This week there is a conversation going on about the idea of a “Big-Tent Christianity”. I’ve decided to add my two or three cents not because I have some fully formed thoughts or have some kind of overarching motive.
More because this really is something I think about a lot and something I think that may be a defining topic in contemporary Christianity. I’ve not yet read any other contributions and so I’m coming into this with only my own musings.
I don’t have a polished essay nor a even a settled understanding. I’m not ready to throw oils or watercolors onto the canvas. I’m not ready to prepare the plaster for some grand theological or ecclesial fresco that others can gaze upon.
I’m still at the point of sketching. I’m exploring shapes and boundaries and colors and themes. And that’s what this post is going to be. Sketches of my thoughts on the theme of Big Tent Christianity.
What is a big tent Christianity?
My basic understanding is that a “big tent Christianity” gives space for wide theological borders, an inclusive ecclesiology that not only allows for disagreements, but expects and values the expanded perspective that disagreements can bring. Not that disagreements are at the center of this tent. Rather, a big tent Christianity to be really Christian has to have Christ at the center, and with this being the center our focus becomes less on our distinctions and disagreements and more on our hope we share in Christ.
I support this reality not because it is necessarily the case that I think everyone is equally close to the fullness of Christ in their thought or their life, nor because I think that anything goes in the church, or theology.
Even a big tent has boundaries, or it’s not a tent at all.
But, a big tent has space in it for all kinds of people, with all kinds of priorities, from all kinds of places.
My place in the tent.
I come at this from the perspective of a theology PhD student, with a strong passion for contributing to a more interactive relationship between the church and the academy. I think theology matters, and I think experience matters, and I think a deep spirituality matters, and I think history matters. So, I have lots of opinions on lots of topics, and no doubt I think there are a lot of people in the church and in theology who are wrong on lots of issues.
Indeed, I realize that the concept of a big tent Christianity is one that seems to be especially represented by those who would call themselves “progressive” theologians. For those not in the know, this might be considered somewhat similar to the old term “liberal”, though there are distinctions in our contemporary age that make the old “liberal” and “conservative” labels no longer helpful and certainly no longer interesting.
I am not a progressive, either in politics or in theology. At least not how that word is commonly used. I come from a family of Fundamentalists and Evangelicals, and in many ways I continue to embrace the core values of these traditions. I graduated from Wheaton College, and I am pretty sure I could easily, and with integrity, still sign their statement of faith. My quibbles with such ideas like inerrancy vs. infallibility have very little to do with how much I value the authority of the Bible, and are more to do with how I see the doctrine of inerrancy almost always abused to imply that particular Biblical/Theological opinions are themselves inerrant. A particular leader or thinker is seen as the infallible, inerrant interpreter. And this occurs as much in conservative Protestant churches as it does, more officially, in the Catholic church.
My understanding of the doctrine of the church is probably the most progressive aspect of my theology, but it comes out of my very serious commitment to Scripture rather than any spirit of this age. So, even in the ways I am radical, I am radical for very conservative reasons. I’ve said to people in the past that I’m more Fundamentalist than most Fundamentalists, because I am willing to go the direction I see Scripture and the Spirit lead, not simply the direction my traditions or pastors or theologians have insisted on.
Far too much of the church and theology over the last centuries have been reactions against “salvation by works”. But, instead of embracing a holistic gospel, there has been instead a radical turn towards an intellectualized faith.
Far too much of the church has set aside “salvation by works” only to replace it with a “salvation by words.” Whether this is the over-emphasis on a weekly sermon or an exclusive dependence on having the exact approved answers to a slew of increasingly detailed questions, the conservative side of the church has set aside so much of Scriptural insistence on living right, on serving, on holiness in practice, on community. Instead, it has based judgments on salvation on holding to the right opinions on doctrines which Scripture itself either is not clear on, or does not even seem to care about.
But, at the same time, frustration against the conservative church have continued to push men and women towards reactionary stances on questions of theology or ethics. Yet, we are told in Scripture that what we do with our bodies matters. We are told that the actual working of God in this world, in history, is a reality upon which our faith depends. I cannot dismiss key aspects of core teachings simply because it makes me uncomfortable or challenges how I wish the world could be or how I wish God would deal with people.
My conservative stances on a whole lot of theological and political issues put me at odds with a lot of people who are pushing for a big tent Christianity and at odds with a lot of people who are very much against a big tent Christianity.
That’s my location in this overall conversation.
Here’s why I am still a strong believer in a big tent Christianity.
First of all, because as a Christian I am a witness to the Good News of Christ. I am not a bouncer or a gatekeeper. I am a witness to the story that God tells me.
This may not be the exact same story God tells other people.
We see this in Scripture itself. We have the one story of Christ, but we have four Gospels, each of which has unique aspects, priorities, and details. I don’t think the Gospels were ever intended as writings which match our contemporary academic biographies, so I’m not entirely concerned if there are apparent contradictions or disagreements. They are, at their core, telling the story of God’s work, and doing so through four different lenses. We have the story of Christ documented in four forms.
