We live during an interesting time, historically, in the Church. Christianity continues its evangelical mission across the globe, reaching deep into areas thought inaccessible just a few decades ago. The Bible has been translated into hundreds of languages. The modern Christian has at his or her fingertips more biblical research and commentary than scholars in centuries past could ever imagine. This is indeed good news! Yet, particularly in America and Europe, the Church finds itself at a perilous and trajectory-altering moment as theological and ecclesiological stress fractures appear and expand. Millions of sincere Christians are floundering to respond to and shore up the footings of the western Church.
In the face of these challenges, I believe there is a way forward. As with all recommendations, some will find themselves nodding in assent while others will vehemently disagree. This is indicative of where the Body of Christ finds itself today, but in truth it is where the Body of Christ has always found itself. Thankfully, there are biblical precedents for how we should proceed through these fractious times.
Bad Seed = Bad Fruit. Who Knew?
Many of the challenges we face today began decades ago. I recall distinctly during my collegiate years a newfound sense of wonder and excitement about the Church’s way forward. Part of it was youthful naivete, but part of it was a recognition that something new seemed to be happening. Postmodernism was coming into full swing at that time and would later coalesce into the Emergent Church movement within a few short years. I was thinking about the Bible, my faith, and the Church in ways I hadn’t explicitly thought before. As a teenager, the new ways of looking at Scripture and Church life were intoxicating, as was the apparent sincerity of the progenitors of the movement. Challenging old assumptions, uniting disparate ideas, expanding the strictures of orthodoxy—I felt like a kid on a playground exploring whatever and wherever my heart desired. Then something happened about a decade ago that changed my outlook. I began to see the fruit of the postmodern, progressive, Emergent Church movements and ideologies (themselves being fruits of modernism). I was deeply troubled by what I saw.
If you’ve ever worked in your yard, whether in a garden or your lawn, you know that seed matters. Last summer we moved into a new house and promptly removed a sickly maple tree from the center of our front lawn. I cut the tree down myself but paid to have the stump removed, which subsequently left a large patch of bare ground. Being do-it-yourselfers, we decided to grade and reseed the lawn ourselves. At the hardware store we looked over the bags of grass seed and settled on a sack of multipurpose seed that was cheaper than most others. We bought it, took it home, and followed all of the appropriate steps for planting the seed. We carefully watered it every day, and by the end of the summer all of our effort was rewarded with the worst-looking, scrubbiest patch of lawn I have ever had. Although it took us several months to discover, and although it was a hard lesson learned, we realized that the quality of seed you put in the ground matters. When you buy a packet or bag of seeds, you trust what is on the picture of the packaging. If it shows a lush green lawn or beautiful flowers, you assume that is what you’re getting, and often you do. However, sometimes what is advertised is not what is delivered.
What I discovered about the postmodern, progressive, Emergent Church movements (and the sub-movements arising from them) is that their fruit reveals a problem with the seed. The confluence of these movements promised to bring the Church into a deeper, more authentic walk with Jesus. Instead, they weakened the foundations and fractured the structure. They deconstructed the faith forged over the centuries and unwittingly spawned sub-movements such as Deconstructing Faith where people “evangelize” others in how they walked away from Christianity. They supplanted the gospel of salvation with social justice works-righteousness. They redefined the primary Christian identity of being solely “in Christ” (Gal. 3:27-29) to categories of race, gender, and sexuality. They replaced being awakened by the light of Christ to being “woke” by the light of man. The result is that the Church in America and Europe is fractured and factious.
We are living in a perilous and trajectory-altering time indeed.
Life in the Big Top
Many years ago, when society was more agrarian and geographically dispersed, before the advent of modern distractions such as radio, television, and the internet, circuses were a big deal. These behemoths of entertainment crisscrossed America on rails and interstates bringing a much-needed diversion to the hard-working countryside. In each town they visited, they erected the big top tent. Visible from afar, the vivid red and white striped canvas beckoned children of all ages to the wonders contained within. The big top met advertising and practical needs; regardless of the weather, the show had to go on! Whether it was contending with the withering heat of the summer sun, the unpredictable storminess of spring and fall, or simply a short-lived deluge, the circus couldn’t afford to cancel the show. The big top created an area where paying customers could thrill to all of the main attractions while sheltered from the elements. The bigger the tent, the more acts that could be seen, the more tickets that could be sold.
