I often receive messages from people who hold to historic church teachings but are increasingly uncertain about how to share these beliefs openly in a cultural climate that’s increasingly hostile to them. One woman, for example, wrote that she wants to “maintain the message of Christ’s love and grace mingled with the truth that is so important not to withhold” but finds it hard to do so among diverse friends. Another shared that she hesitates more and more to speak out for fear of being seen as “negative and hateful.”
Truth be told, I feel these struggles myself on most days. It is not easy, for example, to tell someone I love dearly that I cannot attend his wedding because my love for him compels me not to pretend marriage is something other than what God created it to be. Nor is it easy in a world so defined by a gnostic dichotomy between spiritual and physical to insist that the Incarnation and the Resurrection—God becoming man and dwelling among us, dying on the cross and rising from the dead—are facts as true as the law of gravity.
Yet, the Bible exhorts Christians to speak “the truth in love” (Eph. 4:15). We are obligated to emulate the example of Jesus, who balanced in beautiful harmony the demands of both love and truth. Those of us concerned with not abandoning truth as we speak in love find the cultural waters today increasingly difficult to navigate.
Contemporary Christian discipleship, in particular, poses new challenges. A few months ago, one of my former students contacted me to express her concern about the state of women’s discipleship, specifically, and her desire to practice more discernment about the women leaders she follows. Some, she said, “are about ‘all the feels’ rather than rooted in truth.” She continued, “As a woman, I feel that we are particularly vulnerable right now because our culture is targeting us—politically and spiritually. Our votes, support, and opinions are being battled for.”
Now we are witnessing some of these battles over truth and orthodoxy being lost. While there is some debate about the precise definition, orthodox Christian belief consists of sound doctrine derived from a faithful reading of Scripture and informed by the millennia-long history of biblical interpretation, the witness of the early church, and the creeds. As I survey the lines demarcating Christian belief, I wonder if some of those who have drifted over to heterodoxy—both men and women—might have stayed with us if the contemporary church were better at a particularly powerful form of discipleship: hospitable orthodoxy.
Hospitality comes from the same Latin root word from which we get both guest and host. Host refers not only to one who receives a guest but also to an army or multitude—which is why the word hostile comes from the same root word as host and the Latin word for host also meant enemy. The hinge that joins all of these words—guest, host, enemy, hostile, hospitality and even hospital—is stranger. A stranger could be a guest or a host and either could be an enemy. In this way, hospitality—given or received—always entails risk and exposure.
Anyone who has been a guest or a host understands the vulnerability involved. My husband and I are blessed to host many visitors on our old, rural homestead. Like most places, ours has a few eccentric house rules particular to our lifestyle, including, “If you don’t want the dogs near you, then stay off the furniture.” Another is that guests are welcome to bring as many friends as they want and stay as long as they like, but I can’t cook for them. And yet, despite my lack of culinary skills and the awkward proximity of dog paws and snouts, our friends and family (and even few strangers) seem to feel welcomed and refreshed by our peaceful little plot nestled in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
Thinking about hospitality in this more literal sense is helpful in considering how we, as members of the house of God, bear some responsibility for protecting the doctrinal boundaries of faith and also inviting others into that well-defined place.
1. People who practice hospitable orthodoxy welcome the seeker and stranger. They do not read, follow, or speak to only the like-minded. They do not operate in an echo chamber.
For many years, I have intentionally pursued conversations with those with whom I deeply disagree, both believers and unbelievers. Some—afraid, perhaps, of their own temptation to compromise—question and criticize this, but the practice merely follows the example of Christ. As Natasha Sistrunk Robinson said in her recent interview, “It’s a sacred act to learn to see, honor, and love our neighbors.”
Furthermore, the Bible cautions in Proverbs 18:1 that those who isolate themselves seek only their own desires, breaking out “against all sound judgment.” Any so-called orthodoxy that avoids the cornucopia of God’s image bearers isn’t orthodoxy—it’s a cult.
2. Those who practice hospitable orthodoxy are rooted in relationships because right doctrine is not disembodied from the love of actual people.
While the truth of God is unchanging, the application of that truth always involves real and imperfect people. As evangelicals are fond of saying, Christianity isn’t a religion; it’s a relationship. And yet, because God’s Word and his ways already account for human nature and fallenness, our beliefs and doctrines should not change based on our relationships. To the contrary, our understanding of ourselves and others needs to be rooted in God’s eternal truths. As Tim Keller points out, if people change their views, for example, about homosexuality once they come to know and love homosexual persons, “those earlier views were likely defective,” perhaps even “rooted in bigotry” rather than right doctrine. Right doctrine must, by its very definition, already take into account both the imperfection and the redeemable nature of our humanity—along with the command to love.
This balance between right doctrine and relationship is particularly pertinent to discipleship. In a recent article on women and the blogosphere, Hannah Anderson unpacks research indicating that women’s sources and expressions of power tend to be more relational than those of men. That means practicing hospitable orthodoxy requires recognizing and adjusting for one’s own natural tendencies, whatever they are, in order to balance truth and love.
