There is a Third Way: Theses for the Crisis in Our Church

1. A Third Way requires a new mode of thinking. At first glance it is bound to seem implausible.

2. Without a Third Way, our church is in danger of shattering.

3. A Third Way means that no side will get everything that it wants, that each side will get much that it wants, and that all sides will have to stretch to accept some things they don’t at first see as acceptable.

4. A Third Way must explain (a) how to affirm the plain sense of Scripture while (b) allowing for responsible discretion on the question of ordination.

5. Neither the hermeneutical question (Scripture) nor the practical question (ordination) can be solved apart from a more considered understanding of sexuality than is evident in our current debates.

6. Amendment A must be defeated, and G-6.0106b must be allowed to stand in the Book of Order.

7. Amendment A has two main flaws. It is based on a false analysis; and if passed, it threatens the extinction of our church.

8. Amendment A is based on the false perception — shared by its proponents and opponents alike — that G-6.0106b is more comprehensive than is actually the case.

9. No church can deny the direct wording of G-6.0106b without compromising its identity as the church. Yet G-6.0106b is limited in scope. It leaves many important matters untouched.

10. G-6.0106b affirms “fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman” as a standard that must be met by all married officers of the church. The opposite of fidelity is infidelity. No church can endorse infidelity in marriage without compromising its identity as the church.

11. G-6.0106b also affirms “chastity in singleness” as a standard for all single church officers. The opposite of chastity is unchastity. Again, no church can affirm unchastity in singleness without compromising its identity as the church.

12. In G-6.0106b, the meaning of “chastity” is undefined. It remains open to responsible interpretation.

13. “Chastity” is a standard that all Christians must meet in their sexual behavior. It applies to those who are church officers as much as to those who are not, to the married as much as to the single, and to heterosexuals as much as to homosexuals. No Christian can be relieved of the obligation to meet chastity as a sexual standard, and, as G-6.0106b rightly asserts, repentance is required of anyone who has fallen short.

14. It seems that the plain sense of Scripture regards homosexual activity as a sin.

15. Efforts to deny this plain sense have failed (e.g., Scroggs, Boswell, Martin), and efforts to uphold it have succeeded (e.g., Hays, Wright, Gagnon) — or so it is reasonable to believe.

16. The question of homosexuality remains complex. It is not amenable to simple answers, regardless of what form they may take (i.e., whether affirmative or negative).

17. It is necessary, but not sufficient, to determine the plain sense of Scripture. It is also essential to reflect responsibly on what the plain sense means today for the church.

18. To reflect responsibly on the plain sense, in this case, requires a comprehensive approach to the question of sexuality, one that applies to homosexual and heterosexual behavior alike. No more than a sketch can be attempted here.

19. It is useful to distinguish morally among what is required, commended, permitted, discouraged and proscribed. These distinctions allow for a series of graded judgments (as opposed to merely either/or categorizations).

20. What is “required” and what is “proscribed” are relatively easy to deal with, at least by way of example.

21. Chastity, as mentioned, is required of all Christians, regardless of other considerations. It may be defined as abstention from impermissible sexual intercourse, and purity in conduct and intention.

22. Certain forms of behavior are also clearly proscribed. These include any act of sexual intercourse that is casual, promiscuous or exploitative. The familiar biblical names for some of these acts are fornication and adultery.

23. Other forms of behavior are commended but not required. Celibacy, for example, is commended in the New Testament as a special vocation. As a way of life, it is at least commendable for all Christians, whether male or female, heterosexual or homosexual. Whether, or under what circumstances, it is not just commended but required must be considered in due course.

24. Marriage between a man and a woman is, according to Scripture and tradition, permissible in some ways and commendable in others.

25. These considerations more or less exhaust the easy cases. Others, like homosexual activity, are more difficult.

26. If homosexual activity is a form of sin, it is not so in the usual sense.

27. Sin in the usual sense is voluntary, or more precisely, acts of sin are regarded as blameworthy just because of their voluntary aspect. But homosexuality as a disposition is no more voluntary, it seems, than heterosexuality.

28. The double aspect of voluntariness in combination with involuntariness is largely what makes the question of homosexuality so difficult.

29. How to explain the involuntary aspect — genetically, socially, psychologically, whatever — matters little in this context. What matters is that as a disposition homosexuality usually involves a strong involuntary aspect. (It seems likely that homosexuality has no single uniform cause or set of causes.)

30. No one who is not strongly determined by an involuntary disposition should choose to engage in homosexual activity. What, then, of those who find that they are so determined?

31. One possibility would be to seek, perhaps through some form of therapy, to replace a homosexual with a heterosexual disposition.

32. Although some former homosexuals report that they have been helped in this way, this path seems unlikely to work for all (or even for more than a few). No one, in any case, should pursue this path without a full and informed awareness of the possibilities, the limits and the risks that are involved.