This captures the sentiment behind much of the “big tent” language used in the Church today. The idea implies that a denomination should be a “big tent” where Christian people, who hold a diversity of viewpoints but are united in Christ, can gather as the Body of Christ. In other words, the tent is big enough to encompass differing approaches and understandings of the tenets of the faith. For the most part, it does often function that way. For example, genuine believers can and do hold different views on certain details of subjects like eschatology, baptism, the sacraments, and so on. We recognize that although such issues are important, they are not salvific issues, nor do they threaten to lead people away from Christ.
Problems arise, however, when the big tent begins holding competing doctrines. Just like the proprietors of a circus would not appreciate competitors infiltrating their big top tent and stealing away customers,...
A denominational “big tent” cannot function in a healthy way when it admits competing doctrines and approaches to Scripture.
The movements and their fruits referenced above have created competing ideas and doctrines within the Church. For example, the idea that many postmodernists (and some modernists as well) hold that Scripture is fluid, that its meaning changes with time, that parts of the Old Testament are only archetypal and not historical, that science and its “discoveries” and “certitudes” supersede Biblical cosmology, that salvation is not through Jesus Christ alone in this life—these ideas are not consistent with historical and biblical orthodoxy and doctrine as it has been formulated and understood for centuries. Instead, they are the fruit of ideologies and philosophies which erodes belief and trust in the very foundational tenets of Christian faith and tragically leads many people away from salvation and holiness found only in Christ.
The Big Top Collapses
Although big top tents are massive, they do have limits on occupancy. If you’ve ever seen the inside of a big top, you know that in the center stands a large pole over 30 feet in height with the exterior walls comprised of 10-foot-tall poles spaced evenly around the circumference. All of these give support to the massive canvas tent with a diameter stretching to 120 feet and weighing up to 8,000 pounds. The physics is such that each of these poles and the ropes that affix them to the ground hold the canvas taut and support the big top. However, what would happen if too large a crowd entered the tent? What if as the people bumped and knocked each other over, some of those poles got pushed out of place? A big top might still stand if one or two are jarred or even broken, but if enough of them are dislocated, the structural integrity fails, and the whole thing collapses.
Often, I hear people lament that young people are leaving the Church and not returning. A variety of reasons are always given, but typically they center on how Evangelicals have not been true to the Bible, how Christians have embraced nationalism or conservatism or capitalism, how the Church has excluded certain groups, and so on. Ironically, the ones usually making such claims are pushing for more liberal interpretations of Scripture and doctrine. Many have embraced political socialism or progressivism, and frequently seek to divide the Church into groups based on race, gender, and sexuality. It is the height of hubris that, while they run away from historical Christian orthodoxy, they accuse those seeking to remain rooted in it of leaving the historical faith and dividing it into factions.
Although it is true that some young people are leaving the Church and not returning (not a new phenomenon, by the way), is it because the Church isn’t progressive enough? If that were the case, wouldn’t mainline denominations be flourishing, those which decades ago embraced homosexual marriage and ordination or espoused the Historical Jesus movement? If it was because the evangelical Church has taken too firm a stance against human atrocities like abortion, wouldn’t that imply that the Church-led abolition movement of 160 years ago was wrong for its firm stance against slavery? If evangelical churches were non-stop carnage machines, how is it that so many young people are still growing, thriving, and being called into vocational ministry in them today?
Could it be that the reason some young people are leaving the Church behind is because of the non-stop maligning of the Bride of Christ in the public sphere?
Social media has made this ubiquitous; I regularly read people saying things like, “Christians are nothing but a bunch of hypocrites.” “The Church only cares about unborn babies. It couldn’t care less about you once you’re born.” “The Church hates gay people.” In spite of the fact that these are demonstrably untrue, no one wants to be a part of something that sounds so corrupt and pathetic.
Furthermore, could some be leaving the Church because of the fracturing and erosion of the historical doctrines and teachings of the Church by modern, and especially, postmodern movements? These deep fractures have given secure footholds for the Enemy, Satan, to cast doubt into the minds of impressionable (and too often biblically illiterate) young people. “Did God really say... ?” and “Did God really mean... ?” are questions as old as the literal Garden of Eden, and which, if only encouraged and not countered with the truth of God’s word, will cause one’s faith to crumble under the substantial weight of living in a fallen world.
