Kenneth Carter: A Generous Orthodoxy for the Healing of the Church

My faith has been formed by:  

  • reading the New Testament from beginning to end one spring; 
  • singing in choirs as a youth and young adult; 
  • serving on mission trips; 
  • memorizing scripture with the Navigators as a college student; 
  • witnessing a public request for forgiveness; 
  • seeing racism diminish in people I admired; 
  • teachers who came along at just the right time;  
  • experiencing the courage of clergywomen, who kept going even when no one affirmed them; 
  • opportunities to preach and lead Bible studies in prisons; 
  • traveling to Israel with Jewish friends and learning about the Sabbath from them; 
  • getting to know LGBTQIA friends who were on the same journey of holiness as me; 
  • a spiritual director who had charismatic gifts and taught me about the Holy Spirit; 
  • mentors who encouraged me and opened doors; 
  • a theology of hope and a dependence on grace; 
  • my wife's commitment to mission; 
  • generous people who stepped up when the church needed them, and who blessed people without insisting on recognition; 
  • challenging assignments and calls that seemed impossible at the time; 
  • a few poets and novelists; 
  • friendships; 
  • a denomination that is imperfect, and yet it has given me and countless others a spiritual home and place to serve; 
  • evangelicals who were apolitical, and activists who were evangelicals; 
  • strategic guides along the way who knew a lot more about leadership and management than I did, and helped me; 
  • being a son and a grandson, and then a parent and now a grandparent; 
  • coming to know that faith is less about where I stand and more about who I am walking with. 

In reflecting on my journey so far, I have an increasing clarity about a Christian faith that is generously orthodox.

The word orthodox here has a distinctly lower case “o.” It is about my trust in the scriptures, the creeds, and the faith of the church. I am carried along by a great current of Christian tradition that is deep and wide, ecumenical and global, trinitarian and liberationist. It is a faith that articulates the cries of God’s people (Exodus 3), that breathes life into a valley of dry bones (Ezekiel 37), that endures weeping in the night but also awakens to a joy that comes in the morning (Psalm 30). It wanders in the wilderness (Exodus 16), experiences the dark night of the soul (Psalm 22), knows a peace that surpasses human understanding (Philippians 4), and discovers the empty tomb (John 20).

The word generous is about charity toward others in the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 13), patience with them in their own spiritual journeys, openness to the possibility that we see through a glass darkly (1 Corinthians 13), and humility that we consider others more highly than we do ourselves (Philippians 2). Generosity creates a space for reciprocity, giving, and receiving. Generosity acknowledges a dark side to orthodoxy, one that draws too sharp a division and too strong a boundary – and in the process people who worship, pray, learn, serve, and witness together are separated (literally in the Greek, “torn apart”).

The phrase “generous orthodoxy” was coined a generation ago by the Yale theologian Hans Frei. He influenced a number of his students, many of whom would later teach at Duke, where I studied. Hans Frei commented that “we need a kind of generous orthodoxy which would have in it an element of liberalism – a voice like the Christian Century – and an element of evangelicalism – the voice of Christianity Today.” He said, “I don’t know if there is a voice between these two, as a matter of fact. If there is, I would like to pursue it.”

“Generous Orthodoxy” is the title of a blog by the Episcopal preacher and priest Fleming Rutledge, who writes,

We cannot do without orthodoxy, for everything must be tested against it, but that orthodox (traditional, classical) Christian faith should by definition always be generous as our God is generous; lavish in his creation, binding himself in an unconditional covenant, revealing himself in the calling of a people, self-sacrificing in the death of his Son, prodigal in the gifts of the Spirit, justifying the ungodly, and indeed, offending the “righteous.” This occurs by the indiscriminate use of God’s favor. True Christian orthodoxy therefore cannot be narrow, pinched or defensive but always spacious, adventurous and unafraid.

I love those last three word: spacious, adventurous, unafraid. More recently, generous orthodoxy was the title of a podcast by Malcolm Gladwell in his series on Revisionist History. Gladwell tells the story of a same-gender wedding in the Mennonite Church tradition, and how that community navigated the claims of received truth and expressed conscience. The story itself is narrated in a gracious way, especially given the medium of popular culture. In his own reflection on the events narrated in the podcast, Gladwell notes that “You must respect the body you are trying to heal.”

Imagine the great things God might accomplish if we rediscovered an orthodoxy in service of the healing (and not dividing) of our bodies, that is, our churches? Such a generous orthodoxy would help us not to become immersed in the emotional processes that pit people against each other. Such a generous orthodoxy would keep us from becoming stuck in cycles of harmful collusion and escalating conflict.

In one of the early teachings of Jesus, it is assumed that we will do harm to each other. This is the human condition. The gospel reads, “If another member of the church sins against you….” The sin does harm, the collateral damage surrounds us.

A generous orthodoxy would know that the source of our capacity to move beyond the harm, wholeness out of brokenness, to be healed of our schisms is a miracle beyond our human power or goodness or intelligence. It is beyond our own righteousness. It implies a kind of humility.

Because my faith is orthodox, I can learn from and listen to voices many would characterize as moderate or evangelical or catholic or traditional. These theological streams have always been life-giving to me.