33. Nonetheless, given the plain sense of Scripture, reorientation would seem to be commendable for those to whom this path is open. Although, by all accounts, reorientation is arduous and risky, it need not be regarded as taboo, but should be treated with caution and respect. It cannot be regarded as required, however, nor commended as a universal panacea.

34. Another possibility would be celibacy. As previously suggested, the grace of life-long celibacy is a special vocation, regardless of one’s sexual orientation. Those who receive it may and must surely live it out. Is it truly reasonable to suppose, however, that all homosexuals who are Christians receive, without exception, the special grace of this vocation?

35. It is sometimes argued that homosexual Christians are in essentially the same situation as heterosexual Christians who would wish to marry but cannot find a suitable partner. Celibacy is understood, in such cases, to be the required moral policy.

36. This argument is not entirely satisfactory. It is true that for single Christians, whether heterosexual or homosexual, all casual or promiscuous forms of sexual activity (including intercourse) are morally proscribed. As a matter of contingency, therefore, life-long celibacy may turn out to be any particular Christian’s unwished destiny.

37. No one supposes, however, that this destiny is divinely willed for all heterosexuals. Again, is it reasonable to suppose that, by contrast, celibacy is the divinely willed destiny, without exception, for all Christians who are homosexuals?

38. The question of life-long homosexual partnerships can be illuminated by considering the question of heterosexual couples who “live together” outside the formal bond of marriage.

39. In traditional cultures it was possible for young people to get married not long after reaching sexual maturity. Luther and Zwingli urged people to get married in their teens so as to avoid sexual immorality. In our culture marriage at such an early age is neither prevalent nor, it would seem, generally advisable.

40. When the age of marriage is postponed until about 10 years after reaching sexual maturity, special perplexities and quandaries inevitably arise. (The widespread availability of artificial “birth control” only adds to the pressures to engage in sexual activity.)

41. Celibacy prior to (or apart from) marriage is, for Christians, the only unambiguously commendable option. Undertaken in the proper spirit, it upholds the sanctity of marriage, as honored by Scripture and tradition.

42. Given the likelihood of eventual failure, however, even for a significant percentage of conscientious persons who set out to remain celibate until married, a principle of “discrete tolerance” can perhaps be extended to a limited range of cases, but only with responsibility and caution. Here are some guidelines.

43. Guideline #1. No couple should engage in sexual intercourse apart from full and mutual commitment.

44. Explanation: The more fully sexual activity is linked with love and commitment outside of marriage (the only kind of case worth considering, precisely because at best it tends toward marriage, though not without real pitfalls and ambiguities), the less intolerable it would seem.

45. Guideline #2. No couple should engage in sexual intercourse if they are not fully prepared to marry in the case of pregnancy.

46. Explanation: The increasingly casual attitude in our society toward abortion is cause for serious concern. A society (or what is worse, a church) that tolerates abortion as a normal means of “birth control” is enmeshed in the culture of death.

47. Guideline # 3. No couple should live together who could otherwise get married, nor should any couple live together who did not plan to get married as soon as reasonably possible.

48. Explanation: The third rule is designed to uphold the sanctity and propriety of marriage, while again allowing for current cultural complexities. Living together outside of marriage would, in effect, be regarded as a de facto or provisional form of marriage to be regularized with all deliberate speed.

49. Therefore, while living together is to be discouraged, it is not always completely impermissible, depending on the circumstances. We might say that living together without the intention to marry is strictly improper (and so proscribed), but that with the clear intention to marry (as soon as the way is clear), it is improper but not intolerable.

50. The question of living together, though never unambiguous, is thus to be judged, from case to case, by whether it supports or undermines the sanctity of marriage as a covenant, publicly avowed, of love and life-long commitment.

51. From these considerations, three points are especially relevant: (i) a principle of discrete toleration for ambiguous situations that are improper but not intolerable, (ii) a principle of full and mutual commitment as a precondition for sexual intercourse, and (iii) a principle of covenantal union in fidelity that is public, exclusive and permanent.

52. Homosexual partnerships between Christians can be accommodated within the scope of these points.

53. Homosexuality should not be demonized even though it cannot be normalized. Its involuntary character lends it an aspect of tragedy that should elicit sensitivity and compassion.

54. The church has a special vocation to combat all negative stereotyping of vulnerable social groups, because such stereotyping is essentially murderous.

55. As recognized by the new Presbyterian Study Catechism, the commandment against “false witness” points us in this very direction.
Question 115. Does this commandment forbid racism and other forms of negative stereotyping? Answer. Yes. In forbidding false witness against my neighbor, God forbids me to be prejudiced against people who belong to any vulnerable, different or disfavored social group. Jews, women, homosexuals, racial and ethnic minorities, and national enemies are among those who have suffered terribly from being subjected to the slurs of social prejudice. Negative stereotyping is a form of falsehood that invites actions of humiliation, abuse, and violence as forbidden by the commandment against murder.

