Who Defines the “Big Tent” of Christianity?

  • 14

Who Defines the “Big Tent” of Christianity?

In responding to “Why Big Tent Christianity?” a few days ago, Ian Carmichael worried about my use of the phrase, “To those on the other side…” Ian writes,

I’d have thought that transformation is a key concept in any and every strand of Christianity. Classical evangelicalism, for exam[le would be serious about sanctification – even if struggling with its social consequences – which is transformation. I can’t imagine any Christianity – indeed any religion – which would make a call to us to remain as we are.

Beautifully put. It would have been better for me to say “But to those who oppose ‘big tent Christianity’ and all moves in that direction…”  The day I responded to Ian, the internet was filled with hostile attacks on me and on the Raleigh conference that opens in ten days. There are certainly those who think that emphasizing Christian unity as Brian McLaren and I and the other speakers are doing betrays Christ. They say that we must emphasize the differences in order to judge the many, many people who hold false theologies.

It’s not for me, for anyone, to define the boundaries of the tent. In Raleigh some will join us for whom it’s very uncomfortable to do so, since their colleagues will condemn them for having sold out merely because they are sharing a stage with some of us. I admire their courage and Christian vision.

And let it be said that there are some on the liberal end who will condemn us for meeting together with more conservative Christians rather than challenging their views.

For some of us, the task is to make the invitation nonetheless. No one owns the “big tent” of the church. All who wish may come. Some will stand outside, in their own smaller tents, so that they can condemn the big tent project and many of those who enter in. They focus attention on the boundaries and on who should be excluded. We focus attention on the One whose life and teaching and salvific actions draws us together in the first place. We leave judgement about who is “really” in or out to God.

Ian Carmichael also writes,

The point of my faith needs to be transformation – which needs to be the point of the activity in my ‘small tent’ as well as that of the activity in the ‘big tent’.

This is a great take-home point. It’s what we do in our own home communities that counts in the end. Once in awhile, however, it’s great for us to join together to show the world what a rich community it is that seeks to live in the Way of Jesus.


Ken Silva

August 29, 2010at 1:03 pm

“The day I responded to Ian, the internet was filled with hostile attacks on me and on the Raleigh conference that opens in ten days.”

The Net was “filled with hostile attacks”? Seriously, I hope you’re using hyperbole here.

Joe Carson

August 29, 2010at 1:09 pm

Several years ago, I successfully persuaded the Elie Wiesel Foundation to fund the travel of several Israeli and Palestinian engineers to a major, international conference on water to make a joint presentation of collaborative approaches to water issues (a major stumbling block to drawing the “2-state” boundaries).

My argument boiled down to “if an Israeli engineer and Palestinian engineer meet by Sea of Galilee and start talking about religion, politicis or history, it is likely an adversarial encounter. But if they meet as engineers about water issues, they should be on same side of table, referring to a common body of knowledge and common code of ethics in applying that knowledge. In fact, they may both belong to ASCE, Intl’ (used to be American Society of Civil Engineers, now just the initials reflecting its increasing global reach and membership), which is probably the only organization based on democratic values with an objective of advancing the good of the profession and the common good to which they could jointly belong.

I was later told their joint session was a highlight of the conference for many attendees.

My point for Big Tent Christianity is that if we focus on our divided, conflicted history, doctrinal distinctives, or sexuality issues, little will likely be accomplished vis-a-vis “transforming christian theology for church and society.”

On the other hand, if the focus is on accepting and moving forward with the John Cobb Challenge and/or “Everything Must Change,” then there is a compelling reason for a Big Tent Christianity – the transcendent challenges cannot be effectively addressed without it (acknowledging there is no guarantee they will be effectively addressed with it).

So Philip and Brian – I know I am preaching to the choir(masters!) – but I just do not perceive this compelling reason for “Big Tent Christianity” being stressed as it ought. Why Big Tent Christianity – because we have a Big Tent mission of working with God for the salvation of the world, informed by facts on ground in 2010.

