreeing on doctrinal beliefs.

the way of relationship and friendship.

the way of non-violent communication.

the way of listening.

the way of peacemaking.

the way of sacrifice.

the way of humility.

the way of the-world-will-know-us-by-our-actions-not-our-theological-checklists.

in the spirit of practice, instead of just words, i thought i’d share a few possible third way practices that increase the likelihood of unity, not uniformity, of oneness instead of division, of peace instead of war in the church.

1. stay in the discomfort. we fight or flee to relieve our anxiety & fear & discomfort.  the third way calls us to live in the discomfort of our differences instead of opting for easy relief.

2. affirm the relationship above the beliefs. relationships are worth fighting for.  theological sameness isn’t.  i can’t tell you how much it has helped me when my friends who disagree with me say “i love you no matter what you believe.”

3. practice deeper dignified dialoguelisten to understand.  walking humbly requires humble language. take “but God says” and “the Bible says” out of these conversations and shift to more helpful language like “my view of the scriptures are…” or “i feel God’s conviction that…”  discover  more of each other’s real stories.  leave conversations “undone” and trust the long process.

4. acknowledge our diversity as a strength. diversity can be scary because it can feel threatening, but when we take a deep breath and recognize how much stronger it makes us in a deeper way, we can celebrate it.  thank each other for our differences because they make our body stronger.

5. hold onto your integrity and allow others to hold on to theirs as well.  we each have to hold onto our own personal convictions but it means we have to allow others to do that as well.  i knew that i couldn’t be part of a community that wouldn’t allow me to marry my gay friends, but i also don’t expect others to do what violates their beliefs.  we don’t compromise our integrity when we have a space for honesty and truth in the open.

6. embrace being a “learner.” this has helped me so much when i have wanted to run. embracing a “i have so much to learn” attitude is so much more helpful than “it’s all clear and i’ve got it all nailed down.” every day i am humbled by how hard it is to learn and practice so many hard things in community.  but faith and practice has always been about learning, not having-it-all-mastered.

7. avoid attempts to make any of these things easy, clean, or efficient. yeah, that’s just not possible.  i gave up trying a while ago (but yes, it still drives me crazy like so-many-ways-of-Jesus-do).

this is just a start; what would you add?

Jesus embodied a third way and calls his followers to the same.

and of course, it doesn’t make sense.

that’s why it’s the third way.


ps: i just read tonight after writing this post that rachel held evans is sharing this week on third way churches.a lot of you already read her, but if you don’t, check it out here.

and also, last week the monthly down we go column i write for sheloves magazine is up. june’s theme is “authentic” and this post is centered on showing up and telling the truthkind of fits in this conversation, too, and would love to hear your thoughts.

Kathy Escobar

Kathy Escobar is dedicated to creating safe and brave spaces for transformation and healing in real life, online, and outside. She co-pastors at The Refuge, a hub for healing community, social action, and creative collaboration in North Denver, co-directs #communityheals, a non-profit organization dedicated to making spaces for transformation accessible for all, and is the author of Practicing: Changing Yourself to Change the World, Faith Shift: Finding Your Way Forward When Everything You Believe is Coming Apart and several other books.


  • This is a beautifully written and compelling piece. It calls us to the deeper conversations of the heart that transcend ideologies and positions while causing us to listen more and judge less. Thank you.

  • This third way can only work temporarily, and I applaud it as that – a temporary compromise. Sooner or later congregations DO have to decide whether to fully include all of God’s children or not. If I can sing in the choir, serve and take communion, tithe, teach Sunday school and preach, but cannot marry the one I love there, I am not fully included.

    • thanks doreen, i so value your perspective and wish you could have been there on wednesday night. you would have had so much to add. my friends’ wedding this week was a good example of what it looks like here, with the twist being that not every pastor feels called to perform the ceremony like i do. however, i don’t want to for a minute minimize the reality of what that can feel like. peace from here to there. i hope someday you can come through colorado and play with us!

  • It all sounds so feel good…but my dear you are a dreamer! Sadly at some point it will come to a conclusion! An end! Grey areas are very dangerous…look where our culture is because anything goes as been adopted . I believe not following Gods word as it was written is dangerous …check history! It doesn’t me I can’t love my gay friends ..I will always love them …but I don’t have to accept their life style choices if it goes against my biblical beliefs…and my good gay friends would not ask me too.

