It is often claimed that the Church of the Nazarene (CotN) is a “big tent” denomination. A serious person inquires, “Yes, but what kind of tent?”
What is usually meant by “big tent” is that the CotN offers gracious latitude on a wide range of secondary (versus primary) issues related to Christian belief and practice, and this it certainly does with regard to many issues—from forms of worship, to eschatology (views of the end times), to modes of baptism, and so on. The unifying principle is John Wesley’s winsome appeal, “In essentials, unity. In non-essentials, diversity. In all things, charity (agape love).”
An ecclesiological (pertaining to the Church) “big tent” does indeed offer a welcoming and productive gathering space provided that Wesley’s dictum is adhered to closely.
Charity flourishes when there is diversity in non-essentials and unity in essentials.
Dysfunction arises, however, when beliefs are reversed about what are essentials and what are non-essentials. One contemporary example is those who are calling many denominations, including the CotN, to doctrinal diversity on the subject of human sexuality and marital relationships. Those doing so champion a view—that of affirming homosexual marriage, ordination, and identity (trans, bi, non, etc.)—as being consistent with God’s intention. This is well outside clear teaching in Scripture, Christian tradition, and Nazarene doctrine. By seeking to position something so essential as human identity and covenantal marriage into a non-essential location, advocates for such heterodoxy make a truly biblical and Wesleyan big tent impossible.
Scripture commands us to “make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace” (Eph. 4:3). The content and character of this unity is succinctly defined a few verses later; it is “unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God” (v. 13). Clearly the Apostle Paul would advocate for a big tent (all of you be united), but the unity under that big tent must be consistent with Christian knowledge and faith.
There are many kinds of big tents. A circus tent with its wildly diverse and extreme antics is one kind. A completely different one is the kind that helped give rise to the Church of the Nazarene; it is the revival tent or camp meeting tent. In the mid-19th century and for many decades after that, hundreds of thousands of people from every walk of life—rich and poor, black and white, alcoholics and teetotalers, men and women—gathered under camp meeting and revival tents to find hope, freedom, salvation, and transformation through Jesus Christ. Indeed, there was incredible diversity, but they were united in “faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God.” It can even be said that the CotN was birthed under a revival tent at Pilot Point, Texas in 1908 (https://nazarene.org/article/pilot-points-enduring-significance).
So, which kind of tent do we want to be?