For the Sake of the Bride: Steve Harper on a Third Way

If you care about the state of the Bride of Christ, the church. read this book. Soon.

Aren’t you tired?  Aren’t you worn out by all the nasty wrangling?  I think many of us are getting hungry for an alternative to the culture wars that dominate our political culture in the US and in the church.  In particular, the Mainline denominations, especially my own United Methodist Church, have been riven by partisanship that would make the most radical Tea Party or Code Pink gathering blush.

Myself and a growing number of others have been calling for an alternative kind of church, a better discourse, and more and more I sense a hunger in others for something deeper, less shrill, and more Christocentric than ideological.  If that sounds like you, then you are in luck. Retired seminary professor Steve Harper has just provided an excellent primer on why a third way is needed and what that path forward might look like in his new book For the Sake of the Bride.  Agree with his conclusions or not, I posit that it would be difficult for anyone to come away after reading this book without respect for Harper’s prayerful and heartfelt analysis both of our situation and a potential path through the present morass.

As someone who has invested a considerable amount of time in seeking out a Via Media between the extremes that dominate our church (and churches), I am deeply grateful to Dr. Harper for his work.  Below are collection of quotes pertaining especially to the third way as Harper narrates it (the largest number of quotes come from chapter 4, entitled “A Third Way”).  I highly encourage you to buy, read, share, and discuss this book with your classes and small groups as soon as possible.  In a perfect world, this would be required reading for all General Conference 2016 delegates, if for no other reason than its basic ecclesiological focus: a concern for the health of the Bride of Christ that is usually not evident in those who seek to tear her to shreds in order to get their way.

But enough from me.  Here is your sample – but make sure to pick it up and read it in full for yourself.  I would love to hear your own feedback on these quotes or the  full book in the comments section.

“Early in my experience I saw more clearly than ever before that Jesus was able to make friends with people who were unable to make friends with each other. I saw that this was a deliberate choice on his part […] In short, I saw the inability of dualistic thinking to take us where we need to go in restoring intended honor to the Bride.” (9)

“Dualistic thinking pervades nearly every part of our lives, especially evident in advertising, which reinforces the ‘good, better, best’ mentality and which (even if kindly) tells us that one product is superior to another. Dualistic thinking not only tempts us; it trains us to use the same tactics when we deal with people, places, and things. Almost without realizing it, we are conditioned to enter into life not simply differentiating, but dividing and conquering.  To come out of this process requires insight and courage. The insight is fundamentally that those who choose a third way will not be welcomed by either of the sides. And because we like to be liked– by somebody, anybody– we gravitate toward a side rather than calling the process of taking sides into question. Jesus challenged the status quo when he told his disciples not to trust the yeast of the Sadducees or the Pharisees (Matthew 16:5). Neither side had the complete picture. The whole ministry of Jesus was a third way…”

“The very nature of the third-way enterprise will be limiting and incomplete, because we do not often see it attempted. We do not see it fully applied in the divisive issues of our day. And when we do, it is often caricatured as inadequate by the dualistic thinkers who must have it one way or the other.  An invitation to a third way is actually more difficult than choosing a side and then defending it to the death.” (14)

“…this book is a call to find a third way that enables the sides of the debate to bring their best to bear upon finding a new way to move forward into the future.” (62)

“…the old processes have patterned us toward negativity and divisiveness. The way of love does not accept these attitudes and actions as the only options that we have.” (86)


6 thoughts on “For the Sake of the Bride: Steve Harper on a Third Way”

    1. The short answer is: you gotta read the book! The longer answer is that Wesley himself represented a third way (he was, oddly, both sacramental and evangelical, both high church and parachurch). I would say theologically a third way is represented by Barth and his postliberal followers today, which refuse the choice between fundamentalism and liberal Protestantism. I think in the midst of a nasty culture war, where everything from where you buy chicken sandwiches to which cable news you watch determines your morality, a church of the third way might be a welcome change of pace. As Harper points out, Jesus was really good and making friends with folks who would never be friends with each other. To be the church of Jesus, we should be trying to do the same thing – building those bridges across the divides, not hardening them in the name of justice or holiness or whatever. As Harper would put it, we don’t do this for the sake of getting along or for compromise or some other kind of sentimentality, we do it for the sake of the Bride.

  1. Thanks, Drew. I do intend to read the book…along with the many, many other things I want (and need) to read. Based simply on what we’ve said here (and not on the book I haven’t read), it’s not immediately clear to me why a third way, if there is such a thing, is or should be best for the Bride. The goodness of any third way depends on whether it is also true and right, because whatever is true and right is also what is best for the Bride. A so-called third way might be best, but not necessarily so. And it’s bestness (can I make up a word?) depends not on its thirdness but on its rightness. I’ll be curious to see what Harper has to say, and whether he can persuade me that his third way is not only a third way but also the best way. Thanks for sharing these excerpts from the book.

    1. I appreciate that, Matt, and I would agree with you. I don’t think Barth is great because he was different from fundamentalism and liberalism, I think he got a lot of things right, and in doing so offered an alternative way. The problem with the via media is that there is not one position or set of positions that we can identify as necessary; it’s going to vary from person to person. I like Harper’s descriptive work better than his prescriptive work, personally. I do think he hits on something vital, though. As Wesleyan who celebrate above all the grace of God revealed in Jesus Christ and lived out still by the power of the Spirit, our the pursuit and articulation of “rightness” should be done in charity – otherwise, the truth is nothing but a club to beat people with rather than something to set them free. I think that is how Jesus operated, anyway – he was always oriented towards the healing, forgiveness, and reconciliation of persons, even his enemies. Part of why I am convinced the way of Jesus for the UMC will be a third way of some sort is because both “sides” have become, in nearly all my encounters with them, more interested in being right or in “winning” than being like Jesus. Thanks for the helpful pushback.

  2. Thanks for this, Drew. Continuing to think about what you’ve said. Are you suggesting that charity is the thing that makes any particular view a third way or a middle way? That seems to be what you mean when you talk about rightness being done in charity rather than the truth-as-club thing we all know so well. If the third way is about articulating one’s view charitably, then it isn’t so much about a proposal with an alternative content but can simply be the dualistic proposals put respectfully and charitably. So, when we talk about a third way, are we talking about content or tone? Or both? But maybe I’ve misunderstood you.

    To try to make the point, Bill Arnold argues in this book Seeing Black and White in Gray World that the UMC position of on human sexuality is already a middle way sort of view in that it affirms the sacred worth of all people and still calls upon all people to resist sin and pursue holiness. He sets the traditional (and the UMC) view forth in a very winsome, thoughtful, and charitable way. Would Arnold’s self-described middle way be acceptable to Harper as a third way given the charity of his argument? If not, why not?

    Additionally, we have come to a point in the UMC in which some see any disagreement with their view as uncharitable and even harmful. If that is the case, then how do we find a charitable third way that holds together two groups with contrasting core convictions?

    Honest questions here. Thanks for this post.

  3. Did either of you see the “Do Nothing Proposal” on UM-Insight a couple of weeks ago? It’s not up anymore. I sort of liked it — if we could couple it with a moratorium on voting on the issue at every AC and GC. If either of you (more than likely Drew!) have an “in” at UM-Insight, can you see about rounding it up?

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