“Big Tent” Versus “Small Tent” Evangelicalism

“Big Tent” Versus “Small Tent” Evangelicalism October 6, 2014

Something that grieves me very much is the gradual disintegration of the evangelical movement in America. And I know where I assign the blame–on what I call “small tent evangelicals” who practice tribalism and totalizing with regard to who is and who is not recognized as “authentically evangelical.”

I don’t remember very many things from elementary/primary school which was a very long time ago. But one thing that stuck with me over the years is a little poem. I don’t remember the author and it doesn’t matter right now. Anyone can look it up. Here’s the poem: “He drew a circle that shut me out: heretic, rebel, a thing to flout. But love and I had the wit to win; we drew a circle that took him in.” We were made to memorize it as a means of combatting cliques and tribes in school (and the bullying that often followed from that).

I will never forget the shock I felt when I read Harold Lindsell’s bombshell book The Battle for the Bible (1976). I was in seminary and was being taught that “biblical inerrancy” was not what Carl Henry called “the superbadge of evangelical identity.” (Henry responded to Lindsell’s book by denying that inerrancy is that even though he strongly believed in inerrancy.) Lindsell and his friends drew a circle that shut me and many other evangelicals out. I grew up in a very evangelical church and denomination–charter members of the National Association of Evangelicals–that did not use the language of “biblical inerrancy.” Lindsell argued that belief in inerrancy is essential to evangelical identity.

Imagine my surprise when I read the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy (1979) that included qualifications of “inerrancy” (when applied to the Bible) that Lindsell had rejected in The Battle for the Bible! And Linsell signed that statement.

Over the ensuing years I formed the opinion, which I still hold, that much of the disintegration of evangelicalism has not been over real doctrinal issues but over tribalism. Cohorts form and become “us versus them” groups that shut people out just because they pronounce words and concepts differently. The “enemy” (false evangelicals) are those who don’t pronounce “Shibboleth” correctly.

A few years ago I engaged in a sustained e-mail dialogue with a strong advocate of biblical inerrancy who was also an officer of the Evangelical Theological Society. Once we agreed that we probably believed the same about biblical accuracy (given all the qualifications he added to “biblical inerrancy”) I asked him if I could join the ETS even though I do not think “inerrancy” is an intellectually honest word for what we both believe. He said no. That just confirmed to me that “inerrancy” has become little more than a tribal Shibboleth to keep people out who are deemed unfit to belong.

Recently here I celebrated what I believe evangelical Calvinists and Arminians agree about–that God gets all the credit and glory for anything good that we achieve or do because we cannot do it without God’s transforming work within us. How many Calvinists agreed? Only a very few. Instead I hear that Calvinist leaders are still misrepresenting Arminianism and describing it as Pelagian or semi-Pelagian. What is that but tribalism? Small tent evangelicalism. Drawing circles unnecessarily to shut out people deemed somehow unfit to be part of the club of authentic evangelicals.

I consider this mindset and the excluding rhetoric and practices it leads to “neo-fundamentalism.” Unfortunately, it is catching on to the point that the totalizers and exclusivists are capturing the label “evangelical” for themselves.

These people have put tremendous pressure on “big tent” evangelical publishers and educators to cater to them–to not publish articles and books by those who do not pronounce Shibboleth correctly. Fortunately, most of the said publishers and educators have not caved in to them–yet.

Some years ago, when I was on the faculty of a well-known evangelical institution of higher education, former Youth for Christ leader Jay Kessler, then president of Taylor University, spoke to the faculty about this very trend and problem. He addressed it directly and advised moderate to progressive evangelicals to “hunker down” until the storm passes by. Unfortunately, it didn’t pass by.

My evangelicalism is that of the founders of the post-WW2 evangelical movement. It tried to include fundamentalists but they labeled it “neo-evangelicalism” and rejected it. The NAE and similar organizations that brought together non-fundamentalist, postfundamentalist evangelicals in a “big tent” coalition centered around the gospel was the evangelicalism of my youth and I miss it. From within its own ranks, unfortunately, arose new fundamentalists who were dissatisfied with the movement’s breadth and inclusiveness (e.g., of Arminians) and began to nit pick, draw exclusive circles, totalize their own brand of evangelicalism, and misrepresent those evangelicals they perceived as unworthy of the label.

The “Word Made Fresh” statement (2001) that I posted here recently was our (moderate evangelicals’) attempt to call all evangelicals back to “big tent” evangelicalism. It’s as much needed now as it was when it was written and signed by over 100 evangelical leaders and scholars.

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