    • I have to disagree. I think Christ often called those who saw things in black and white into the gray area. The rules of the consecrated bread were quite explicit. God’s word was quite clear. Yet when the Pharisees questioned Christ about His disciples eating grain on the Sabbath, He asked them about David eating it when he and his men were hungry. He then went on to heal on the Sabbath also. I believe we are diminishing the power of the Holy Spirit when we believe the “slippery slope” argument. I believe history has shown men and women who were sure of God’s word, as it is written, have been extremely dangerous also. Is it not better to wrestle with the implementation of God’s word in our own lives then to try and interpret it for others?

    • Ej, I have to support what Dave Reierson says. I’m not sure what you mean “…it will come to a conclusion! An end!” If you mean The Refuge, you might be right (though I hope not). But if you mean all such attempts for people to participate in a faith community with this kind of diversity and tension, I think not… not at all!

      As to “grey areas are very dangerous”, I’d say there is truth there, but probably not in the ways you see the danger. I think I follow your reasoning on “… because anything goes [h]as been adopted”, but would point out a broader perspective. When a person or any social group (“our culture” in this case) re-examines and adjusts social or other mores, there will inevitably be tension and some problem of creating new and potentially more effective or “truthful” or compassionate or just ways of being and setting up “the rules”.

      This is harder for some people than others, by basic temperament, their upbringing, social network, etc. But I don’t see many people adopting “anything goes” as either a conscious or unconscious approach. Again, I think I know what you mean, but there is a lot more going on… nuance, if you will. And I know even some high level leaders don’t like to “do nuance”, but healthy and enjoyable participation in a complex society just about requires it, to the extent of one’s intellectual ability (which most people have, if they will stretch themselves emotionally and spiritually).

  • I don’t think “fight or flee” is an accurate characterization of Dr. Mohler’s two ways. “Fighting” or, in more polite terms, discussing a controversial issue is a possible precedent to the ultimate choice between the two ways he does note, and leaving a congregation is a choice that can take place at any time, but the two ways he actually is talking about are: affirm a position (same-sex marriage is the issue here, but this applies to any) or deny it. He acknowledges that some discussions (or, if you prefer, fighting) can take place before the decision is made. He simply says that at some stage a congregation has to make up its mind: in his exact words, “A church will recognize same-sex relationships, or it will not. A congregation will teach a biblical position on the sinfulness of same-sex acts, or it will affirm same-sex behaviors as morally acceptable. Ministers will perform same-sex ceremonies, or they will not.”

    In any case, agree or disagree on his assertion that there is no third way besides choosing to affirm or to deny a doctrine. I happen to agree with him myself, but I’ll not argue about that. I just thought it might be useful to characterize what he was saying accurately.

  • So grateful for this, Kath. So grateful the refuge leadership embodying love that honors persons in relationships/communities with a love that 1) genuinely honors mutuality in leadership that doesn’t seek to coerce (which is a HUGE anxiety for both sides) (2) truly seeks an authentic unity that stands on its own two feet in the pressure to conform by others on both sides, 3) honors persons and commitments to persons (and their dignity/integrity) in friendship over narrow two-choice dilemmas presented by both sides. This truly embodies friendship/genuine mutuality that is costly, hard, and so beautiful!!

    • thanks, dan. yeah, that is really what mutuality is and the preservation of dignity/integrity. “costly, hard, and beautiful” are good descriptors.

  • I believe the failure in Dr Mohler’s assumption, is that a congregation must make all difficult issues some part of a central doctrine. Is it not possible for pastors, leaders or individual members to hold opposing views on a given subject. As an example, cannot one pastor feel led to perform a gay marriage and another be opposed to it, yet still worship together? I believe we will all give account of our actions as individuals, not as a congregation. When I do, I would rather say I loved all and listened to their views (even if I disagreed with them) then to say I assumed I was the one who had correctly interpreted His word and excluded them. I don’t believe this has to be a temporary solution as along as all honor the views of others. As Kathy has said, this is rarely easy. But God called His people Israel (to wrestle with God), so why should we think it would be easy!

    • so grateful for your voice and wisdom and passion for God and the scriptures and hope and possibility, my friend and brother.

  • Relationships can be difficult at times, but is it possible that we make it even harder than it needs to be with our institutionalised, hierarchical way of ‘doing church’? None of us is ever in total agreement with our friends and family, and yet we seemingly manage to hold those relationships together most of the time. But when we place one person in authority ‘over’ another, it seems to open the door for a “my way or the highway” mentality to emerge. That’s been my experience, anyway.

