Big Tent

I still vividly remember the reactions people had to 9/11. People were shocked, horrified, angry, and scared. They were looking for anyone who could make some sense of what was going on; Rudy Giuliani stepped forward and showed both grace and resolve as leader of New York City. George W. Bush brought encouragement, comfort, and a promise of action from Washington DC. Church leaders wanted to find a way to support their congregations, so many opened their doors that night and that week to gather together for support and prayer. I was attending Northwestern College and working with a youth group at the time; Northwestern canceled classes and opened the chapel all day for students to gather together for support and prayer, and that evening I gathered with my church and youth group for prayer.

Billy Graham officiated a service a couple of days after the tragedy in New York City, and one of the most striking aspects of that service was that it was not only attended by leading politicians as well as church leaders, but the scope of this religious service expanded broad enough to encompass multiple religions as well as multiple denominations, even being co-lead by a Jewish rabbi.

I am certainly not opposed to working with others; I believe one of the failures of the church for several decades has been a bunker mentality that shuts out far too much of the world around it. However, we sometimes tend to overreact and overcompensated for a perceived failure without considering the consequences. What we believe is important – we are all seeking the truth that God is showing us; bit by bit, day by day. If we believe in the Bible, we believe that absolute truth is there for us to find and that God wants us to understand it. Sometimes, we systematize the truth God has taught us about Himself in theology, primarily so we can better fit the pieces together and continue to “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.” (2 Pet 3:18, ESV) This is typically where our denominational divisions come from – disagreements on various aspects of theology.

When we come together across denominational lines, we can truly accomplish some great things. For eight years I have put together an outreach event we call Marked Men. It is a guys paintball trip – we get together for a couple of days, go out into the woods and shoot each other (as a youth pastor, it can be extremely therapeutic to have an opportunity to shoot your students). What started as a group event among 3 Baptist churches has grown to include something like 15 churches over the years, including Baptist, Lutheran, Methodist, Evangelical Free, Covenant, Presbyterian, and non-denominational churches. It has been great; we have seen students come to know the Lord through the event as well greater connection by other students to their churches. However, when diverse theological groups gather together like this, one of two things has to happen. Either some churches will need to accept that not all theology will be agreed upon, or all of the churches will have to be willing to move to the lowest common theological denominator. What I mean by “lowest common theological denominator” is this – we each start with our system of theological beliefs. We certainly aren’t going to agree on baptism, so that gets tossed out. The Lord’s Supper is going to be tricky too, so we better not talk about that. Church government does not fit, nor does requirements for church membership. We can all agree on salvation through Jesus Christ, but the means and method of justification (becoming a follower of Christ) and sanctification (growing to be more like Christ) will be disagreed upon. When you acknowledge a breadth of belief even within individual denominations, these differing groups may not even be able to agree upon whether or not the Bible is true.

For our paintball trip, theological discussions on things like church government don’t often come up, but in other settings they may become more significant issues. My point is this; when our tent becomes so big that it accepts everybody, it no longer means anything to be under it. I have almost completely given up on the term “evangelical Christian.” That phrase, which nearly everyone would apply to me, refers to so many people whose beliefs I strongly oppose that I almost cringe when it is applied to me. I do not want anything to do with those who twist the Bible to give approval to the sin they do not want to give up or to make themselves feel good about a faith that they are culturally embarrassed by. I do not want to be lumped in with those who want to say that Christianity is just one path to God so that they do not offend others. Those people do not have the same beliefs that I have, and they do not accurately represent God’s truth to the world. We need to be distancing ourselves from the false teachers who are changing scripture and the gospel, not only as individuals but as churches and denominations. It does not mean that we do not love them, but the world should see God’s people strongly opposing false teaching by pointing to a faithful view of His Word. For those who are faithfully seeking God’s truth given to us by divine revelation in the Bible, there is room under the tent for all of us.

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