Poking at Elephants

An evangelical’s (un)apologetic for the church


Brandon GaideHow big is the tent?
Knowing when we’ve gone too far

by Brandon Gaide

We know it’s a big tent. But exactly how big is the tent? 

I’m not a cradle Presbyterian. I was denominationally promiscuous before I was ordained in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). The downside to this is a lack of on-the-ground experience in knowing why we (Presbyterians) are the way we are. But there’s also an upside. I’ve been gifted with an outsider’s perspective on what can be a rather insular organization.

In that vein, I’ve been on an almost-five-year journey to understand the identity of the PC(USA).  That fact alone troubles me. Why has it taken so long? One would think five years would be adequate. Maybe it’s the endless acronyms. Maybe it’s the existence of national agencies that somehow exist alongside local church bodies. Whatever it is, I can’t seem to locate a clear identity for the PC(USA). I even tried the fail-safe approach, our denomination’s website, to see if there was a clear “about us” or a mission statement. What I discovered instead was some lengthy confessional-type language mixed in with a sale on new hymnals. (To be fair, if I dig deeper, I can find some resources that speak to this question, but it’s the need to dig that concerns me.)  

When people try to explain our denomination’s identity, they often say, “We’re a big tent church.” I can’t seem to locate an original source for this phrase, except of course the annual Big Tent Conference, but that’s not what they’re talking about; that’s simply a reference to having a bunch of different conferences all under one roof as part of a big family gathering. Whatever its source, it’s common enough in our denomination. So I’d like to put forth the question: exactly how big is the tent?

As I understand it, identity requires boundaries. My marriage, for example, is exclusive to my wife and me. If we lost the exclusivity of our marriage, it would no longer be clear what we had between us. Boundaries help us know who we are—and who we’re not. 

My impression is that our denomination has become leery about drawing clear boundaries. I realize that drawing lines, no matter where the lines are drawn, will connote exclusivity, which doesn’t always accord with warm hospitality. But then who are we? What does it mean to be a Presbyterian if the tent can ostensibly be stretched as far as we like?

‘I want the denomination for which I work to be clear about who we are.’

Yes, there’s the Constitution. I’m always refreshed when I crack open either the Book of Confessions or the Book of Order, feeling as if I’m tucked into the folds of much more thoughtful and time-tested wisdom than I could ever offer. To my point here, I’m particularly struck by F-1.0404, which is a rich explanation of the PC(USA)’s desire to be poised to go where God leads and do what God says. But even under the heading of “openness,” the text suggests that this openness could very well lead to an acknowledgment of limitations, rather than an ever-increasing Openness. Phrases like “more radical obedience to Christ” or “a new openness to see the . . . perils of its institutional forms” both suggest to me the possibility that the expansion of the PC(USA)’s boundaries be arrested and even contracted when necessary. 

The dog I have in this fight is a desire to know the identity of the organization to which I’ve given my ordination vows. I’ve given my allegiance to the PC(USA). But to whom exactly did I make my vows? Like Jacob, I feel like I’ve married someone whom I assume is Rachel, but the veil is too thick to be certain.

I want the denomination for which I work to be clear about who we are. For example, what is a Presbyterian not allowed to believe? As we all know, Scripture and our Confessions can be interpreted to say all sorts of things, some of which are mutually exclusive from one another. If I believe Jesus is the only way to salvation and others believe Jesus is the best way to salvation, are we not at a rather critical impasse? We’re both suggesting our own brands of exclusivism—I’m saying it is only through Christ, while another is saying it is not only through Christ. These make for strange bedfellows, or better, strange tentfellows.

Or to consider another example, in what areas is our denomination not permitted to go? Is it part of our mandate as a denomination to influence public policy or to lobby on an international level? Assuming it is, what are the issues on which we are not permitted to speak, and who makes those decisions?  What are the actual parameters of our denomination’s mission?

Having said all this, I realize that I, as a Presbyterian and as a teaching elder, am an essential part of our denomination’s decisions. On many issues, I have a vote. My concern here is that in this collective process many of my colleagues in the church, other pastors and ruling elders, may be voting in ways that reflect an erosion of historical and clear boundaries. I want the confidence to believe that not everything is up for a vote.

I want the church to be diverse in its theology and its practice. But If I could ask for one thing in all this, it would be for our denomination to have the courage to define the point at which our beliefs or practices transgress the boundaries of the big tent. When have our practices exceeded our mission? Or when does orthodoxy become pluro-doxy?

Or, under the expansive awning of the big tent, is orthodoxy still a concern for the PC(USA)?

Brandon Gaide serves as associate pastor of Next Generation Ministries at Memorial Drive Presbyterian Church in Houston, Texas. He loves the church, wit, coffee, metaphors, and his wife and two baby girls.