In the Gospels we see that Jesus chose twelve disciples, and of these we can see there were likely conservatives and liberals, as expressed in the politics of the time. We can also see that Jesus knew there was at least one who would actively betray him, and many others who would stumble at the time of great persecution.
He kept them as his disciples, knowing they were coming from different directions, with different pasts and different futures. Each had a different contribution and seemingly a different story to tell. Each also had different ways in which they would fail the Christ they served. They were still his disciples.
And so, I can expect that the story of Christ is still being told in many forms, with different details and priorities and contexts.
This idea of contexts is another reason I value the idea of a big tent Christianity. Even if I attend the same church as another person, we might be coming from different contexts.
We all have gifts, given by the Spirit, and it is the diversity of gifts that allows us to celebrate together as the body. More than rhetorical suggestion that each person has a different way of contributing to a pre-established church service, this is a really radical suggestion that when we participate in the Spirit we do so with very different roles, ideas, suggestions, priorities and opinions.
One of the key issues that I saw when I was last working in a church was how easy, and common, it is for church leaders to generalize their own passions and callings. Everyone is an evangelist or a teacher or… whatever. Everyone is called to door to door ministry or academic study or going to volunteer at a food pantry or… whatever. Whole churches, whole denominations, become formed not by celebration of the wide diversity of the body as a whole, but as conglomerations of many versions of the same kind of part.
And so I am a firm believer in a big tent Christianity because it is only by embracing those who are different in all kinds of different ways that I really even begin seeing the broad work of the Spirit in the church and in this world.
This is the story of Cornelius in the book of Acts. No one thought a Gentile could be part of the church, as a Gentile. He had to become Jewish first, it was assumed, with all the package of beliefs and practices this implied. Only the Spirit disagreed, and Peter’s vision confirmed. Cornelius was part of the church. Peter was not called to make a judgment but to offer an embrace. Even Peter, this first pope, had no authority to say where the Spirit could or could not work. If Peter refused to accept Cornelius, it would have been Peter who was judged–and in that judgment maybe even himself removed from the church.
It is the Spirit who gathers the church, and it is the Spirit who gives gifts for the church. Christ is the head and the Spirit is the breath of the body of Christ. And so in light of this I not only value, but must embrace, the idea of a big tent Christianity that goes well beyond what I think the church should emphasize and includes a fair number of people who I do not particularly agree with and oftentimes may not even like.
Finally–in this sketch at least–I am a believer in a big tent Christianity because I believe the Bible is serious when it talks about unity.
The church has, historically, become so concerned with some forms of heresy that it loses sight of what I think are quite Scriptural priorities. We emphasize theological doctrines on imprecise issues and often times anathematize those who disagree.
Again, a “salvation by words” replaces a salvation by faith alone.
The biggest example of this, for me, has to do with the doctrine of the Lord’s Supper. We are called to share this meal as part of our worship of Christ. But the church has used this event to shatter itself and attack others. Paul brings up the topic in 1 Corinthians to clarify what is being celebrated, not in order to emphasize specific interpretations of what happens when the bread and wine are served, but to emphasize that all who are gathered must see each other as equals, called by Christ, to celebrate Christ, and to celebrate Christ as a gathered, meal-sharing community. If we do not discern the body correctly we are liable to judgment.
That’s why I am a firm believer in a big tent Christianity. Because Paul wasn’t really talking about the piece of bread that represents the body of Christ. He was talking about the body of Christ of the church, that is itself represented in the bread and in the wine.
Who am I to reject or dismiss someone who Christ has called and the Spirit cherishes, simply because I give different answers to what exactly happened when Christ died on the cross or because I think there are different kinds of songs we can sing on a particular day of the week?
So, I echo something that Moltmann has said in various places on a different topic.
I’m not really a believer in big tent Christianity.
But I think God is.
I’m much safer sticking to what God is doing. Certainly much safer than depending that a salvation by words is really what Christ was about in his death and resurrection, or what the Spirit finds important in this era, or in any era.
That’s not to say words aren’t interesting or important. They are. Very much so.
Actions are also important. We are not saved by our words or our works, but our words and our works are part of our testimony, part of our witness of the work of God in and for this world.
We speak and we act because Christ came with proclamation and with power. We have been given the Spirit who gives us words and empowers our actions, so as to be faithful servants to God, in his mission in this world.
I think God calls us to be true disciples, learning about him, discovering his work in this world, participating with the Spirit in many ways as we discover more and more who God is and what God is doing. As we discover these realities we will come to many opinions and in our various contexts we’ll have many different priorities about how to apply these opinions. But, at the same time, I know that God is God and God has his own opinions and priorities about what really matters.
He has showed you, O man, what is good.
And what does the LORD require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
and to walk humbly with your God.