  • A very long time ago I took a college class titled “Logic”. In that course we studied various logical fallacies, including “the horns of a dilemma”, a fallacy which insists that something must be either this or that, with no third option. An example might be “Either you love me or you don’t”. Most of us can think of other possibilities.

    In a similar fashion, I also believe there are third ways in dealing with most things, including LGBTQ issues. I’m old enough to remember many other issues that conservative churches claimed they would never, never, never change their ideas/theology about. Well, guess what? They changed! Albeit, quietly. But they changed. And so it will be on this issue. In the meantime, may we hope and pray we can find a third way. Continued opposition to gay marriage and gay rights by many churches is not perceived as a positive by much of our culture. This is going to come back and bite the church really hard in the backside in the days ro come.

    As my dad said, “Don’t kick a guy when he’s down. Someday he’ll get up and come back after you.”

    • thanks for sharing…the either or thing has to got to go but is what the church has become known for, unfortunately. peace to you from across the miles.

  • Leah; I am always amazed at how intelligent and deep thinking You are. I know that we have differing opinions on some matters, but I totally respect your views and beliefs. You are truly an amazing person, and an inspiration to the “Old Man” Who is proud to call you family. Be fervent in your pursuit of the truth and spread the word far and wide. Love from Mom and Dad

  • A great article, Kathy. You manage to “hit it out of the park” nearly every at bat! I completely agree that “third way” approaches are not only possible but vital! I continue to marvel at what you all are able to be doing at The Refuge… and hope to get to drop in some day for a substantial chat and a look at it all. (If you were nearby, I’d be there pretty quickly.) Anyway, I’m glad you and Karl and the others keep at it!

    To bring up the more philosophical/theological side for a moment, that does feed into and help to guide the practical (as both conservatives and progressives correctly “get”), I’d suggest to readers what I think you already realize: Process theologians and various “intellectuals” (practically oriented ones, usually) have worked long and hard with the result that they have created a still-in-process way of seeing God, God’s action in the world, Jesus, Jesus-following, etc. that we can truly call a “third way” that has been extremely helpful to me and many others. Yes, pursuing their understandings may take some mental effort (and/or emotional), but I think anyone who will devote a bit of time to it, maybe as “devotional” reading, will find it well worth the effort: Rather than book titles of full-length books, i’ll refer to one booklet and the Wikipedia article on “Process Theology”, and to a few of the leading author names: John B. Cobb, David Ray Griffin, Bruce Epperly, Marjorie Suchocki, Measle (sp?), Ogden (and there are others). One may have to order it from the Center for Process Studies, but a great starting point is “What Is Process Theology? A Conversation with Marjorie” (Suckocki)… just 20 pages!

    • thanks so much, howard. i really need to sit down and really read bruce’s book but i love what i have read about process theology (thanks for the marjorie suchocki recommendation as a starting point, i really appreciate it) and am just one of those people who dreams of more time to be able to really digest some of the great thoughts out here that i know would challenge me. some day. but 20 pages is a good place to start 🙂

  • I approach the gatekeeper at the door. He examines the shape of my theological key. It matches the shape of his theological keyhole and allows me to pass. In the narthex I see nothing but a hall of mirrors.Reflections of my theology. Reaffirmations of my Biblical interpretations. Reflections of the god I have created in my image.

    Reflections of me.

    The air is thick. Stifling. I cannot grow. I cannot breathe. The Spirit does not refresh the air with Her gentle breezes since the windows and doors are closed and locked. Either I am in or I am out. And neither appeals.

    I want to throw open the windows and blow open the doors. I want to replace the either/or with both/and. I want to inhale the Mystery that is an Unknowable God. And through His Spirit, to bind together with all those who are on this journey with me.

    The third way.

    Yes. Please.

    The third way.

  • I often forget how the refuge world isn’t the norm 🙂 While I wish that I cared more either way, I am grateful to be a part of a community where relationship reigns supreme. There isn’t a lot of passion in how I feel about many things “spiritual”, and it is like I have no skin in the game. What feels clear is that the numb feeling doesn’t mean my connection is in jeopardy. There is so much security in that, and I wish more people had it, too. # longhaul #alwayshaveyourback

    • yeah, i was thinking how the third way in the wider conversation has been centered on these big theological issues but it’s the same for all different areas of our faith and holding those differences in tension–like “into God” and “not-so-into-God-at-the-moment.” all of the same things apply 🙂


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