Coming Under the Big Tent!

From the earliest days of the Christian faith there has been more than one way of understanding the faith.  Peter and Paul had their differences, as did Paul and James.  As time went on, and the faith spread beyond its earliest borders, even more differences emerged.  There have been any number of attempts to create unity, but today the different understandings of the faith continue to expand in number and variety.  Sometimes we speak as if there are three major branches -- Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox, but as any Protestant can tell you Protestants are hardly a unified bunch.  The Orthodox have their varieties as well -- some are theological and others are ethnic.  As for the Roman Catholic Church -- it may have a Pope, but it has simply institutionalized its differences, often in the form of monastic orders.

And yet, we have in the scriptures strong calls for unity.  In the Gospel of John, Jesus prays in the garden that his disciples would be one, even as he is one with the Father (John 17).  Paul speaks in strong terms about unity, including his emphasis on the unity of the body of Christ as it is symbolized in the elements of the Lord's Supper.  He writes:  "Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread" (1 Cor. 10:17).  And in Ephesians, which many if not all scholars believe comes from the pen of a disciple of Paul, there is this powerful refrain emphasizing our oneness as the body of Christ:
I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, 2with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, 3making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. 4There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, 5one Lord, one faith, one baptism, 6one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.  (Ephesians 4:1-6).
Throughout history there have been movements that have sought to bring the body of Christ together so that it might reflect the unity that is envisioned by this text.  Sometimes these efforts have been imposed by governments who stand to benefit from such a unified religious body.  Constantine sought this, as did Charlemagne, and many other rulers.  The ecumenical movement that emerged in full force in the 20th century sought to overcome the theological and ecclesial differences that separate the various ecclesial bodies, but these efforts have never been totally successful because human beings seem to want their autonomy -- besides there are vested interests that make it difficult for even the best intentioned leaders to let go.

My own tradition, the Disciples of Christ, was born on the frontier as a movement to bring unity to the body of Christ.  It resisted the creation of institutional structures, finally becoming a "denomination" at the very time being a "denomination" was going out of style!   Thomas Campbell's Declaration and Address, which was issued in 1809, sought to offer a pathway to Christian unity that called for the adoption of simple Christianity.   Things didn't prove as simple as our movement hoped, but we remain committed to the goal.

Because of my own commitment to ecumenism, I am always interested in efforts that seek to build bridges across theological, ideological, and institutional lines.  Therefore, I'm looking forward to seeing what comes out of a conference that begins today in Raleigh, North Carolina.  The conference takes the name "Big Tent Christianity."  It's being led by Philip Clayton, who also developed the Theology after Google conference that I participated in last March.   It has a good roster of speakers, and at least one Disciple appears to be in the mix. 

The premise underlying this conference is articulated by Philip in this way:

“[It is] urgent … to reclaim a Big Tent Christianity, a centrist return to ‘just Christian’ in word and action. The two poles are driving each other ever further apart, spawning ever deeper hostilities. The solution — in American society as in the church — certainly is not to let the other’s anger fuel my own. As leaders it’s our task to help break the cycle of anger, of rejection leading to rejection, and to foster a radically different understanding of the heart of Christian faith.”
I'm not at the conference, but I look forward to hearing what comes forth from it.  I am hopeful that there is a way for us to come together and have conversations that are fruitful and lead to empowered action, even if we don't all agree on the particulars at every point.  The issue we'll have to continue wrestling with concerns how we define what is essential.  The premise that has often guided conversations like this is reputed to have been stated by a 16th century reformer named Rupert Meldinius.  It goes like this:  "In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity (love)."  The struggle we've had all these years is determining what is essential and non-essential.  Of course we've also struggled with the question of charity as well (on all sides of the debates).


Anonymous said…
Happy Ramadan too!
Kathy Baldock said…
I am an activist for the GLBT community into the church. I read some of your blogs with regard to this issue--thanks! for the BIG TENT event
John said…
Maybe when Jesus asks "Who do you say I am?" Jesus anticipates that we will each have different answers, and that if we are are faithful and have eyes to see and ears to hear, we will each perceive Jesus differently.

Brian said…

I really like that.

jpcarson said…
How is this relevant to a central purpose of Transforming Theology - better addressing the common and daunting issues facing humanity?
I can't speak for the organizers, but it would seem to me that if we can come to some common understandings of the faith, we can be more focused on transformation of the world for the better rather than argue about who has the superior theology?
Liz said…
Thanks for participating in the Big Tent Synchroblog.

I hope you are able to participate in the upcoming synchroblog "Christians and The Immigration Issue"

Here's the info:

CHRISTIANS AND THE IMMIGRATION ISSUE - 9/8/2010 (second Wednesday of the month) As Congress debates how to handle undocumented aliens already within U.S. borders and how to more effectively handle hopeful immigrants in the future, Christians will need to consider what it means to love these new neighbors in our midst.

Please email your name, name of blog, title of post and link to: Sonja Andrews at by close of business CST on 9/7/2010 if you would like to be included in this synchroblog.

Here's a link to help keep up with monthly synchroblog themes and dates:

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