Regarding Generous Orthodoxy: An Open Letter to Brian McLaren

Dear Brian,

We’ve met a handful of times, but you don’t know me. The first time we met, in 2008 at a conference in Kansas City at Jacob’s Well, I introduced myself then blubbered through a thank you. See, when I read A New Kind Of Christian in 2000, while the youth pastor at a Baptist Church, it set my life on an entirely new trajectory.  After reading that book — and subsequent books of yours — multiple times, you became my spiritual father of sorts.

I met you again a couple months ago in Minneapolis at Solomon’s Porch, and even though I wanted to thank you again I refrained for the sake of my own pride; I didn’t want to cry again, but knew I would.

When I met you the first time, I was in the early, heady days of planting a new church that had sprung organically and unforeseen out of the tight bond of a group of friends. We read ANKoC together and it — along with Generous Orthodoxy — became the common language of our young church. In fact, your ideas were so important to us that when we sat around my dining room table discussing the core ideas that would give definition to our community, the idea of generous orthodoxy became core to who we are as a church.

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We are committed to historic, orthodox Christian faith as found in the Apostles’ Creed. We are committed to a generous orthodoxy under a banner of love and grace. As such, we commit ourselves to faithful reading and study of the Bible, finding new and creative ways to live out what it teaches.

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It’s been 8 years since we crafted that statement for our little church here in Peoria, and about 10 since you wrote the book. And I still deeply believe in a generous orthodoxy. I think it’s a sad statement about the Body of Christ that since the Protestant Reformation, we feel like almost everything is worth dividing over. There are a lot of great things I was taught growing up Baptist, but one of the ugly things I learned is that when you disagree with someone, you move away from them.

But I don’t think this is the way of Jesus. In fact, I’m more convinced than ever that tension and disagreement have always existed side-by-side in the church. Peter v. James, Paul v. Jerusalem Church, Paul v. Barnabas, James v. Paul…  Throughout the Scriptures, I see our church fathers arguing with each other over the nature of what it means to follow after Jesus. We’ve always had “disputable matters” (as in Romans 14) that have caused us to question our brothers and sisters.

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Over the last couple of months, our church has been engaged in a conversation over the role of LGBT persons in our church community. Some say that, of course, “generous orthodoxy” extends to the LGBT persons in our church, prohibiting them from nothing; others say that we can be generous, but this lies outside the lines of “orthodoxy,” and should therefore limit their participation in certains facets of our ministry.

And while we’ve always made space for gays and lesbians in our church, we’ve been intentionally ambiguous about the specifics. But it’s now time for us to address what “generous orthodoxy” looks like when it comes to the role of LGBT persons.

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Here’s what I see, Brian, that bothers me and it’s the reason for this letter. In some of the churches that I admire, who have moved to an “open and affirming” position, there is no generous orthodoxy, only a new orthodoxy. In other words, it feels like some have only changed their minds about what the Scripture affirms or denies, without maintaining the spirit of graciousness that I’ve seen modeled by you in your writing. And so a church “affirms” one group that was formerly ostracized but now tells another group they’re not welcome because of their beliefs.

And it’s not just churches, it’s people. It’s people who have changed their view on what the Scriptures condemn or allow and are now just as ungracious being “liberal” as they were when they were “conservative.” It’s like they’ve completely forgotten their own journey and the sometimes slow process of changing one’s mind.

So, my question is, even if we expand our “orthodoxy,” how do we maintain generosity? Even if we feel like God is calling us to accept people that the church didn’t used to accept, how do we maintain a spirit of generosity towards those who just can’t get there yet, and perhaps never will?

With Great Admiration,

Charles

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Okay, it’s doubtful to me that Brian McLaren will ever read this post. But I’m curious, what do you all think about the relationship between generosity and orthodoxy? What do you think about “orthodoxy” changing, as it does from time to time? What are some of the specific practices you believe a local church should employ in order to create a space of “generous orthodoxy?”

And even if you don’t want to engage in the discussion here, please drop me a line and let me know if this post is beneficial and thought-provoking. Over the next couple months, we’ll again be exploring the idea of “generous orthodoxy” at Imago Dei Church, and I’m intending, from time to time, to “spill” some thoughts over here to my blog.

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  • Jennifer Ellen

    I love that book. 🙂

    I think that maybe (and unfortunately) in order for orthodoxy to be generous, it has to occupy a different place in our lives and communities than we have been used to. In order for orthodoxy to be generous, it cannot rule. It must serve loving God and loving the other – serve healthy relationships. Not fear. It must serve the production of fruit – love, joy, peace, patience, etc.

    • Michael T.

      YES, this:
      “In order for orthodoxy to be generous, it cannot rule.”

    • Yes! “…it cannot rule…it must serve.”

  • Ross

    Charlie, it makes more heart happy to see people struggle with such tough questions. I walked away from Church for a long time, not because they didn’t have answers to tough questions but because they refused to ask them, they refused to even engage those questions. Anyway, I wish I could offer a better solution, but it seems like the answer is love. Generosity is the component of love that allows us to both accept people where they are but also challenge them to be more accepting themselves.