Perhaps nowhere is this more evident than in the “debate” over human sexuality. There is so much confusion around the dual issues of gender and sexual identities. It is particularly grievous because of the affect it is having on children and young people. Twenty years ago, even ten years ago, this widespread chaos was hardly the case. Therefore, either one of two things has happened: either there were exponentially more misgendered and homosexual young people before who just didn’t know it, or the actual number of confused young people is the same, but because it is now not only tolerated but accepted and championed, many more young people are adopting it as a lifestyle in order to gain attention and popularity without understanding the life-long and eternal ramifications. I believe it is the latter. It is a twisted ideology that only gains a foothold when a foundational understanding of Creation and human gender and human sexuality is removed from the conversation (Jesus said, “‘Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’?”).
The Requirements for Admission
I appreciate the “big tent” idea, but it does and must have limits. As we’ve seen above, and as we’re witnessing in our theological and ecclesiological clashes today, a single tent is not big enough to house so many disparate opinions and viewpoints. A healthy view of the big tent is that everyone inside shares the same core beliefs, rooted in the Bible’s revelation of God, centered on Jesus Christ, and enlightened and empowered by the Holy Spirit. When beliefs stray wide from the central doctrines of Creation and salvation, then it is time to rethink the requirements for admission.
Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). He made it clear that salvation was to be found only in Him (not through our works, and certainly not through other religions, as some well-known global religious leaders have claimed recently). The challenge comes when we seek to discern what is His way, what is His truth, and what is His life. That’s where the rest of Scripture comes in.
Too many today want to explain the entirety of the Christian life solely in terms of the four Gospels. In other words, they quote Jesus and His teachings in order to create a “Christian” ethic and “story.” The problem is that doing so takes Jesus out of His context. We all know we can take a verse out of context and make it mean almost anything we want it to, but the same can happen when we take Jesus out of context.
Jesus must be interpreted, understood, and obeyed within the context of the entirety of Scripture.
His teachings do not arise in a Scriptural or theological vacuum. When Jesus said that loving God was the greatest commandment and loving others was the second, His understanding of love was predicated upon the entirety of the Hebrew Scriptures’ teaching on God’s love. Not only that, but our understanding of His teaching on love must be filtered through the lens of the New Testament writings of John, Paul, Peter, and others.
The subject of how Christians address homosexuality highlights the importance of understanding Jesus in context. Many today, even within the Church, will claim that Jesus would (or even did, indirectly) affirm homosexual marriage. One claim is that Jesus never spoke against homosexuality and that He affirmed that the highest command is simply “to love.” However, if instead of removing Jesus from His biblical context, we look at His teaching in light of the rest of Scripture, we see that this is an absolute impossibility. We know that Jesus stood in perfect alignment with the Old Testament teachings on the subject. He said He came not to abolish but to fulfill the law and the prophets (Matt. 5:17). Furthermore, we see that in the times when He needed to correct the people’s understanding and interpretation of God’s law, He spoke directly to the issue (“You have heard it said... but I say”). The indisputable fact is that Jesus never sought to correct the Old Testament understanding of marriage as the male-female binary and their subsequent covenantal union. Moreover, the only union He explicitly blessed was the one instituted in the OT, that is heterosexual marriage. When we look at Jesus’ teaching on love through the lens of the epistles, we understand that “love” excluded many types of perverted loves including homosexuality. We do not need to wax philosophical or contemporize what we think Jesus meant; the Old and New Testaments clarify and tell us exactly what Jesus meant.
Jesus made clear that the invitation to the big tent is for all, but the requirement for admission was following Him. His truth. His way. Anything else leads to chaos and collapse.
The Gate Keepers
A frequent criticism of those who seek to emphasize a baseline requirement for admission to the tent (the Church) is that they’re putting themselves in the position of being “gate keepers.” Such terminology is often utilized pejoratively; “Who made you the gate keeper?” The question, however, is a legitimate one. Are there such things as gate keepers, and if so, who are they?
In John’s gospel, chapter 10, Jesus reveals himself to us as the One through whom the sheep enter. He says, “Very truly I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep... whoever enters through me will be saved” (vv. 7,9). This is consistent with His other teachings, such as being the way, the truth, and the life. In other words, Jesus shows us that the salvation and protection that comes from being in His sheepfold arises only as we enter that fold (kingdom, tent, etc.) through Him. So, it is entirely true to say that anyone other than Jesus who attempts to be the gate, or tell of another gate, is a false teacher.