Philip Clayton

August 29, 2010at 4:04 pm

Ken: yes, that was hyperbole.

Joe: that is a brilliant exhortation. I will forward it to Brian (McLaren) and we will talk about it as we plan future events.

I do however think that raising the “big tent” question can play a positive role. For example, it might lead Ken Silva and me to talk about Chritian theology and agree on some core features of Christian discipleship. It might encourage more denominational leaders to be visionary in their leadership and to work toward the long-term good of the Church as a whole. And it can remind many of us that our pet projects and concerns are not all that the Spirit is doing in the world today.

— Philip

Who Defines the…

August 29, 2010at 7:13 pm

[…] Original post: Who Defines the… […]

Joe Carson

August 29, 2010at 9:57 pm

I appreciate your consideration of my viewpoint. I was raised Catholic, went to 12 years of Catholic school (okay, 4 were in a Jesuit HS!) I recall your podcast with Harvey Cox, earlier this year, discussing your exposure to Catholicm in your youth.

I am old enough to recall being told Protestants were damned by Catholic priests and sisters, pre Vatican II.

John Cobb’s book “reclaiming Christianity” discussed the huge strides that have been taken in past 100 years to end the mutual antipathy/suspicion among major strands of Christianity (pages 81-82).

I do not perceive the left/right in American christianity questioning/disparaging each other’s salvation or status as a Christian. I perceive the issues to result from different priorities in evaluating our culture. You know better than I that controversy sells – lots of people go to a particular church as a statement against the policies of other churches – the issues that cause “little tents” are useful to keeping those little tents existing, instead of the littler tents they would otherwise be.

Brian McLaren’s book “generous orthodoxy” identified 7 types of Christian with whom Brian identifies and appreciates. My perception is that a significant number of these groups (Catholic, Orthodox, Quaker, Anabaptist, please correct me if I am wrong) are not going to be formally represented at Big Tent Christianity, if so, one might question accuracy of term “Big Tent Christianity” – it seems to reduce to mainline/evangelical and the major issue is status of homosexuals in marriage and ordination.

I think this issue is largely a red herring, used to dissipate attention from more significant, if less “sexy,” issues regarding our stewardship for planet earth. Big Tent Christianity is, across the spectrum of Christianity, in a real sense largely accomplished – we are not questioning each others authencity as Chritians as we were 50 or 100 years ago.

But Churches, as Christianity as a whole, are less relevant to our individual and common lives – that is, as you know better than I, more the cause of decline in churches than the relatively minor disputes between them.

As I see it, whether active gays get preferential treatment in churches or are banned by them just is not that relevant to the real reasons chuches are declining in influence and membership -their messages are just not that relevant and their role in society is just not central compared to years past.

Again, I appreciate your consideration of my point of view and look forward to seeing you again at BTX.

Philip Clayton

August 30, 2010at 12:18 am

Joe, you draw attention to broader issues. Like Ian, you don’t think that “big tent” as such is the issue. To you, the big tent question is “in a real sense largely accomplished.”

I do think that both Protestants and Catholics are struggling deeply with internal conflicts that make it unclear, at least to the broader society, that it’s the same One whom we’re trying to follow. The Big Tent movement is a way, then, to help turn people’s attention beyond the causes that *they* care most about, and back to the common priorities that all disciples of Jesus have in common.

— Philip

Ken Silva

August 30, 2010at 11:35 am

“Protestants and Catholics are struggling deeply with internal conflicts…it’s the same One whom we’re trying to follow….

The Big Tent movement is a way, then, to help turn people’s attention…back to the common priorities that all disciples of Jesus have in common.”

Philip, whatever we may “have in common” is negated because we don’t preach the same Gospel (see-Gal. 1:6-9). The Church of Rome anathematized the Gospel itself, and it cannot change unless it admits it’s popes were in error doctrinally.

And that’s as likely to happen as me being named as the next teaching pastor at Mars Hill Bible Church.

joe carson

August 30, 2010at 2:10 pm

Millard Fuller talked about “theology of hammer” as a pratical way to bring Christians of various traditions into a common cause in building habitat houses.