  • Rachel

    I really enjoyed reading this blog post. McLaren was a formative author for me while I attended Solomon’s Porch and began to wrestle with the “orthodoxy” of my early faith. My frustration with the LGBQT issue within the church is that it is often the banner issue. “Are they gay-affirming or not?” Can a church body affirm all people for their intrinsic worth and value and still not align themselves with certain parts of that person? Sexuality and shame have handicapped and divided so many faith communities. On a positive note, I am very grateful that everyone has FINALLY stopped bickering about meat being offered to idols :).

    • LOL. Yes! And circumcision too!
      Jealous that you got to attend Solomon’s Porch. I love that place. Love Doug.

      I so resonate with what you’re saying here. The whole “do you affirm a particular group of people” seems a bit ridiculous to me. I’ve done heterosexual weddings where I didn’t “affirm” that these two people ought to be getting married. I’m sure even my closest friends don’t affirm all of my choices, all the ways I go about following Jesus. But they still love me and accept me as I am.

      Thanks for commenting!

      • Rachel

        YES! I wish a pastor hadn’t affirmed my marriage, so maybe it wouldn’t have ended in divorce (barely kidding). Yes, attending DP’s church was very healing, to approach community and spiritual formation in the context of radical grace–a game changer for a life-long church girl who was forced to attend the Institute in Basic Youth Principles :).

        “All the ways I go about following Jesus.” This whole tribe of ramshackle prodigals trying to live in the way of Jesus–that’s a group I want to be a part of.

        • “This whole tribe of ramshackle prodigals”… that made me smile.

  • Dustin

    Loved his book as well! This brings to mind a comment I heard someone say…at times there are problems to solve, while at other times we have tensions to manage. Unlike problems that can be completely resolved, the tensions never go away, and they shouldn’t because both need to co-exist. Ex: work-family is a tension to manage and needs to be dealt with as a tension, not a problem to solve. If you eliminate one (no work, or no family), it may feel resolved in the short-term, but long-term life won’t function as its intended. I see that dynamic here. We need generosity as much as we need orthodoxy, because either one becomes quite useless without the other. It’s easier for me to shift a belief or give mental assent to some new thought. It’s entirely different to wade into the tension and ask myself how the Spirit is leading me to change not just my thinking, but my feeling and doing as well. It’s much more tempting to find a quick-“fix” or focus on how “they” should change.

    • Yes… discerning what time it is… the time to live with the tension, or time to resolve the tension is probably the challenge.

    • Seth K

      I like the sentiment of this comment, I really do, but at what point is something no longer acceptable to leave ambiguous? I would certainly think we can all agree that at a certain point allowing others to be racist was no longer generous.

      • Dustin

        Oh, I totally agree that sometimes there is clarity regarding specific discussions (with little-to-no disagreements). I’m speaking to the broader interplay of generosity & orthodoxy and recognizing that there will always be disagreements (except in churches/countries where everyone is perfect) and so we would do well to embrace tension and learn to live with it better. Maybe this is part of the beauty of being in community. If we resist tension altogether, we’re kidding ourselves & hijacking the process of wrestling with our faith.

      • In the historical arc of how change happens, yes, I believe that it starts and you have early adopters. Then you have a season – in church time, decades, or even centuries – where there’s ambiguity and disagreement, but then there eventually emerges a new orthodoxy. If you look at Romans 14, no one is still arguing about meat offered to idols. Eventually, a new orthodoxy emerged that said, “this isn’t even a debatable matter anymore.”

    • Seth K

      Not to suggest that everyone who thinks differently than me is a bigot. An honest question

  • Pegs

    If (as my pastor tells me) “orthodoxy” means “right belief,” then this is a conundrum. If I’m convinced my belief is RIGHT, then how do I leave room for generosity? At the end of the day, am I always going to end up in a “love the sinner hate the sin” situation (which isn’t generous at all, obviously). I think I default to generosity (for some, anyway) and away from orthodoxy for people who believe even more liberally than I do, and I default to orthodoxy and away from generosity to those who have a narrower belief set. Surely that’s not right either.

    I honestly am not sure how to live this out. Maybe I should read the book…

    • Dear Pegs, (love it)…

      Yes. You should read more McLaren so we can continue being friends! But seriously… I think the tension you’re expressing here is the rubber-meets-the-road challenge… how do we actually hold firm to our own beliefs, but still create a generous space for disagreement… But here’s a thought… don’t we already do this in our closest friendships? I mean even in our group of friends, you and I are more political left than those right wing crazies (LOL)… and yet we all love each other and tread very carefully when talk turns to politics… right?

      • Courtney Custis Vercler

        I think it’s easy to SAY we hold space for disagreement, but when there has to be a practice related to orthodoxy, there is an inherent winner and loser. Someone is validated as right, and someone else is left feeling that their opinion isn’t valued. No one is bragging that they got their way, that of course wouldn’t be generous, but it’s awfully hard to feel your opinion is valued if the church chooses an orthopraxy that doesn’t align with your orthodoxy.

        • Yep. There’s a sense in which I totally get what you’re saying. Hopefully, in the coming weeks, we’ll be able to find a way to do this well… and maybe we’ll find a way to hold tension without the feeling of “winners” and “losers.”

  • Vicky Brown

    Very well said.