That does not mean that there isn’t a gate keeper. The Bible speaks in many places about the shepherds God appoints over His people. Unquestionably, Jesus is the Great Shepherd, but God calls many of us to come alongside the Great Shepherd and care for His flock. Through Jeremiah, God speaks of a time when He will gather His scattered flock and “place shepherds over them who will tend them” (23:4). In the book of Acts, some of Paul’s final instructions are, “Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood. I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them” (Acts 20:28-30).
The truth is, there are many spirits, both inside and outside the Church. Our task is to discern between those from the Lord and those not from the Lord. The Apostle Paul clearly instructs us, “Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world” (1 John 4:1). How do we know which spirit is from God? Paul continues, “This is how you can recognize the Spirit of God: Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, but every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God” (vv. 2-3). When Paul describes spirits and teachings which acknowledge that Jesus is from God, he’s not talking simply about a teacher saying literally, “Jesus is from God.” Many false teachers do just that. Rather, to acknowledge Jesus is from God is to confirm by our doctrine, our teaching, and our obedience that Jesus is from God; we confirm He is from God by aligning our actions and our doctrine as closely to His word as possible.
Spirits, or doctrines, or teachings that are not from God will ultimately not measure up to Scripture. As such, they do not belong in the “big tent.” Good shepherds, or gate keepers, know this and follow Paul’s command to, “destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:5). Moreover, Paul instructs Titus to “teach what is right and true” (2:1). Again, he says, “Pay close attention to yourself and to your teaching; persevere in these things, for as you do this, you will ensure salvation both for yourself and for those who hear you” (1 Tim. 4:16). Clearly what we teach has a direct impact on the salvation (or lack thereof) of our hearers!
This Tent Ain't Big Enough for the Two of Us
It may come as a shock to some people to say that not all ideas which claim to be Christian are welcome in the big tent. In fact, there are many ideas and doctrines which are not consistent with Scriptural teaching and therefore cannot be welcomed into the tent. They therefore must be prohibited from entering by good and faithful shepherds and gate keepers.
In 1 Corinthians 5, Paul upbraids the local church for tolerating sexual immorality (and likely also for embracing tolerant teaching) among its members. He then instructs them to remove the offenders:
“I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people—not at all meaning the people of this world who are immoral, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters. In that case you would have to leave this world. But now I am writing to you that you must not associate with anyone who claims to be a brother or sister but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or slanderer, a drunkard or swindler. Do not even eat with such people. What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside? God will judge those outside. ‘Expel the wicked person from among you’” (1 Corinthians 5:9-13, emphasis mine).
Here we see that God has called us to be gate keepers by exercising judgment with regard to the lives and teachings of those within the big tent. There is a reason that time and time again God commanded the Israelites to cleanse the Promised Land of its inhabitants; He knows that “a little leaven leavens the whole lump” (Galatians 5:9). Ideas have consequences. If our teaching has a direct impact on the salvation of others, so can false teaching. It must be rejected and removed precisely because of the danger it poses to the rest of those in the tent. As anyone who’s raised livestock will tell you, it only takes one wolf to decimate a flock.
The Big Tent is for Many People, Not Many Ideas
The way forward then is not to bring in more ideas under the big tent, but instead to bring in more people through a saving knowledge of Christ. All who need Christ are welcome in the tent—saved and unsaved alike, but we must remember we are seeking to multiply saved people, not multiply theological variants. We don’t need new doctrines, we need a renewed, right spirit in Christ!
Some will say that doctrine and teachings are always changing and should always be open to new and different interpretations. We need a big idea tent, they say. That is a mindset that must be rejected. Neither Scripture nor history speak of changing doctrine. The Old and New Testaments speak with one consistent voice about God, creation, humanity, sin, salvation, and eternity. Christian history consistently affirms the truths of these central doctrines. To be sure, there have been outliers and heresies and many false teachers along the way—the Bible said there would be—but their voices, although often loud and sometimes popular, have always ultimately failed the tests of biblical truth and God’s time.
If we in the West in the 21st century want to see true and lasting fruit, we must start with good seed and reject bad seed by paying “close attention to [ourselves] and to [our] teaching.” Consider the Berean Christians whose Christian character was extolled because, even though they “received the message with great eagerness,” they nevertheless “examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true. As a result, many of them believed” (Acts 17:11-12). If we, the gate keepers, get our doctrine right, we will see even greater numbers of people saved and joining us inside God’s big tent.
In these perilous and fractious times, my hope and prayer is that we would strive to move forward in fidelity to God’s Word and obedience to Him for the sake of glorifying Him and leading those who are lost to a saving knowledge and sanctifying experience of Jesus Christ.