Because my faith is generously orthodox, I believe that the heart and soul of orthodoxy is the grace of Jesus Christ. This grace is a broad, deep river, a wide reservoir of divine love, a fountain filled with blood that cleanses my unrighteousness and overcomes all of my resistance and rebellion. It is a grace greater than all my sin. And this grace is for all people. Note the words of Charles Wesley: Jesus thou art all compassion, Pure unbounded love thou art.

I have come to love and at the same time be convicted by that simple word: all. Because grace is for all, a generous orthodoxy knows that God can never be tribal. The God of the Bible, the God of the Old and New Covenants, is never tribal. From Abraham to Ruth, to Isaiah, to Jesus, to Mary, to Paul, to the Revelation given to John, the tribal is always an interim form of community on the way to something greater that God is wanting to do. At our best, and at our most biblical, we know this.

I am neither naïve nor oblivious about our divisions. For this reason, the missio _dei, the mission of God in this world, includes a careful, patient, and substantive attention to the reconciliation of the broken body of Christ, as a sign and witness of our profession: “one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of us all” (Ephesians 4:5-6). This is the basis of our hope for a church that does not merely reflect the cultural and political divisions of a particular nation, but bears witness to a deeper identity, one expressed in the latter half of Ephesians, chapter 2.

I am drawn to the gift and challenge of our gospel reading from Matthew 18. Our experience of escalating ecclesial conflict might look different if we were discipled in the way of Jesus:

If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses (Matthew 18:15-16, NRSV).

There is a hard and a gracious aspect to all of this. The hard: we are called to tell the truth to each other. The gracious: we are called to do so alone, in private. The rabbis said that we are not to bring public shame to the one who has failed. The rabbis would go on to say that to do so might exclude us from life in the world to come.

When we are generous, we are not closed off from each other. This is for our good. When we are orthodox, we are in a right relationship with the God who speaks, is incarnate and breathes in scripture and in our own lives. This is our salvation. And this is the church’s mission that is “spacious, adventurous and unafraid.” And if we were reading the signs of the times, why would we not trust that this same God was and is in Christ reconciling the world to himself, and that God has given us this ministry of reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5)?

The instructions of Jesus to his disciples in Matthew 18 are a kind of spiritual practice that is simple and yet, we confess, difficult. It requires a proximity to the one who has harmed us, whom we may have harmed also. It moves us beyond our avoidance and our siloes to vulnerability and the possibility of forgiveness and even restoration. And could it be that this is the way of Jesus, for the renewal, the reform and the healing of our bodies, the church?

I was ordained forty years ago this past summer. One of my earliest assignments was four churches in rural western North Carolina, where I now serve as bishop. Life does come full circle. And some of my earliest teachers about a generous orthodoxy in the service of healing were the people of those four churches.

Every Fall and Spring, each of our churches - remember there were four of them - each of them would have a revival, services that would last several days every Fall and Spring. This meant I had eight weeks of revival a year. I was a very revived person!

The stated purpose of these revival services was to reach and save the lost. They began on Sunday morning. They continued on Sunday evening and each evening through Wednesday or Thursday of the week. And so, I would be listening to the visiting preacher on or about Wednesday evening, and the message would be about the lost and how they needed to be found. I would look out at the congregation and think, these people are not lost. They are the committed core. After all, they are here, and it’s the third or fourth night of a revival! And along the way I wondered; why do we have all of these services? What is the purpose?

And then, in time, it was as if God spoke to me, not in an audible voice; but it was as if God spoke to me and said, “Ken, this is what is happening.”

When you live in a small community, no one new ever moves in or moves out very often. You go to school together, you do business with each other, families blend together, things happen. We do harm to each other. Other people do harm to us. Others do harm to people we love. If you live long enough, it happens. Even in the best of families.

And we begin to construct walls. Right down the middle between us. And here is where the revival services came in. What was happening in those services was that we were being called to make things right with each other. And so, people would come forward and they would kneel at the altar, and they would make peace with their Creator and with someone – a neighbor, family member, business partner – they would make peace and they would leave it there at the altar.

If we are listening to this teaching of Jesus in Matthew 18, it could be that we are being called to make our own way to some kind of altar. In a complex and polarized season, we may have harmed someone, or someone has harmed us, or someone has harmed a person we love. If it could happen among the very first followers of Jesus – and in this passage they are obviously trying to solve some kind of problem – it could happen among us, even among the best of churches, even in the best of families.

The lesson of Scripture invites us to deconstruct our sophisticated walls and to make our way toward that sacred altar, which is a restored relationship. If your friend, if your sibling, if your colleague sins against you, go to them, be people who can speak and hear the truth; for the sake of dignity, do this when you are alone… perhaps they will listen.

Those who have formed me in this faith have been willing, in their own ways, to do this spiritual work. Indeed, it is happening even now. And in so doing, they are repairing the world.

This is the practice of a generous orthodoxy in service of the healing of relationships, relationships grounded in the grace of the Triune God, which is a broad, deep river, a wide reservoir of divine love. Jesus thou art all compassion. There is a fountain filled with blood, cleansing our unrighteousness, greater than all of our sin, the dream of God for all people, without exception.