The Case for ‘Big Tent’ Christianity

The Case for ‘Big Tent’ Christianity

A number of years ago, when I was still a pastor on staff at a church, the denomination our church was associated with underwent a process by which the unifying statement of faith was amended. 

As you might imagine, this process was lengthy and at times quite contentious, spanning a few years and involving numerous in-depth theological debates. 

At the end of the day, the goal was to change only one word in the statement of faith. But by changing this one word, the denomination would widen the range of acceptable views on a particular eschatological question.

The change wouldn’t allow for the inclusion of anyone who was not an orthodox Christian, but many were concerned that the denomination was giving up on an important theological distinctive that had previously shaped part of its identity.

At the heart of the debate was whether the denomination would seek to create a “big tent” movement for the sake of Christian mission, or if it would instead emphasize theological alignment for the sake of doctrinal purity. 

During the period of time when debates within the denomination were raging on a national scale, I ran into a pastor who served at a church within the same denomination. While we were chatting, I asked him what he thought about the change. 

In response, he asked me, “Well, do you think that amillennialists can get into heaven?”

Of course they can. It’s an orthodox Christian view, even if it represents the minority view within the denomination. 

The pastor then asked a followup question of the rhetorical variety: “Then why would we make it more difficult to become a member of our churches than it is to get into heaven?”

Years later, his words have stuck with me. The more time that passes, the more deeply I understand the wisdom of striving to create a “big tent” Christian movement. 

We live in a time marked by division and tribalism. And while many within the evangelical movement have been vocally critical of the cancel culture of the political left, we have to admit that conservative Christians can cancel folks with the best of them. 

As the nation becomes increasingly polarized, high profile leaders and influencers are apparently being forced to take their stand on increasingly extreme, narrow, and sometimes bizarre points of distinction, lest they be cast out from their particular tribe. This is the case in both political and theological spaces. 

Unfortunately, this mentality pervades many of our churches. Somehow, we believe that unless another Christian is fully aligned with us down to every detail of every theological opinion, then they are our enemy. In this world, it’s us and them. And if they aren’t fully one of us, then they must be one of them. 

The only problem is that when it comes to the church, there is no us and them. There is only us. We ought not to count as enemies people with whom we will spend eternity. 

This is the vision that Jesus cast for his followers from the very beginning—a vision for unity. A vision for a “big tent.” 

On the night he was to be betrayed, this is what Jesus prayed over his disciples:

I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. (John 17:20-21)

Nowhere in his prayer did Jesus ask the Father to grant the church doctrinal purity or theological and political alignment. Instead, he asked for unity amid the diversity represented at the table. 

After all, few tables other than one where Jesus sat at the head could feature a tax collector like Matthew alongside Simon the Zealot. One had been in bed with the empire. The other was part of a movement of political agitation against that same empire. Yet they were meant to be one, just as Jesus and the Father are one. 

Jesus apparently had very little compunction about creating a “big tent” movement in his name. 

On one occasion, some of the twelve encountered a man they didn’t know but who was casting out demons in Jesus’ name. John informed Jesus, “We saw someone driving out demons in your name and we told him to stop, because he was not one of us” (Mark 9:38).

He and the other disciples were no doubt surprised by Jesus’ response. So would many of us be today if Jesus came and told us something similar. 

“Do not stop him,” Jesus said. “For no one who does a miracle in my name can in the next moment say anything bad about me, for whoever is not against us is for us. Truly I tell you, anyone who gives you a cup of water in my name because you belong to the Messiah will certainly not lose their reward.” (Mark 9:39-41)

Certainly, a measure of doctrinal purity was not unimportant to Jesus. In this very same conversation, he went on to warn his disciples about the stern judgment that awaits anyone who teaches or does something that causes someone else to sin or walk away from faith. It’s just that the primary focus of Jesus’ ministry wasn’t on who he was keeping out so much as it was who he was inviting in.

Years later, Jesus’ brother James put it this way: “We should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God” (Acts 15:19).

Centuries after that, Christian theologians would put it this way: “In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, and in all things charity.”

The goal has always been a big tent. As in, the biggest tent you can think of—every tribe, tongue, people, and nation. All of them with a million different views on a million different things, but all of them made one, just as Jesus and the Father are one. 

Regardless of your political affiliation, or your views on Calvinism, mode of baptism, the nature of communion, the age of the earth, spiritual gifts, eschatology, or any other secondary issue on which we can disagree, we are still on the same team. 

Now, this doesn’t necessarily mean that we all must occupy the same pews. When it comes to certain convictions, such as the role of women in church leadership, mode of baptism, or even perhaps the exercise of the charismatic gifts of the Spirit, it is simply impossible from an organizational standpoint to “both sides” every theological debate. 

This was certainly the case for the apostle Paul, who at one point needed to part ways with his close friend and ministry partner Barnabas after the two could not come to an agreement on how to handle John Mark, who had previously abandoned the team while on a missionary journey. (See Acts 15:36-41.)

But the fact that we don’t all occupy the same pews does not mean that we have ceased to be on the same mission. 

This also isn’t to say that secondary issues are unimportant. Indeed, how you land on any number of these issues has deeply practical implications for how you live out your faith on a daily basis, what your church teaches from the pulpit, and even how your congregation structures itself. 

Further, there are certain theological stances and practices to which other Christians hold that I believe are not only wrong but also problematic and, at times, harmful. I have been vocal about that in the past, and I will continue to be in the future. And most certainly, we should never stand for the systemic sins that exist within the evangelical movement.

Nevertheless, these seemingly opposing realities are not irreconcilable. Our goal isn’t a fragile coalition that can only continue to exist so long as we keep most of our actual thoughts and convictions to ourselves. Instead, the goal is an unwavering commitment to love one another, even and especially in the places where we have the sharpest disagreements. 

Extending the right hand of fellowship to another believer isn’t a tacit endorsement of every detail of their theology or conduct. It’s just basic Christian behavior. 

This kind of love doesn’t make any sense to the world. But it should make all the sense in the world to us. It is this kind of love that defines us. It’s how the world will know that we are disciples of Jesus. So instead of engaging in an endless battle for doctrinal purity, may we embrace the mess of a big tent, striving to love one another and to bring that love to the world.