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.