Why “Big Tent Christianity’s” Tent Wasn’t Big Enough.

We are going to talk about stuff that we think is more important than the stuff you think is most important.  And we’d love your input, as long as you don’t talk about that other stuff.

That’s why no theological conservatives accepted the invitation to come and speak at “Big Tent Christianity” here in Raleigh this week.  It had nothing to do with job security, or being seen in public with gay people, or aligning with Brian McLaren, for the vast majority of folks.  But we appreciate the condescension.  Poor theological conservatives.  Can’t come out and play, because their congregations won’t let them.

Among progressive Christians like McLaren, there is such a false sense of what we on the other side of the disagreement are thinking.  There is the assumption that we can’t talk about issues for fear of losing jobs or support.  While I am sure that situation exists for some, the vast majority of urban or suburban pastors who lead theologically conservative congregations have no trouble talking about the issues publicly, and would love a chance to really dialogue with people who disagree.

But that’s not what this conference was.

“Big Tent Christianity” was for folks who want to move on from the disagreements.  (having decided that their side of the disagreement is correct)  Here’s a quote from their website:

But many of the old battlelines no longer speak to Christians today, especially to the youth. Indeed, our divisions are driving some folks away from the church altogether.

So, let’s stop talking about things that divide us, because that’s what the kids want.

We’d love to talk about the “non-devisive” issues that progressives want to talk about like injustice, poverty, and human trafficking.  The problem is that we literally can’t talk about those issues without talking about a really divisive issue: the gospel.

Christians who believe that they are wicked sinners saved by the (historical) brutal, sacrificial death, burial, and resurrection of a real person never move past that issue.  We can’t.  We believe that it really happened.  We believe that the Scriptures are true, inerrant, and our highest authority.  Our life makes no sense if Jesus’ bones were discovered tomorrow.  It’s not a motivational book that we read to feel good about ourselves.  It’s God’s word to his people.  And it is always allowed to and welcomed to contradict us.  We are wrong, scripture is right.  Even when it doesn’t line up with our political cause, or cultural biases.

And we think that the gospel, as described in that last paragraph, is the only way to end poverty, human trafficking, and injustice.  You can’t separate the two issues, in our mind.  Our biggest issue, the issue that we can’t get past, is the solution to all of the other issues.  And it all hinges on how we read our Bibles.

As I’ve written before, I don’t feel like any effort is being made to really engage those of us who are theologically conservative but sensible.  It is really easy to engage and discount those lunatics like Fred Phelps and Qur’an burning idiots that are conservative.  Sure, there are folks out there who daily misuse scripture to be bigoted and racist and sexist.  There are folks who assume that to be conservative theologically is to be conservative politically, without regard to each individual issue, as though Jesus were Republican.  There are folks who abuse scripture to subjugate others and justify all sorts of wickedness.  I’m not defending those people.  But what about those of us who readily join the progressives in disgust over guys like Fred Phelps, are working toward peace and justice in the world, and also hold to an inerrant Bible?  They’ve yet to agree that we even exist, or are sensible.

We’d love to dialogue.  We’d love to pitch a tent big enough for all of us to get under.  And we’ll even agree to talk about the issues that are biggest in your mind.  But you have to agree to return the favor.

22 Replies to “Why “Big Tent Christianity’s” Tent Wasn’t Big Enough.”

  1. I have a lot of thoughts on this (obviously), and I’m working on a few blog posts to summarize my experience at BTX that should shed a little more light on the event.

    But I do want to say here two things:

    1) The lack of diversity in speakers was not desired by anyone present, and the idea that our “tent” wasn’t big enough at this event was repeatedly brought up by presenters and participants alike. The question of how to get everyone in the tent together without excluding someone was significant (when we allow LGBT clergy to enter the tent, fundamentalists are excluded, etc.).

    2) It IS true that for many evangelicals and conservatives, coming to an event like this is professional suicide. Brian and Tony both cited ministry friends (to remain nameless for that very reason) who will engage with them privately but confess they can never associate themselves publicly. Many of the presenters expressed that they had been shunned by their own churches or denominations for engaging in these kinds of conversations.

    I encourage you to listen to some of the conversations when they are posted online to get a better idea of what the event was really about.

    You’re definitely right — that conference’s “tent” wasn’t big enough — but it wasn’t for lack of trying.

