The third alternative

One of the strengths of John Wesley’s theology is something described by Albert Outler as “third alternative theologizing,” which is how Outler described and understood Wesley’s refusal to accept a binary oppositional choice as his only options. Rather than arriving at a compromise, where no one wins and everyone is left unsatisfied, this is a way of encouraging all parties to look at a conflict in a new way such that a new solution arises: the third alternative.

This makes a lot of sense in context, and one of Wesley’s own theological tenets serves as a great example. In the time of the Oxford Methodist movement, there was a doctrinal dispute between the Calvinists and others. At that time doctrine, rather than the faith of the people or the movements of the church, where what mattered among the educated classes in England, and so this doctrinal dispute was a major division within the church at large. The question soon faced the Methodists: where would they stand on this issue?

In this dispute, Wesley refused to choose one or the other, he saw value in both sides. But he did not seek a compromise between the two. He did not try to convince one or the other to give in; he did not attempt to appease either side for the sake of a superficial peace, or truce, within the church.

Instead, Wesley held both sides in tension, beginning by acknowledging the good in each doctrine, before integrating that into the formulation of his belief.

The Calvinists had (and still have to this day) an amazing connection to the sovereignty of God, and much of their doctrine and worship practices flow from the worship of God’s almighty power and omniscience. At the same time, the Catholic church recognized the importance of personal responsibility, accountability, and the actions of the individual and the church community, and the weight that these have on the health of a spiritual life and relationship with God.

Instead of looking at this doctrinal dispute as an either-or, Wesley looked at it as a yes-and. God is the almighty sovereign God, omnipotent, omnipresent, and omniscient. He initiates the faith journey, and extends his love and grace to his people. His people, then, have the choice each and every day, not to earn or deserve salvation, but to accept or reject that gift of grace, hope, and love in their lives.

And so the Wesleyan concept of prevenient grace was born.

It’s important to say again that this was not a compromise. The great sham of compromise is that it does not challenge anyone to change their own views or go through any personal growth, it simply requires you to accept less than you had wanted, while reinforcing your own partisan nature and individualistic beliefs. The third alternative, in contrast, wasn’t a middle ground, and it didn’t require anyone to forsake their doctrinal beliefs for the sake of the church. What it did was require people to look at the issue in an entirely new way, as Wesley did, accepting the legitimacy of both positions while finding ground upon which both could stand.

The third alternative.

Think for a moment about some of the conflicts within today’s church: globally/locally, conflicts that arise about church priorities, practices, or policies? Is there a way that we can follow the Wesleyan example and acknowledge the legitimacy of each side, respect the dignity of each faithful person in our engagement with them, and look at the issue anew to find a middle ground, a yes-and rather than an either-or?

I’ve found that this concept speaks to me especially within the conflicts about music of the church. So many people consider church music to be an either-or: we are traditional or contemporary, we use a band or organ, we have a choir or individual vocalists. By choosing either-or, we belittle, we alienate, and we disregard our fellowship in the community of Christians.

Personal preference is one thing: I have a special place in my heart for certain songs in worship. When that preference supersedes the good of the worship of the church, that’s when Christian fellowship is harmed.

So, can we use Wesley’s third alternative in this scenario? There’s no need to compromise: that’s how we ended with the disastrous “blended worship” of the 90s that so often devolved into petty squabbles and ego competitions. The emergence of a new musical voice in the church threatened the status quo, and most local churches didn’t know how to manage this. The compromises that were arrived at ended up making everyone miserable and in many cases, tearing whole churches apart.

As we look at this conflict anew, let’s see if we can view it through the Wesleyan third alternative, and refrain from choosing one or another. We’ll begin with the good parts of each.

Traditional hymns hold the history of our church in song. They have our theology, they reflect the great moments in the development of the church like the Reformation, the Great Awakening, the Revival in America; we can see the evolution of the church, of doctrine, of its commitment to justice and peace, through the hymnals of the church. They also have the capacity to educate us about theology and they can train us to be better musicians.

Contemporary music has the ability to engage with the church of the day in a way that hymns often cannot. It takes years to compile and publish a hymnal, but contemporary music can be far more engaged with the church in the moment, where it is and as it is. It engages with a congregation on their level; people are not typically going to be encountering music in a hymn-like style in their daily lives, and there’s something to be said for church music in a similar style as everyday radio music. It is also often more engaging with seekers, more accessible and relatable than denser hymns.

Can we refuse to engage in a binary oppositional model when it comes to the music of the church? Can we unite in yes-and rather than either-or? Is there a way to engage with all musical styles to bring the best of them into our worship? What would our music look like if we didn’t choose one style as “better” and reject another? Rather than thinking “we do things this way and not that way,” can we simply think about how to use music to worship the Lord? How could this transform the ways we worship God through the music of the church?

What could be our third alternative?

I was first introduced to this idea in the book Leadership in the Wesleyan Spirit, by Lovett H. Weems, Jr., Abingdon Press, 1999. It’s a quick book and valuable in applying the concepts of Wesleyan theology to the responsibility of church leadership.

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