3. People who practice hospitable orthodoxy are not afraid to use the words right and wrong, although they use them judiciously and lovingly.
I accidentally discovered my own practice of this principle when students and colleagues observed a teaching quirk of mine: If a student offers a wrong answer in classroom discussion, rather than responding with something gently corrective or even affirming (as, apparently, most teachers do), I simply say “no” and move on to the next raised hand. And yet because of the hospitable environment I create in my classroom, this “no” seems only to motivate students to participate more and strive to improve. Realizing something is wrong whets the appetite for what is right.
In the same way, people who hold to orthodoxy believe in objective and eternal truths and are eager to examine arguments and positions based not on persons, affections, or feelings but rather on truth and reason. Where disagreement is found, they engage the actual arguments, rather than dismissing uncomfortable ideas with superficial judgments. “When Christian writers or speakers make theological statements,” writes Tish Harrison Warren, “we have a responsibility to give a specific argument, show our rigorous theological work, elevate the conversation, welcome strong criticism and debate, and in so doing, help others think and worship better.”
When we teach Christian doctrine in the space of the church, there, too, we have an obligation to say what is “right” and what is “wrong.” Hospitality always entails house rules and never means handing over ownership of the house to the guests.
4. People who practice hospitable orthodoxy defend but are not defensive.
Those who are rooted in a foundation of objective truth outside of themselves—planted in soil deeper than a particular political or cultural moment—have little reason to be defensive. As Henri Nouwen writes in Reaching Out, while “society seems to be increasingly full of fearful, defensive, aggressive people anxiously clinging to their property and inclined to look at their surrounding world with suspicion,” we who are rooted in the historical teachings of the church are not so.
Rather, Nouwen says, we are free to fulfill our call “to convert … the enemy into a guest and to create the free and fearless space where brotherhood and sisterhood can be formed and fully experienced.” People often ask me how I am able to respond as graciously as I do when attacked, maligned, or trolled on social media or blogs. The answer is in the freedom orthodoxy offers—for things to be not about me.
5. People who practice hospitable orthodoxy are confident enough to engage hard questions.
This foundation of eternal and lasting truths offers both the freedom and the pleasure of entertaining hard questions—whether our own or those of others. For believers who care about orthodoxy, hard questions are an opportunity to increase in the maturity and understanding of one’s faith. As we see in the gospels, Jesus is an example of someone who not only welcomed honest, hard questions (as opposed to dishonest, trick questions) but asked many of them himself.
As an academic, I am encouraged to love hard questions, especially questions about topics that matter even more than schoolbooks. If we as believers weren’t expected to struggle with hard questions beyond the knowledge that saves us, Paul would not have warned us to work out our salvation in fear and trembling.
6. People who practice hospitable orthodoxy embrace both openness and exclusivity.
As Nouwen writes in Reaching Out, “receptivity is only one side of hospitality. The other side, equally important, is confrontation.” He further explains:
Space can only be welcoming space when there are clear boundaries, and boundaries are limits between which we define our own position. …We are not hospitable when we leave our house to strangers and let them use it anyway they want. An empty house is not a hospitable house. …When we want to be really hospitable we not only have to receive strangers but also to confront them by an unambiguous presence, not hiding ourselves behind neutrality but showing our ideas, opinions, and life style clearly and distinctly. … Receptivity and confrontation are the two inseparable sides of Christian witness.
According to Nouwen, the ultimate purpose of hospitable orthodoxy is “not to change people, but to offer them space where change can take place.”
Classroom teaching has provided me with a model for this idea. Although change (in the form of learning) is up to each student, I have a responsibility to create an environment for teaching, leading, and encouraging. In the sphere of social media—where so much discipleship, whether good or bad, intentional or not, takes place—I also seek to create a space for teaching, leading, and encouraging. There, too, I serve the Lord and “must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting opponents with gentleness” (2 Tim. 2:24-25). This is the responsibility of all believers, since we are both hosts and guests within the house of orthodoxy.
As I look around the campus where I teach and the country I live in, I see many standing on the precipice of orthodoxy who could tip either way. In the sphere of women’s discipleship, in particular, we need clear, strong, women’s voices to win them back from the edge. Such women—whose voices the church should hear, support, and amplify—are practicing the hospitable orthodoxy that’s essential to Christian discipleship. They kindly offer the truth that love requires. They understand that to be orthodox means not changing doctrine but being changed by it. And they earnestly hope and desire for the guest to become, once and for all, family within the house of God.
Karen Swallow Prior is Professor of English at Liberty University and an award-winning teacher. She is a contributing writer for The Atlantic.com and for Christianity Today, where she blogs frequently at Her.meneutics. Her writing has appeared in Relevant, Think Christian, and Salvo. She is a Research Fellow with the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, a member of INK: A Creative Collective, and a member of the Faith Advisory Council of the Humane Society of the United States.
This article originally appeared in Christianity Today and may be accessed in its entirety at the following link