The Tale of Stan, Brian and the priority of relationships.
2005 was a year of highs and lows for Brian McLaren. On the high side, Time magazine named him one of the most influential evangelicals in America. But it was also the year that he lost one of his key mentors and dear friends Stanley Grenz, who passed away unexpectedly at the relatively young age of 55.
Grenz was one of the most influential academic voices during the early years of the Emerging Church Movement (ECM). Books like A Primer on Postmodernism, Beyond Foundationalism (with John Franke), and Renewing the Center informed the thinking of many participants in the ECM conversation.
As the ECM influence grew, the names of McLaren and Grenz were often linked. For instance, in Reclaiming the Center, a conservative evangelical response to Renewing the Center, Justin Taylor labeled Grenz "the professor" and McLaren "the pastor" of the postconservative evangelical movement.
Grenz took a special interest in McLaren and was the driving force behind McLaren receiving an honorary doctorate in 2004 from Carey Theological College, the institution in which Grenz taught theology. But their friendship was not without occasional disagreement. In his review of The Last Word and the Word After That, the final installment in McLaren's New Kind of Christian trilogy, Grenz wrote, "There are a host of folks troubled by the double predestinarian portrayal of hell that McLaren rightly debunks, but who are attempting to provide cogent, biblical, and helpful ways of speaking about eternal estrangement from God. The stylized approach taken in this book works against allowing those voices to be heard."
While researching my new book, Brian McLaren in Focus, I asked McLaren about his relationship with Grenz. McLaren said, "Stan and I disagreed on a few issues, including the issue of hell. I was quite shocked that Stan spoke of God having a 'dark side'—sounding a bit like Martin Luther, and Stan felt that I was on thin ice in my deconstruction of the traditional view of hell...but whatever our disagreements, they didn't weaken our relationship one iota."
This last line is worth repeating: "but whatever our disagreements, they didn't weaken our relationship one iota." The idea that real loving, respectful relationships should be strong enough to withstand disagreements is the guiding impulse behind my current blog series: "Seven Lessons Evangelicals Can Learn from Brian McLaren." This is certainly not a new idea, but unfortunately it is becoming increasingly rare in much of Evangelicalism, which is often defined by crystal clear "us vs. them" lines of division based solely on a checklist of "orthodox" theological teachings.
As a professor at Indiana Wesleyan University, I am committed to teaching and promoting the statement of faith and ethos of The Wesleyan Church. So it should come as no surprise that I dedicate two chapters in Brian McLaren in Focus to evaluating McLaren's theological project in light of orthodox Wesleyan-Arminian teaching (Chapter 7 "McLaren and Arminian Affinity" and Chapter 8 "McLaren and Arminian Dissonance").
After reading the manuscript, Chris Bounds, scholar-in-residence and professor of Wesleyan Studies at Asbury University, wrote that Brian McLaren in Focus is "one of the most nuanced articulations of orthodox Arminianism I have read." As much as I appreciate this generous comment about my articulation of orthodox Arminian theology, I was even more grateful when Bounds told me that he believes my interaction with McLaren is a model for how to engage in critically appreciative Christian scholarship.
Likewise, in the foreword to Brian McLaren in Focus, McLaren himself makes a similar point: "Most impressive of all, I feel that [Burson] has fairly engaged even with the dimensions of my work with which he disagrees, modeling a level of civility and charity that I often fail to achieve, even though I aspire to it."
I will let readers make up their own minds about the degree to which my book is critically appreciative, civil and charitable. Nevertheless, I am humbled and grateful to receive this feedback because I believe many evangelicals (myself included) need to work on the manner in which we disagree. Why must differences of opinion and belief lead to the severing of fellowship? As John Wesley once famously wrote, "If your heart is as my heart, give me your hand." Wesley scholar Thomas Oden once explained Wesley's thesis as the commitment to "be of one heart, even though not of one opinion."
While Brian McLaren and I are not of one opinion on all issues (although we are on many), I can honestly say we are of "one heart." I have corresponded with Brian for over a decade and have never met a person with a more Christlike spirit. His generosity with me as I researched and wrote this book was extraordinary. He corresponded promptly and graciously with me, answering every question that I posed. He sent me several of his manuscripts while they were still works in progress. I watched Brian closely interact with others, some of whom treated him with extreme cruelty while questioning his motives and intentions without ever actually meeting him. I have seen him consistently model a second-mile form of Christianity that challenged and inspired me to be a more faithful Christ-follower. After all of this, how could I let some theological differences invalidate the clear evidence of the Holy Spirit working in Brian's life?
Francis Schaeffer wrote in The Great Evangelical Disaster that the final apologetic before the watching world is not the razor sharp logic of our rational arguments, but rather the love between fellow believers. And this love should ultimately be a reflection of the relational love modeled in the Trinity, which exhibits the perfect integration of unity in diversity.
So what causes some conservative evangelicals to often value "doctrinal purity" over "relational fidelity"? In Reformed and Always Reforming, Roger Olson identifies one of the problems. Olson contends that conservatives operate out of a "bounded set" mentality, while postconservatives function with a "centered-set" approach. In other worlds, conservative evangelicals tend to post gatekeepers who enforce strict boundaries around the edges of the camp. This bounded-set approach explains why many conservative evangelicals feel the need to patrol the borders of Evangelicalism on a fairly regular basis and expel people like McLaren who no longer adhere to their understanding of orthodoxy.
Postconservative evangelicals, on the other hand, propose a gathering around the center of a few key doctrines that centripetally pull believers toward the middle of the camp. This campsite functions without explicit exterior boundaries. Olson envisions, "People gathered around the center or moving toward it are authentically evangelical; people or institutions moving away from it or with their backs turned against it are of questionable evangelical status. But it is not a matter of being 'in' or 'out' as there is no evangelical magisterium to decide that."
McLaren's work in A Generous Orthodoxy was an expression of this centered-set approach. His new book, The Great Spiritual Migration, seems to suggest a centering around spiritual practices rather than theological beliefs. But here's the point: This centered-set approach creates the necessary space for relational fidelity because there are no gatekeepers patrolling the hard and fast boundary lines that determine whether you are "in" or "out" on the basis of "doctrinal purity" alone.
So here's the FIRST lesson evangelicals can learn from Brian McLaren: Relational fidelity needs to be a top priority. Disagreements of conscience should not be ignored; but neither should they sever Christian fellowship. McLaren has often pointed out that the mean-spirited, infighting of Christians has done more damage to the cause of Christ than any attack leveled by disenchanted youth, radical new atheists, or adherents to other religions. If we are really concerned about the eternal salvation of a watching world, we need to strive for relational fidelity in the midst of our differences of opinion.
Learning how to love each other while honestly and respectfully discussing our differences is something that Brian McLaren and Stanley Grenz modeled. It is a model worth emulating.