The primary charge against socialism is that it is little more than a dolled-up, government-patented form of stealing. It is the equivalent of seeing a homeless man, having pity on him, and then inviting him to claim the temporarily vacant home of the well-to-do woman who lives next door to you. This sort of approach to money is why many Americans are – or at least used to be – vehemently opposed to socialism in all its forms. Until recently, we saw through its candy-colored promises to the underlying reality: it is a disingenuous generosity.
I only bring up socialism to remind us that where our treasure is, so there is our heart. And if our society’s treasure – and I do mean our dollar bills -is starting to rest more heavily on a socialist framework we shouldn’t be surprised that everything else is going along with it. If I am willing to part with my neighbor’s paycheck for the supposed greater good, then I am clearly willing to part with my God’s truth for the sake of unity.
A striking example of how willing modern Westerners are to sacrificially part with someone else’s goods shows up in a recent episode of the popular podcast, Revisionist History. In other episodes, popular writer Malcom Gladwell revisits interesting moments in history and uses them as the jumping board for his brand of quirky, narrative-driven musings on society and psychology. Gladwell analyzes Wilt Chamberlain’s free-throw shot, questions how elite universities handle money, and in the episode of immediate relevance, digs deeper into the story of a Mennonite pastor who recently lost his credentials due to officiating his son’s gay wedding.
This story is the backdrop for a concept that Gladwell wants us to witness in action and come to admire; he calls this concept generous orthodoxy.
Consider Gladwell’s introduction of Wenger and his Mennonite community:
[…] Lancaster county is much more conservative [than Ontario, Canada]. The Mennonites there didn’t accept women as ordained ministers until a couple of years ago. And that was something that Wenger struggled with because he’s not just orthodox; he’s generous.
I hope you pick up on what Gladwell is doing here. If I said, “My wife is not just smart; she’s brilliant”, that might strike you as a cutesy way for me to emphasize just how intelligent I think my wife is. But what if I said , “My wife reads books because she is not only a woman; she’s smart.” See the problem? She is a woman and she is smart, but if I borrow Gladwell phrasing to say so, it indicates that there’s something unique at work here, some rare beast in the field; “grab your binoculars because there’s someone who is both female and smart!” From the outset, Gladwell creates a false dichotomy between orthodoxy and generosity.
But it is this logically untenable hook that allows Gladwell to set up the show’s thematic conflict: orthodoxy versus generosity. The battleground? The story of Chester Wegner and his son, who comes out to his father as gay. Once his son fully embraces being gay, Wenger is ready to “accept” him, but not so much his Mennonite church. This allows Gladwell to position Wenger as having a great deal of generosity, and the church as having a great deal of orthodoxy. Or something like that.
“Can you imagine the pain [Wenger must have felt when the Church rejected his son]? He gave his life to a Church that had said, ‘We’re all in this together’, and now that Church had split his family into two.”
Gladwell goes on to tell Wenger’s story: how his son soon found a long-term boyfriend, how they eventually got married, and how Wenger finally forfeited his career as a Mennonite pastor in order to officiate his son’s gay wedding. In his nineties, Wenger concluded his career by penning an open-letter to the Mennonite church, a letter that went viral, in which he encouraged them to accept and not turn away “the most vulnerable” of our population.
Chester Wenger is so nearly true with his aim in this letter that it compounds the pain of seeing him ultimately miss the mark. He clearly has a heart for those who find the Church an intimidating place to enter, and he seems to deeply care for the vulnerable and the outcast. This is commendable because it is Christ-like; Christ is abundantly generous in his care, concern and love. But like many in the American church, Wenger, knowingly or otherwise, undermines his professions of genuine love by engaging in the most loveless action one can take: he lies to his son. In an effort to care for his hurting son, Wenger chooses to bypass the hard act of standing on truth, and opts to instead give it away in order to prove more “accepting”. The problem is that Wenger was not authorized to give away what was never his in the first place.
This is where the term generous orthodoxy, and its legion of followers, in and outside the Church, break down. True orthodoxy is the most generous gift the Church has to offer, for the Church’s truest doctrine is that of Jesus Christ. Christians do not adhere to a set of transcendent, abstract truths, pinned to some teacherly pegboard in the heavens. That’s not where you find the laws of the universe, the purpose for humanity (and human sexuality), or the meaning of life, nor even the the way to lasting joy. No, the Truth is no longer a Stone Tablet; the Truth is Jesus.
We wildly deceive ourselves, however, if we think we can embrace Jesus as Truth and Love while ignoring everything He said. For example, Wenger recalls a heartbreaking moment, after his son felt most hurt by the Church and was on the precipice of giving up his faith, when he looked into his son’s eyes and begged him, “Don’t give up on Jesus. Whatever you do, don’t give up on Jesus.” This is so poignant. But what ultimately follows this desperate plea? According to the narrative, Wenger’s son “doesn’t give up on Jesus”, but later goes and marries another man, in direct contradiction to Jesus’s words and command; and Wenger, Gladwell and countless Christians somehow respond with joy! “At least he didn’t give up on Jesus,” they all seems to say.
How is this not giving up on Jesus? Jesus’ words to a sinner caught in the act of sin were full of grace, love, and truth: “Has no one condemned you? [Then] Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more.” Sin no more. What is Jesus’ goal in the life of the Christian? “To cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” It is not to watch us do what we want while we say, “I haven’t given up on you.” That is not generous orthodoxy; that’s licentious polyamory. It is the equivalent of struggling with whether to cheat on your wife, choosing to cheat, and then responding to your wife, “but I still love you.” And later, after you are married to your new wife, have grown old andstarted a family with her, you write a letter to your first bride to remind her: “But I still love you. I haven’t given up on you.”
There’s no such thing as generous orthodoxy in a healthy marriage. There is an orthodoxy – only you, til’ death do us part – and within it is boundless generosity. There is neither a bending of the rule, nor an ability to be too generous. Gladwell’s idea of generous orthodoxy is simply about trying to achieve a balance of truth and love, but Christianity will have nothing to do with “balance” and everything to do with a fully realized person who is all love and all truth all the time. So intricately entwined are these qualities within the person of Jesus that there is no separating them. Therefore, Christian faithfulness is not about reconciling cold, stone tablets with generous, loving hearts but about displaying the embodiment of Truth, hung high on a cross, in the ultimate display of Love.
That Gladwell gets this wrong is sad, but not nearly as heartbreaking as the reality that the Church is increasingly getting this wrong, for no one and no institution should love the vulnerable more than the Church. Our hearts should be abounding with authentic, overflowing generosity and love for the hurting and estranged, those hopelessly separated from the God of the Bible; for such were we. But under no circumstances can we bring them half a Gospel, nor approve of an adulterous, assuming relationship with the Lord who jealously calls for nothing less than all their hearts, minds and souls. We must love too much to easily part with God’s Truth so we can look more like we’re on the “right side of history”. Rather, we must die to ourselves in order that they receive the good news, not the hell-bound “nice” news.
To return to my initial analogy, just as we can’t give away someone else’s house and call it love, nor can we give away God’s Truth and call it generous. The glorious irony, however, is that God is actually quite willing that His children should give away the keys to his house. There is little Jesus desires more than that the outcast dwell in the house of God. So we really can, in full sincerity, offer a homeless soul the key to God’s house. What we can’t do, however, is let them enter by busting through a back-window and sneaking them inside.
Because Christ’s sole condition for entering his house is that you enter through the door.