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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From the Vault: Rhetoric Matters

On Mondays, I’m going into the vault, reworking an old post, and reposting it with some comments attached. This morning’s post comes from January 12, 2011. At the time I wrote it, I was writing about Sarah Palin and a shooting in Tucson, AZ. I’ve re-edited this post quite a bit to reflect more current realities, but I’ve kept the main point of the post the same.  I’ve added additional comments and a few questions at the end of the post.

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If you ask people what they’re afraid of, public speaking is high on their lists. So apparently, I’m a freak. Almost every week I stand up in front of room full of adults and speak publicly for somewhere between 30 and 45 minutes. I’ve spoken to large crowds and to the shower wall, both having a certain allure. (My ego loves the crowds, but to the shower wall I’m brilliant and brave.) Our church podcasts my teachings every week, and so what I say is available to anyone on the planet with an internet connection. And this blog, like all others big and small, is also accessible to anyone on planet Earth with an internet connection.

Why do I make such an effort to say what I’m thinking?  Because words matter. What I say on a Sunday morning, or what I write on my blog or what I say to a friend or parishioner just might challenge someone to think or live differently for the sake of a better world. That gets me out of bed in the morning.

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That’s why all the Jerry Falwell, Jr. and Donald Trump stuff that’s littered my Facebook feed these last weeks bothers me so much. Rhetoric matters; how you say something is as important as what you say; and the venom and hate spewing forth, masked as political rhetoric, is contributing to the feeling that the world is dark, scary and tense.

Most of the time – especially when it comes to political stuff – I choose to stay silent. It seems not many people are interested in civil political discourse these days. The partisans drape themselves in vague, ad hominem attacks, asserting the other side “is out to destroy America.” And they’ve retreated to their Fox News and MSNBC. (I had a friend tell me once how he stopped listening to Rush Limbaugh and found he was happier, less cynical, more open. Hmmmm. Makes me wonder about how the rhetoric we choose to let into our minds affects our outlook, but that’s another post sometime.)

But last week, I couldn’t stay silent. The politics were about religious things. And even though I got a fair amount of good feedback, both online and in conversation, I still felt conflicted. I still don’t always know the right answer to the question, “When should one speak up and when should one stay silent?”

Or to ask the question in a more Biblical fashion, when do I choose to take the advice of Proverbs 26:4: “Do not answer a fool according to his folly, or you yourself will be just like him.” Or, when do I choose to take the advice of the very next verse that says exactly the opposite, “Answer a fool according to his folly, or he will be wise in his own eyes.”

How do I take seriously the idea of being a peacemaker, but at the same time say my truth, say to the world, “Jerry Falwell Jr., while he may be a godly man in a thousand ways, doesn’t represent me when it comes to how he talks about Muslims and guns in America. I don’t think we’re following the same Jesus.”

There are plenty of people out there who have written excellent articles denouncing Falwell’s or Trump’s rhetoric in a balanced way, fairly critiquing the rhetoric without impugning the person, without making sweeping generalizations about people or ideas, so I won’t spend time doing that here. (While you may not agree with his points, I think Brian McLaren modeled this well on The Huffington Post last week.) But I’ve been thinking about myself and the responsibility I have of speaking in public. And if I could have Falwell’s or Trump’s ear – or any of us who speak to a public audience – here’s what I might say:

Words are powerful things. With our words, we can make people laugh, cry, and consider what we want them to think about.  With our words, we can change people’s minds about even the biggest issues – faith, politics, and the meaning of the universe. So what you say, and the manner in which you say it, matters. It matters a lot. And at times, we’ve all erred. We’ve all over-exerted ourselves on a point we shouldn’t have pressed so hard, or we’ve done the opposite and chickened out, when the occasion called for more passion and elucidation than we gave it. And in those times, we need to use our words to put things right, to apologize and point to a better way.

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Three years ago I wrote this post, and it’s still true, still relevant. And I still don’t know the best answer to when to speak up. But I’m more convinced that I ought to speak up more.

Here’s an example: Last week, someone on my Facebook asserted that Jesus is a incomplete picture of God, because he only lived 33 years. If I understood correctly, his specific point was that we should minimize Jesus’ calls to pacifism and round out Jesus’ message with a strong dose of “wipe out all the Philistines.” I think, even in my conservative, evangelical seminary, I wouldn’t have passed my orals with this kind of hermeneutic.

But I didn’t respond, because I didn’t want to have a protracted argument on Facebook.  And part of me feels like to say nothing was a failure of my own nerve, a laziness on my part, that to stay silent was wrong.

So, my friends, help a brother out: how we respond matters, of course, but when should we speak up and when should we stay silent? When, at the family Christmas dinner do you just ignore what your drunk uncle says, when do you say what you really think, and when do you just play Adele and sing together?

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