I know the Executive Director of Compassion Coalition and the editors of its third edition, 450 page “salt and light” handbook – which is certainly a tangible outworking of “big tent Christianity” in Knoxville area (this handbook, in my opinion, does a excellent job of connecting the dots of theology to the purposes of the many ministries described in the handbook).

On the other hand, how many regular pew-sitters are regularly interacting in an egalitarian way with Christians of other traditions about common issues in which the Wesleyan Quadilateral can be employed as a heuristic? My perception is “not too many.” If this were more common, I think “Big Tent Christianity” would be more the rule.

In part this may be because there are few faith-based membership organizations intended to attract members from the various strands of Christianity in which the “members” actually have a direct role in organization’s polity and the organization exists, at least in part, to facilitate their individual/collective discipleship in some corner of God’s kingdom.

Examples of such organizations are profesional affinity groups, such as Christian Legal Society, but to my experience such groups eschew being a vehicle for collective discipleship – i.e. collective influence -in their respective professions/vocations.

My other observation is that churches do not generally encourage their members to give time to anything but their programs. I am not saying they discourage it, but the “zero sum thinking” of churches and ministries – if one of our members gets involved with an interfaith group, he/she will have less time/money to give our church and its programming – is, in my experience, more the rule than exception.

So, where to start – with theory about Big Tent Christianity or finding ways/organizations in which regular Christians are currently demonstrating various aspects of discipleship in “big tent settings” – and build on them?

As you know, I have been trying – for years – to recruit one or a few “card-carrying member” of Theological guild to help develop a theology/praxis of engineering that specifically addresses “Should Christians engineers be, to any extent, an intentional, collective, salt and light influence in their significantly self-regulating profession of engineering?”

I *finally* took a page out of “theology after google” and placed an ad on craigslist for such a theologian! We’ll see.

But my hope – an Affiliation of Christian Engineers with 500,000+ members worldwide, representing all strands of Christianity, with various purposes, including being a vehicle to try to ascertain and advance God’s will on earth in and through the engineering profession and its Christian members, certainly presumes “big tent Christianity.”

Benjamin J. Chicka

August 30, 2010at 6:58 pm

Philip, I assume this will receive much attention at the conference, but what is the true emphasis of this conference? Individuals such as you, myself, and Wesley Wildman, for example, can all recognize a shared use of pragmatism, largely Charles S. Peirce, in our method of inquiry. However, we all reach different conclusions, and such conclusions, albeit fallible, would presumably be more important than method (a method producing nothing is not much of a method). Nonetheless, I agree with many of your collaborators that affirming gay rights and religious pluralism is necessary today, despite that fact that we do so out of different theological conclusions. If the method is under the tent, everyone leaves the tent in the end. If the conclusions are supposed to be under the tent, there is no shared tent as most are providing their own. Thus, we have a paradox. Nonetheless, there is clearly room for shared action, which I hope is given room for elaboration at the conference.

Philip Clayton

August 30, 2010at 11:01 pm

Ben, good formulation of the paradox. You share with other respondents, including Ian Carmichael, the sense that it’s the shared action that really counts. It’s not Big Tent but what we do with it that matters…


September 2, 2010at 2:59 pm

I want to preface this by saying that I was originally someone who questioned the Big Tent project initially, and have become quite fond of the idea throughout the series of posts about it in the last little while.

I still have a couple of lingering questions about it, however.
Firstly, if we are able to get Spong and Robertson to agree on one single thing i.e. disipleship to Jesus, doesn’t it do an injustice to everything they don’t agree on if we overly emphasize the one point of agreement (which we have to coach in such general terms to avoid losing either of the two). I don’t want to retreat to a creed, but is there any value in trying to formulate a shared vision that at least touches on some sort of metaphysical/philsophical view that a large majority of us can agree on?

Secondly, I’m not sure if I want to associate with someone like Fred Phelps, who we are presumably inviting into the tent. It’s not the conservative view I am troubled with, but his attitude to certain groups of people seem very un-christian to me.

