On his Aug. 11 podcast, journalist Malcolm Gladwell used the concept of “generous orthodoxy” to frame the story of Chester Wenger. It’s a positive approach to faith that is gaining ground among Mennonites.
Gladwell, a best-selling author whose “Revisionist History” podcast tops the iTunes chart, interviewed the 98-year-old retired minister about officiating his son’s wedding — and setting off ripples across Mennonite Church USA.
It’s a compelling story, which MWR told in the Nov. 24, 2014, edition: Philip Wenger and Steve Dinnocenti got married soon after it became legal for them to do so; Chester Wenger solemnized their union in violation of a denominational rule, then wrote an open letter defending his action; Lancaster Mennonite Conference revoked his credentials as a minister.
Wenger’s blessing of his son’s marriage made him a rule-breaker, but hardly a defiant one. In the open letter, he wrote of his hope that the church would show compassion for sexual minorities and affirm their desire to “live in accountable, covenanted ways.”
Wenger’s humble, respectful approach to this most contentious of issues led Gladwell to center his podcast on the theme of generous orthodoxy. Wenger displayed no anger or spirit of rebellion. He professed a desire to perform an act of love — and to affirm that his loyalty to the church, even after it punished his offense, had not diminished in the least.
It is this humility and respect that, for Gladwell, made Wenger a model of generous orthodoxy. Same-sex marriage is unorthodox, but Wenger’s orthodoxy lies in remaining faithful to the church even while rejecting one of its doctrines. “You must respect the body you are trying to heal,” Gladwell says. You have to balance loyalty and conscience.
Sara Wenger Shenk, daughter of Chester Wenger and president of Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary, writes on her blog that it is “those who are most deeply immersed in the beauty and wisdom of a tradition who have the best capacity to change it in ways that ring true with its core convictions.”
Gladwell may stretch the definition of orthodoxy, but the larger point is this: When we stand up for our convictions but refuse to draw battle lines, we practice generous virtues: searching for truth together, upholding Christ as the center of our faith, preserving unity in the church and embodying the gospel’s gracious character.
Gladwell didn’t coin the term “generous orthodoxy.” Theologian Hans Frei gets credit for that. A Generous Orthodoxy is also the title of a 2004 book by Christian writer Brian McLaren. The foreword by John R. Franke lists the virtues of a faith that is generous and orthodox.
Generous orthodoxy has spread among us most recently in Mennonite Church Canada’s decision to “create space” for congregations to “test alternatives to traditional beliefs on same-sex relationships.” The denomination’s traditional, orthodox statements and positions remain. But they are now explicitly yoked to a spirit of generosity that says there is room for those who differ from the majority.
“Creating space,” as the Canadians call it, is a good way to practice generous orthodoxy. A conflict-weary church needs space — to relieve tension, to have a conversation, to hear the Spirit speak.