“Big Tent” Methodism

Off and on since yesterday’s Sunday School class, I’ve been pondering a comment made to me after class.  I’ve heard it many times: “Methodists are big tent people.”  And so I muse…and fume.

I must tell a bit of the lead-up to “big tent,” which requires that I  speculate about the speaker’s intentions.  It was a very brief exchange, without opportunity to probe “What did you mean by that?”  So, I exploit the comment without any desire to misrepresent the speaker’s motive, though I know I risk committing that very sin.

Here’s the background story: during the summer two adult Sunday School classes come together to share a teacher.  With the one class, I have the regular gig and with the other I’ve guest-taught here and there.  I’ve been working on the Sermon on the Mount and the past two Sundays we’ve examined the run-up to the sermon by discussing how Matthew portrays Jesus in the opening chapters.  (I’m motivated by John Wesley’s admonition in his first discourse on the Sermon on the Mount that we need to grasp the nature of the One who speaks to us in the sermon.)  Last week we explored features of Jesus’ genealogy and started on the angelic conversation with Joseph, then delved into Isa. 7:14, “Behold, the young woman is with child…”  I explained that Matthew follows the LXX version in saying, “Behold, the virgin will conceive…” and we entered the contested matter of Jesus’ virgin conception.

A week later, at the beginning of yesterday’s class, my questioner asked about how I interpreted that text.  He used the word “mythology” several times in formulating his question and the class had a rousing discussion about how modern Christians best understand Matthew on this point and, by implication, what we can reasonably conclude in today’s modern world.  I tried, as briefly as possible, to explain the internal logic of the passage and how it wasn’t just about how a baby was made, but about the power of God.

Anybody who has been in such a discussion knows how they typically go.

After class, I asked this person if I had adequately spoken to his particular interest.  He said, “Yes,” then made the  surprising observation, “Our class doesn’t usually have teachers like you.”  After a couple more comments, he asked me, “Do you know who Schubert Ogden was?”  Of course, I knew.  Ogden was a force at Perkins School of Theology back in the day.  I asked, “Do you consider yourself a process theologian?”  He answered, “Not really, but I did take some of what Ogden wrote to formulate my own thinking.”

End of conversation and beginning of my musing…fuming.

I always appreciate people who make the effort that this man has made to think theologically.  However what could I have said that elicited this chain of comments?

I have a pretty good idea that “teachers like you” means something pretty close to “conservative.”  I don’t like this term and try not to use it for labeling theological orthodoxy – that is, the set of beliefs that the church has taught, summarized, for example by the Apostles Creed.  I have the strong impression that my conversation partner thinks orthodox-belief people are hopelessly stuck in the past, as if we hadn’t thought about or been exposed to modern explanations offered by brilliant scholars like Schubert Ogden.

And then his parting word: “Methodists are Big Tent people.”  Apparently one of us in the conversation is worried about “who fits” within Methodism.  Either he thinks that I think that he doesn’t fit because he does not affirm the virgin conception or he thinks that I don’t fit because no thinking (modern) person can actually affirm such a claim literally without being considered a little daft.  Well, it’s a good thing that Methodists are Big Tent people.

This conversation reminds me (again):

1.  Every church – to be a church –  must have a doctrinal core.  I would guess that if we could play out the logical trajectories of my conversation partner’s beliefs and mine, we would have to ask if the tent can stretch that far.

2.  Every church must have a means of discipling members relative to that core.  How many times have I heard someone say, “I really like being a Methodist because we get to use our minds.  We are free to think for ourselves (unlike the Baptists).”  How did we ever get to the point that a significant number of our members think that membership means pretty much anything they want it to mean?

3.  The exercise of power is inherent to every organization, especially the church.  When duly appointed leaders attempt to exercise church discipline, they are doing what they are obligated to do.  It’s not that they get their kicks pushing people around.

If the term “Big Tent” Methodism neutralizes any one of these three points, then we wind up with something not recognizable as a church.