56. The church has a long way to go in repenting of its complicity in such stereotyping. Standing with the historic victims of false witness, not least with homosexuals, and speaking out against their abuse, is a minimal social obligation that the church has yet to meet with full seriousness.

57. Since the conferral of strict propriety on homosexual partnerships does not seem open to the church on scriptural grounds, the better part of generosity lies in the principle of discrete toleration.

58. Insofar as promiscuity is openly or implicitly valorized as an ethos in certain parts of homosexual culture (not to mention heterosexual culture), it needs to be confronted and rejected.

59. Since neither reorientation nor celibacy is a live option for most Christians who are homosexuals, homosexual partnerships emerge as the most humane and compassionate option.

60. Homosexual partnerships are the relative sanctification of an involuntary yet “unnatural” condition.

61. Christians who form such partnerships should be welcomed into the community, taking their place in brokenness and grace alongside all other forgiven sinners.

62. Since homosexual partnerships are greatly preferable to promiscuity (whether occasional or chronic) for those to whom neither celibacy nor reorientation are options (arguably the vast majority), the community’s discrete toleration of such partnerships cannot fairly be described as condoning sin.

63. “When one is dealing with people who are so deeply homosexual that they will be in serious personal and perhaps social trouble unless they attain a steady partnership within their homosexual lives, one can recommend them to seek such a partnership, and one accepts this relationship as the best they can do in their present situation” (Fr. Jan Visser, C.Ss.R, in an interview). (In 1975 the Vatican published a Declaration on Certain Questions Concerning Sexual Ethics, of which Fr. Visser was the principal author.)

64. Lasting partnerships or relationships are not easy to sustain in our culture, regardless of whether one is homosexual or heterosexual. They seem especially difficult for gay males. Christian males who succeed in forming such lasting gay partnerships give important witness to the power of the gospel in a broken world.

65. Marriage between a man and a woman holds a privileged position in the Christian community. In Scripture and tradition, no warrant can be found for elevating any other form of sexual relationship to the same status before God as marriage.

66. No formalizing of gay partnerships through covenantal ceremonies in the church, should they occur, may be permitted to suggest a simple equivalency between the propriety of such partnerships and marriage.

67. Should persons who admittedly engage in homosexual activity be automatically disqualified from ordination? The answer to this question depends largely on how severe the impropriety is thought to be.

68. If, as suggested here, there are forms of homosexual activity that fall under the principle of discrete toleration, then it would seem difficult to decide the question of ordination by means of a blanket prohibition.

69. The question would have to be decided by congregations and presbyteries on a case by case basis.

70. As a difficulty for Christian ethics, homosexuality seems to stand in a class by itself. It is neither a crime nor an illness. Nor is it without its perplexing involuntary aspect. If it nonetheless represents a form of disorder, as Scripture seems to teach, that should not mean that it stands beyond humanization and relative sanctification.

71. As the distinguished Swiss medical doctor, psychotherapist and Reformed churchman, Theodore Bovet observed over 40 years ago, homosexuals are no less capable than heterosexuals of forming lasting partnerships. The love within these partnerships compares favorably with that within heterosexual marriages. It need lack nothing in “intensity, differentiation, readiness for self-sacrifice, faithfulness, selflessness, and purity” (Bovet, Probleme der Homophile, 1965, p. 147).

72. Bovet came to the conclusion that heterosexual and homosexual Christians are called to form a common front. They are called to stand together against all sexual promiscuity and other forms of sexual immorality. “Above all they are called, in common, to proclaim the sanctity of responsible love and partnership, and to attest it in their lives” (pp. 152-53).

73. Bovet also observed that homosexuals are not treated with true dignity if they are not held to the same high standards of fidelity in partnership as all other human beings.

74. I can see no reason why Christian homosexuals who reasonably meet these standards should be disqualified from being considered for ordination.

75. The principle of discrete toleration, as explained here, offers a way beyond our present impasse.

76. It suggests a way, for example, beyond the actually existing hypocrisy in which persons who are truly gifted, who are already ordained, and whose ministry is communally recognized as valid, must hide the fact of their homosexual partnerships (“Don’t ask, don’t tell”).

77. It also allows the church to uphold the sanctity of marriage and the propriety of celibacy in singleness, while avoiding unwarranted rigidity in dealing with the messiness of life.

78. Therefore, I do not think that the text of G-6.0106b needs to be deleted from our Book of Order. At a time of increasing sexual confusion in our culture, it serves an important function. It simply needs to be interpreted with generosity and practical wisdom. That is the best and Third Way.

Posted Nov. 25, 2001


George Hunsinger is the McCord Professor of Systematic Theology at Princeton Seminary.

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