    1. I definitely will listen to some of the talks (er… conversations), if you send me where they are posted.

      as to point 1–it doesn’t exclude fundamentalists to bring in LGBT clergy into the tent. It excludes fundamentalists to make them abandon their fundamentals in order to enter. And one of the conservative fundamentals is calling all people to repentance. Also, everyone’s a fundamentalist. It’s just different fundamentals. The fundamentals of the conference organizers seemed to be “you have to lay aside these corollary issues like scriptural authority in order to join the conversation.” And we don’t think it’s a corollary issue. It’s a fundamental.

      as to point 2–the undertone to that whole comment is that we conservatives, if we are honest, all actually agree with McLaren. But the money is just too good over here. And that’s condescending. We are perfectly willing to openly discuss these issues (gender issues, racism, poverty, ecclesiology, etc). We are just unwilling to brush fundamental things under the rug in the name of “unity.” But again the progressive side has framed it as “we tried to get you to come and talk, but you wouldn’t!” We’re talking.

      But, like a vegetarian asked to comment on her favorite brand of hot dog, we’re wise enough to stay out of a conversation that has been rigged against us.

      1. I’m afraid I see you doing a lot more (or at least as much) stereotyping of Emergence Christianity’s willingness to dialogue as you feel is being done to your side of things. I don’t think that anyone thinks conservatives secretly agree with McLaren. I agree that our fundamentals (I’d call it more foundationalism than fundamentalism) are different, but why does that have to exclude us from dialogue from one another about the practical issues that stem from our shared love of God?

        1. I agree, the word fundamentalist is loaded. I agree to not use it about you and your fundamentals if you agree not to use it about me and mine. 🙂

          How am I stereotyping? (honest question, not being asked defensively… I’m sure I’m doing it to a certain extent, but I just want to know what exactly you mean)

          I never said having a different foundation has to exclude us from dialoging about the issues. In fact, I think I meant to say just the opposite. I’d love to have an honest discussion about the issues. But like in any conversation, we have to compare things apples to apples. And my foundation is that the Bible is the authoritative, inerrant word of God and that only by the Scriptures and the very words of God are we ever going to be able to even begin the discussion. Do you see how that precludes having what, by your estimation, would be a good conversation?

          The exclusivity claims that Christ made repeatedly in the scriptures make for a rough conversation. If we are going to come to a consensus about how the church ought to deal with poverty issues, for example, we’ll have to first decide that Scripture gets the final say, like Christians have done for millennia. It has almost always been the objective standard by which doctrine and worldview have been judged by Christians. It’s the truly “big tent” under which we’ve all lived, like a big dysfunctional family. We’ve always had God’s word to help with the dysfunction, though.

          1. What you see as “fundamentals” and “undertones” seem to me to be assumptions and stereotypes based on your previous interaction with/personal reading of these people rather than finding out what is actually happening at this particular event, or in these communities.

            And honestly, anytime we have begun to “dialogue” about issues such as Biblical inerrancy, you have no intention of hearing where my point of view comes from. Why? Because you already know.

            In the same way, because most of them lived it for many years in ministry, leaders like Jones and McLaren know where you’re coming from. They know why you believe what you believe. They just disagree with it.

            I don’t see re-hashing things like inerrancy being helpful in this forum. I do see coming together from different points of view and discussing the same issues and how they practically matter in the world to be helpful.

            No matter how long we dialogue about our foundations (inerrancy, the crucifixion and resurrection, etc.), neither of us intends to change our position. We both KNOW we’re right because we’ve struggled with these concepts!

            So I see dialogue not having to do with arguing over foundations/fundamentals/whatever you want to call them, but to discuss how we can all be the church in the world, diverse, together. THAT is what the Big Tent is supposed to be about.

            So, the real question is, what would you have done differently?

  2. Ben,

    I agree with a lot of what you’ve written here, and I disagree with some of it too. (Typical, right?) I am someone who was forced out of a ministry position for my embrace of LGBT Christian brothers and sisters and for my general alignment with emergent friends. So that’s real, that’s my story and I could tell you other stories like that.

    I think you probably know that and acknowledge that. Your point was more to do with how this particular conference was organized and the real reasons why more conservative voices did not participate. I think you’re right, and I think this would’ve been a different event if Philip Clayton were organizing this with Pat Robertson or John Piper or someone like that. It really needed to be a partnership between a progressive/liberal leader and a conservative/fundamentalist leader from the start if there was ever any hope of it drawing participation from both sides (and all points on the spectrum in-between – where the majority of us really live, I think).

    I’m just really glad to hear that there are conservatives like yourself out there who are interested in dialoguing about the things that matter to both of us — and willing to discuss our disagreements without being disagreeable. You’ll be encouraged to know that many (though I’m sure not all) of the speakers at #BigTentX professed a strong faith in the bodily resurrection of Jesus, that Scripture is very important and central to their lives and witness, etc. We really do have more in common than we have differences about. Both are equally important, so let’s not lose sight of either one, because they are what bind us together and yet make us unique at the same time.

    Blessings, bro,
    Steve K.

  3. Ben, I hear what you’re saying. I am guilty of discounting conservatives. It’s so easy to do when the media focuses on people like Phelps and Jones (Terry, not Tony) and ignores any voice of reason from the right side of the aisle. But, you have to admit, you’re doing a bit of that yourself. I would suspect that, of the people gathered at Big Tent, the vast majority of us believe the resurrection is real, that the gospel is our marching orders and that without Jesus we would be hopelessly lost. We might not all fall into line on the total depravity thing, but the rest of it, yeah. We’re not all heretics, you know.
    The other day, I said in a blog post that Big Tent was about “reuniting the Church (Universal), ending all the bickering and getting the hell back to what we’re supposed to be doing: being the Church.” To do that we need to put aside all our reservations, stop pointing fingers at each other and start talking. I know I’d love that.

  4. “Our life makes no sense if Jesus’ bones were discovered tomorrow. ”

    Really? So does this mean that you have not experienced or felt the real Presence of Christ in your life or others? You have not witnessed the transformation of someone’s life through the powerful Love of Christ? You have not witnessed a hungry homeless person being fed and sheltered in the name of Christ? You have not seen a teen-age prostitute rescued/saved from the street in the name of Christ to start a new life? You have not seen an alcoholic break the bonds of his addiction through the power of Christ? If you had, how could finding a pile of bones suddenly take the REALNESS of all that away?

    1. Yeah, really.

      The power I’ve experienced was not just “in the name of Christ.” It was Christ, and him resurrected. Like Paul said, if Jesus hasn’t bodily resurrected, we are of all people most to be pitied. It all hinges on a historical reality.

      If I have felt all the power and realness of Christ in my life, but he is actually not sacrificed for my sin, I’m lost.

      If someone just became a nicer person, and didn’t experience cleansing from their sin by the real shed blood of Jesus, they are lost.

      If a hungry homeless person only filled their belly but didn’t have their rebellious heart repaired by the very real atonement of Christ as witnessed to by His resurrection and ascension, they are lost!

      If a prostitute just closes his legs but doesn’t receive the gift of the Holy Spirit by virtue of the ascension of Jesus to God’s right hand, he’s still lost!

      All of the beauty of the cross is horrific brutality if we didn’t need saving from our sin. And if he didn’t actually rise from the dead, it is just superstition and lunacy.

      Thanks for stopping by. Melissa knows lots of folks!

  5. I was at Big Tent, and I would say that some of your critique rings true, and some of it does not. On the inerrancy question, I really think you are stereotyping others in exactly the way that you (quite rightly, in many instances) say liberals stereotype conservatives. The options aren’t inerrancy or “the Bible is a motivational book that we read to feel good about ourselves”. Not even super far-left (IMHO heretics) like Bishop Spong would say that, I think. Still less those of us who have a high view of Scripture, but who are concerned about potential idolatry on the part of some, and who see the human fingerprints on the Bible as evidence for its divine origin (much like Jesus was truly human and truly God), not as problems to be denied.

    I think your definition of the atonement unnecessarily limited. There are lots of thoroughly biblical ways of understanding HOW Jesus saves us, penal substitution being only one of these (others being things like Christus Victor, recapitulation, moral example, etc.). Some folks reject penal substitution based on their understanding of Jesus’ own ethics. I prefer to keep them all in tension and conversation. But I hope you can see, even when folks reject something central to large segments of the church, they are trying to be more faithful, not less. They may well be wrong, but wrong and rebellious are very different things.

    My hope for this kind of dialogue would be that we don’t make agreement, even on very central matters (and I agree, the bodily resurrection is absolutely central) a prerequisite to dialogue. There were probably plenty of people at Big Tent whose view of Scripture, say, or the divinity of Christ, you and I would both find insufficient, or who advocate sexual ethics we would both find problematic. But, for me at least, the conservative part of the church has just as many things I cannot agree on; the role of women, how to integrate science and faith, or whether Christians are called to nonviolence.

    I won’t cut myself off from either side, nor make them sign off on a list of positions before I break bread with them. So yeah, this event might have been a little too much “Big Tent”, not quite enough “Christianity”. But at least it made an effort, which is really the only place to start.

    1. Agreed on many points. Thanks for a well-reasoned response, and taking the time to write it.

      I get really uncomfortable with “holding things in tension” at times, though, because where is the line between holding it in tension and allowing false teaching to be treated as plausible alternatives? As an example, Atonement as “moral example” is completely antithetical to (my understanding of) the gospel. The gospel says we can’t do it, and that Jesus Paid it All. “Moral example” says Jesus shows us how to do it ourselves. So, Jesus didn’t pay any of it. How would I hold in tension those two realities? How would I engage in a meaningful conversation with someone who holds a “moral example” position? I know, how very modern of me, that things cant be in contradiction and still both right.

      it’s a difference in worldview, I think. For you (and this is speculative, I don’t know you…) the highest priority is the tension, or the conversation. The postmodern, academic tendency is to see the end goal being everyone getting along, and having a conversation. I think that’s because there’s an assumption that in all of us gathering around a table and talking, we’ll see that we are not all that different, and we’ll be able to come to a consensus regarding these big questions, or if not, we will value the fact that at least we are at the table having a conversation. (the highest priority is the conversation, not the big issues) You’d rather everyone be agreeable, and at the table.

      My highest priority is not the conversation. Sure, I’ll be cordial (I have “conversation” higher up the priority list than, say, Jerry Falwell did), but it is far more important to me that people be told the real situation (this goes back again to my penal substitutionary atonement views). Because if I’m right about the cross and the empty tomb, then all the conversation in the world won’t matter.

      If I’m right about the basic nature of humanity, people will still fly planes into buildings and picket funerals, because they are sinful, and no amount of getting together and talking about it will make us less sinful. Until the sin has been dealt with, paid for, why talk about anything else? Of course people who have a lot aren’t going to give it to people who have a little, they are sinful! So poverty won’t be fixed by talking about it, it will be fixed by people receiving the immeasurable gift of Jesus, and then responding by giving away their possessions to those who have need.

      Does that make sense? How would you suggest I get around my view of the atonement so as to be able to engage in the conversation?

      1. I don’t see moral example as in any way denying the complete efficacy of Jesus’ sacrifice. We are called to imitate Jesus, especially in his death. Now obviously we can only do that by the power of the Spirit, and because of what he accomplished. Now, do some end up advocate something like salvation-by-works? Yes. But some penal substitutionary folks can end up advocating something like a Christianity with no discipleship. But if there’s room for both Paul and James in the Scriptures, there’s room for both these important concepts when we think about the cross, which is surely so transcendent that none of our ideas will truly grasp what happened there.

        If we only listen to those who already think what we think about the atonement, say, we’ll miss important dimensions of what God did. We’ll miss important biblical images that our theories can sometimes blind us to. Conceiving of sin in economic terms, for instance, is just one of many biblical descriptions. Sometimes sin is debt, but sometimes it is disease, or sleep, or confusion, or an enemy that holds us captive.

        I believe in the conversation because I believe God is at work in more than just my life, and I’ll get more of him by attending to what he is saying to others. Does that mean I swallow what everyone says wholesale? No. Does that mean no one is wrong and anything is valid? Of course not. Are there times when you discover very real and unbridgeable differences, and you jute have to wish them well and walk away? Sure. But I would contend the list of non-negotiables is pretty short, and even then that has nothing to do with showing hospitality and grace to everyone.

        1. Then you aren’t talking specifically about the atonement when you say moral example. When I say atonement, I mean the efficacy of Jesus’ sacrifice. I don’t mean the sanctification process or the fruit of the atonement. Atonement (as I am using the word) means how we are made right with God. It’s either by Jesus’ work or by ours. Moral example has no part in the atonement, but is useful in other ways, biblically.

          I totally agree with you when you say there is room for debate about the issues, and there is a complexity of interpretation. Obviously we’ll never fully grasp what happened at the cross. But unless we can agree that it actually happened (and was fundamentally a real sacrifice for sin, hence we’re back at penal substitution), how can we plumb the depths of it together, in conversation? The emergent side of the conversation wants me to suspend my take on whether it actually happened or mattered, and get together and talk about other issues. If it didn’t actually happen, my whole worldview falls apart, and the last thing I’ll want to do is talk about something else.

  6. I agree with Ben, and with the scripture.

    Big Tent X, on its face, does not. Just like C21 did not. It seems, from a Scriptural perspective, that this conversation is not about Christianity in any sense of the Word, rather, it is a conversation (as Phyllis Tickle has said) about Sola Scriptura coming to an end. It is a conversation about how far away we can run from what the word teaches us, even how much we can twist the Word to our own liking.

    The acceptance of female preachers, divorced/adulterous leaders, and GLBT participants and ‘pastors’ is a slap in the face towards God at best and rebellious towards God at worst. Nadia Bolz-Webbers’ foul mouth has no place on a person of God. Peter Rollins’ description of the Word of God has no place in a Christ-centered conference. Brian McLaren’s acceptance of the ‘other’ (see pagan religious followers) is not Christianity. Jay Bakker’s acceptance of all sorts of sin in the church earns him the title ‘outlaw’. I would love to discuss this with each of them personally, or even in a conference setting. But Jones and Pagitt are not up to the challenge, rather they threaten arrest of those who would disagree. Emergents/Progressives do not want conversation, they want a monologue with people parroting their thoughts back.

    The tent is an exclusive tent, indeed. If you believe the Word of God is inspired – all of it- you have no seat at the table.

    1. Thanks for the comment, John. I fear that the reason those guys won’t have a conversation with you is that it doesn’t appear that you care about them at all. Your words reek of loveless religion. While I agree with all of the facts, I fear you have become a sounding gong. I say this having read your twitter feed over the past couple of days. In contending for truth, you can’t forget that people also deserve the same amount of grace you’ve been given.

  7. Well, Ben, that is just not true.

    I was just as filthy and serving a false Christ that I believed I could live any way that I wanted to. My beliefs were reinforced by the church I grew up in, the Episcopal church. My religion got in the way of me being saved.

    I have much love and compassion for people who are trapped in the false teachings of progressive/liberal/emergent ‘christianity’ and do get rather passionate when addressing the leaders leading these people astray.

    I hate coming across as a jerk, but the truth is that I have tried to address these leaders one on one, then revealing truth about their teachings in blogs and on radio. I am now only seeking to rescue as many as possible out of the fire. I love homosexuals, adulterers, liars, and even heretics enough to warn them. You do a nice job of it to.

    1. Thanks for the clarification.

      I appreciate your heart, I really do. It’s just that online, when dealing with strangers, it’s really tough to get through to people who are completely unaware of the backstory you just shared.

      The church needs people like you contending for truth. I try and use sarcasm in the way you are using harsh truth. In the original post I made light of the fact that it appears we “poor little conservatives can’t come out and play.”–hoping to bring to light the fact that many folks in the Emergent crowd are quick to condescend when talking about theological conservatives.

      I apologize for assuming the worst about you. I’ve just been around far too many folks for whom online rhetoric is completely loveless. And I think we’d all do well to make sure that our heart is really being heard in the words we quickly type into forums like this.

  8. Good blog and interesting comments. I attended the 2nd day of the Big Tent Conference in Raleigh. My church attempted to start an Emergent Service once a week. I think their heart was genuinely in the right place, in that we all want ways to reach out. I also think that if following the teachings of many (I think we can agree on many) people classified as Emergent Leaders is what would be required, then that would be a genuine mistake. In that, you can not get around issues of the Bible to suit your purpose. I think you take it for what it is as a whole and struggle with it, or you find a religion away from it.

    The resurrection and virgin birth are not necessary to be nice to one another. They are necessary for our souls.

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