About Stephen Rankin

Professionally I am an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church. I currently serve as University Chaplain at Southern Methodist University. Personally I am married to Joni and we have four grown children and four grandchildren. You can find my personal thoughts on this site, as well as on twitter at @stephenwrankin.


  1. I am obviously even more removed from the conversation than were you. Still, with the language of mythology in play, it may be useful to remember that Ogden was as much a child of Bultmann as he was of Hartshorne. He believed that process account of reality was superior to the existentialism of Bultmann (which was really built upon a Kantian account of reality), but Ogden was no less interested in the project of dymythologizing than Bultmann.

  2. Great post, Steve. I guess part of the problem is that we say that we are “big tent” people without clearly stipulating how big the tent really is. Every tent, regardless of size, has boundaries.

  3. Which all raises the current question which, of course, is this: can any tent be big enough to hold one group who calls something “sin” while another group calls it “sacrament”?

  4. I don’t know how anyone could reasonably disagree that the UM tent is “big.” Following David F Watson’s commment, it would be helpful to be able to talk about the boundaries. Perhaps we start that conversation with the realization that some do not want to be within the tent. Then come the challenging conversations of who determines the boundaries (your point #3). I am praying we can learn to have even these conversations in healthy ways.

  5. Rev. Tim Burleson says:

    Be careful however that we do not exclude and become like the following joke I heard when I was a Southern Baptist pastor: A group of new arrivals got to the Gates of Heaven. They were given an orientation tour by the Angel on duty. The group walked down marble tiled hallways past gleaming white doors. One new arrival asked the angel who was behind the doors. “Behind this one” the angel relied are the Catholics. They keep us focused on ritual and beauty. Inside the next door are the Friends who remind us of prayer and meditation. That door over there houses the Pentecostals. They remind us of joy and openness of expression.” The group passed a door that the tour guard angel disregarded. Someone asked the angel who was behind that door. In a hushed voice the angel said, “Those are the Southern Baptists. They think they are the only ones here.” We may laugh, but there is sermon in the joke.

    • I appreciate the caution. I’m not interested in excluding. I’m interested in unity. What holds us together beside a name and denominational structure? Please keep in mind, as well, that there are numerous ways to exclude. Some are subtle.

  6. This is very well said. I have had many conversations with “process” theologians, and they often end badly. When a group takes theological terms that have had one meaning throughout history and redefine those terms, there is an immediate communication problem. Particularly since they say the words with their new definitions, all the while knowing their audience is hearing to historical definitions. Thus, they stand in the pulpits wearing theological camouflage. Drives me nuts.

  7. Tim Whitaker says:

    Steve, thanks for your thoughts. Often we use terms from partisan politics (“big tent”) or ideology (“inclusivity”) to speak of what the historic church has defined as “catholicity.” Jaroslav Pelikan once said that when the church began to call itself “catholic” it meant two things at the same time–universality and orthodoxy. Universality indicates that the church aims to be inclusive of all. Orthodoxy indicates that the church aims to maintain its identity as the bearer of the apostolic witness. We ought not blame people who use political or ideological terms if we have failed to teach the historic marks of the church in the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed (the Nicene Creed). Folks will use whatever terms they know to try to express what they think the faith or the church is, but it is the responsibility of pastors and teachers to educate them about the church’s own language and concepts.