Finally, more positively, I would say that the whole project has challenged me to let go of some prejudices against the more conservative wing of the Christianity. As I have progressed through my personal journey, I have had to “liberalize” and let go of some earlier doctrines in order to stay within the faith, which has led me to draw away from those who I could no longer agree fully with. I am trying now to emphasize our agreements, in the spirit of the “Big Tent”. Definitely looking forward to see what comes out of the Conference.

Ian Carmichael

September 3, 2010at 12:14 am

Hi Alex,
I can share your hesitations to some degree, but surely one point of big tent, indeed small tent, is the existence of a ‘mixed multitude’ with varied understandings. maturity, renewed understandings etc. After all, even Peter needed some work, as did Mark, as did Apollos… (It’s a bit more of a challenge if leaders are askew, but we’re not on this journey because we’ve personally qualified through some spiritual SAT. If we’re qualified, isn’t it with the qualifications of Jesus – and as ourselves we’re still pretty dilapidated?

Philip Clayton

September 3, 2010at 1:58 am

Great comments. I especially want to underscore what Alex says … and more importantly, what he’s doing. Maybe we won’t get Pat Robertson and Bishop John Shelby Spong on the same stage in Raleigh next week. But if it helps some of us who are not at the extreme Right or extreme Left to open up to the others in the (metaphorical) tent of the church, that is already a major step forward….

Ginny Bain Allen

September 7, 2010at 2:27 pm

The heart of Christianity is the Gospel, which means “good news.” All of the Bible, from beginning to end, is a story and explanation of what went wrong with the human race and what God has done to rectify or “redeem” it. Jesus Christ came into our world as Redeemer of mankind.

The story begins in Genesis with God ultimate and eternal, the creator of the universe and of mankind, given the noblest existence because made in His very likeness – given eternal souls from which arise wonder, reflection on our destiny, love for others, and thanksgiving to our Maker. We were made for fellowship with Him and joyful service which glorifies Him.

But, as the story unfolds and our human experience tragically confirms, all of humanity willfully rejected God, opting instead to make its own independent decisions and to follow its own misguided instincts. The Bible calls this waywardness “sin,” “missing the mark.” In consequence, we have not done well. Even though by God’s undeserved endowments we have made technological advancements, broken relationships, injustice, selfishness, anxiety, illness and death still fill our world. Worse yet, we remain unavoidably account-able to God; each of us must one day stand before our benevolent but holy Creator to answer for our failures and neglect.

The “good news” is the gift of Jesus Christ, the God who is Man, and His redeeming work. The Gospel is not merely a higher morality nor is Jesus primarily a model for you to emulate. The news is truly “good” because of what Jesus accomplished for you. As man, He fulfilled your obligation to live a perfect, sinless life, and then He offered His life as a sacrifice for you, suffering the righteous justice of God against your sin by being condemned on a cross in your place.

So what can you do? The blunt truth is that neither your own virtues nor accomplishments can undo your past broken record nor change your wayward heart. Your “goodness” isn’t good enough nor can you summons the kind of power to change the affections of your heart. You need forgiveness based on a righteousness outside of yourself (found in Jesus), and a radical change of orientation that only God is mighty enough to cause.

Such a new status and ability God offers you through His Son, Jesus Christ, risen from the dead and reigning in heaven. Like a Christmas or birthday gift, you have no part in its purchase but can only receive and open the gift to benefit. Salvation is “by grace alone thru faith alone in Christ alone.” Your only act is to confess your sin and want to forsake it, and to put your trust in Christ. Jesus said it is like the end of yourself and being born anew (John 3). God will count your sins as fully discharged in His Son’s death, and His perfect righteousness as your very own because you are now “in Christ.”

The one who is “in Christ” belongs to Christ forever. He who rose from the dead, and governs all will take care of you in this life and in the life to come. He wants to place you in fellowship with other believers, where you can follow Him, love and learn from Him, rejoice in Him, and serve Him with joy!

Leave a Reply

EcoCiv’s Tweets