Presbyterian Big Tent

December 27, 2019

Presbyterians and “Big Tent” Rationale

Presbyterian Church (USA) commissioners will convene in about one hundred and eighty days, on June 20th.  The PCUSA’s focus for the 224th General Assembly is social, not theological.

Earlier this year, an annual PCUSA conference about the marginalized and oppressed, known as the “Big Tent,” convened in Baltimore. More Light Presbyterians, an unofficial LGBTQ+ caucus within the PCUSA, re-tweeted an adapted quote from late author and blogger Rachel Held Evans: “If the Gospel you’re preaching isn’t good news for those on the margins, it isn’t the Gospel.”

Yes and no. Jesus, during his incarnation, reached out to those on the margins. These societal margins encompassed tax collectors, Samaritans, and widows. Today, these margins include those with heterodox beliefs, immigrants, and the poor. Yes, the Gospel tells us to go to those people “who feel unloved and… those who have nowhere else to go” – how could we not? Jesus did; we must imitate Him.

Jesus loved the sinners around him on Earth. He once refused to greet his natural family waiting outside the temple, claiming his disciples as family instead. Jesus saw his sinful disciples – former tax collectors and working-class fishermen – as family. Critically, however, Jesus did not expand Biblical doctrine; he merely fulfilled the Old Testament. Jesus did not let Zacchaeus continue in monetary extortion.

In a similar vein, the liberal church’s semantic toying creates a problem. The Big Tent movement’s diction implies a widening of the tent to meet the margins where they are. Effectively, that is what mainline Protestantism does today. Since the Sexual Revolution of the 1960s, the church has moved left on theological issues, and not just social issues. The relatively theologically insular tent of decades ago has widened to include beliefs and practices that are Biblically unsound.

The Gospel is good news for those on the margins, but they must enter the tent. Jesus was unafraid to draw lines in the sand, hurling sinners out of his Father’s temple and publicly facing down Pharisees. The rich young man could not give up all he possessed, however well he’d kept the Ten Commandments, and he was left out.

The church should not expand its tent or adapt to the margins. Instead, it must encourage those outside to come in. Christmas was very recent: many people probably visited friends’ homes. Upon entrance to someone’s home, you adapt to their rules. They don’t adapt to yours. You ask if shoes should come off or not. Granted, there is give-and-take: the host or hostess may ask if you’d like a drink. Primarily, however, the give comes from the guest. In order to enter the Christian tent, some things have to be checked at the door. The door doesn’t come to you; you come to the door. In Jesus’ own words, in Matthew 7:7, “Knock, and it will be opened to you.”

Christians must go to the margins, as Jesus did, to minister in both a social and proselytizing manner. We can lead the margins to the tent, and provide them with the aid they need: an understanding of the legal framework surrounding immigration, funds for health problems, assistance in finding a job, etc. Christ did this: he healed people from bodily illness, while forgiving their sins at the same time. He is our example, and if He does something, we must follow in His footsteps as best we can. There are a number of excellent Christian social organizations dedicated to this idea. Jesus went to the margins to bring spiritual and physical health, but He also laid down the law. Likewise, Christians must say, “Welcome home! Please come in, but you must take off your shoes.”

10 Responses to Presbyterians and “Big Tent” Rationale

  1. Richard S Bell says:

    The author asserts that there is one problem: “The Big Tent movement’s diction implies a widening of the tent to meet the margins where they are.”
    But the author fails to quote any diction bearing that implication.

    • Lee D. Cary says:

      I have a quick example for you, Mr. Bell.
      “Open doors, open hearts, open minds.”
      Translation: Bring you preconceived religious beliefs. They’re perfectly acceptable here.

  2. Ruth says:

    Yes, I thought he skirted the issue as well. The writer wrote in circles, basically saying the same thing over and over, without saying much at all. Where’s the editor?

  3. Pop Salad says:

    In the Kingdom of God the only margins are between believers and non believers. Worldly standards re: economics, legal statutes, social standards are somewhat irrelevant. The true church invites all to a radical encounter with the Savior, which asks all, to listen attentively to the words “”Then neither do I condemn you,”Jesus declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin.” But there is a clear call to leave our lives of sin. Jesus admonishes us to “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it.”

  4. Mike Kerwick says:

    I believe he made the point very clearly. Yes, we need to reach out to the “marginalized” to offer them the gift of faith in Christ. That does not translate into altering the basic tenants of His teachings to fit their lifestyles. Once we truly accept Christ we must be followers of His teachings regarding how we live and comport ourselves as Christians.

  5. Bob Wilson says:

    While some think the tent should expand. It is a semantic difference to what he contends. I thought he was quite clear. Do not expand the tent, but invite all in and they must abide by the rules established inside the tent.

  6. Lee D. Cary says:

    “Since the Sexual Revolution of the 1960s, the church has moved left on theological issues, and not just social issues.”

    Yes and No. But it’s true that all the “Seven Sisters” of Protestant Denominations moved left – and all are dying.

    Meanwhile, the independent, non-denominational congregations are growing across the nation. If they were a unified congregation (and found a way to avoided the pitfalls of same) they’d be the second largest protestant denomination in the nation.

    But that’s like saying: If the 2008 Detroit Lions NFL team would have had a first-string, all-Pro at each and every position, they’d have won the Super Bowl.

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