    The extraordinary conception and ordinary birth of Jesus is included in the ecumenical creeds, and so it is a part of orthodoxy. The doctrine of the Virgin Birth should be taught by the church since it a part of the catholic faith of the church. There is the pastoral issue of dealing with the questions and doubts of persons regarding this teaching. Most of us would say that assent to this doctrine is not necessary because it was not a part of the proclamation of the gospel by the apostles as the speeches in Acts indicate. This is because the tradition of the Virgin Birth emerged in the last third of the first century (although Matthew and Luke are most likely drawing from earlier Palestinian Jewish sources), and it became a part of “apostolic tradition” in the second century as witnessed by Ignatius of Antioch in the first decade of the second century. But, I think, it was first considered as part of the apostolic tradition as teaching rather than proclamation. It was a doctrine taught to persons who had heard the proclamation of the gospel and were then being taught the beliefs of the church during catechesis. So then, as a pastoral matter, it seems that we should both clarify that belief in the Virgin Birth is not necessary for believing the gospel or being saved, but that it should be respected as part of the orthodox teaching of the catholic faith. Then the way forward in responding to persons’ questions and doubts is to interpret this teaching of the church and to address their questions. In doing so, the teacher can point out that one reason some people have problems with this belief is because of what Leslie Newbigin called “the plausibility structure” of post-Enlightenment western cultures. Newbigin said that what are “myths” for many people are reality for Christians. Yet it is very important to note that it is the resurrection of Jesus Christ, not the Virgin Birth, that challenges “the plausibility structure” or the worldview of many people today, and that it is in light of the reality of the resurrection that Christians can take seriously the doctrine of the Virgin Birth. As Karl Barth said, the Virgin Birth is the “sign” of the mystery of the incarnation, and it has served for thousands of years as a salutary doctrine to point to the heart of the church’s faith in Jesus Christ as the incarnation of the only Son of God.

    • Thank you, Bishop Whitaker, for this meaty comment. I have to admit, I think the way my conversation partner used the term “Big Tent” for Methodism was really his way of saying that he and I can both be part of the same denomination – even though we disagree on precious little at the core – because that’s the kind of denomination we are. I think he was every bit as much troubled by my view as I am with his. I am honestly not sure, if I were this person’s pastor, how I would try to teach him what you have said in this post. There’s more context than I can share to fill in some blanks, but I drew the distinct impression that his world view does not allow for what would be considered an orthodox view of the resurrection. I think the problem goes all the way down. This is why I was bothered by the use of “Big Tent.”

      So, I’d like to ask, if my observation is accurate, how would you handle such a situation? Or how have you handled it?

      • Tim Whitaker says:

        Steve, John Calvin spoke of persons needing to be “teachable” if, after professing faith in the gospel, they are to think and live in accordance with the gospel. I have been in conversation with persons who are not teachable or who are not willing to consider how the gospel may challenge some of the fundamental presuppositions which they have been conditioned to believe. I think in such cases, all one can do is to make a witness. However, I do think that robust teaching of the historic Christian faith will reach others who are teachable, and their hearing can be the beginning of understanding the gospel and the Christian life as something more than pious feelings or believing in God in general, but as the revelation of God to Israel and in Jesus Christ that discloses the truth about the world and ourselves by which we live our lives. I understand the particular kind of situation you are describing because it is not uncommon, and I find it sad when even persons who are a part of the church are so conditioned by a certain kind of worldview that they just don’t “get it.” Tim Whitaker

  8. Walt Harrah says:

    I’m not in the Methodist tent, but a worship elder in an Evangelical Free church in California. This conversation intrigues me. And I am a believer that a denomination that is named after its founder should hold to the beliefs of that founder. It just seems right, to honor what that person stood for, or against. Why tick off the dead?

    From The Theology of John Wesley:Holy Love and the Shape of Grace by Kenneth J. Collins:

    “The poor and humble Mary conceived, Wesley taught, not by Joseph but by ‘the power of the Highest overshadowing her.’ Observe in this context, the virgin birth and divine agency are strongly associated, the one informing the other. In other words, precisely because Mary conceived, as Wesley put it, in a unique way ‘by the singular operation of the Holy Ghost,’ this begetting, therefore, excluded the role normally filled by a human father. For Wesley, then, the doctrine of the virgin birth does not represent a later addition, suggested by the sexual ethic of the emerging church, informed as it was by Hellenistic elements. Rather, it illuminates the divine agency in this birth; in other words, it is no one less than the Holy Spirit who brigs about this distinct conception.”

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: