The Fallacy of the Big Tent

By Thomas Lambrecht –

Those promoting the One Church Plan see it as the only plan that can bring unity to The United Methodist Church. That unity comes by conceiving of a denomination as a “big tent” enclosing many varied perspectives, opinions, and practices within one over-arching church. Will this approach truly bring unity to our denomination?

One must ask what kind of unity we really have when “every person does what is right in their own opinion.” Is this not rather a recipe for fragmentation? Most couples in a marriage have some stark differences of viewpoint and personality, but if there is not enough shared in common between the two persons, the marriage will not last.

We can readily celebrate a diversity of worship styles, from high-church Anglican to informal Christian contemporary music to a (new to me) phenomenon here in Texas of “Cowboy church.” We can celebrate the incorporation of cultural practices in worship, whether it is lively African worship with a cranked up sound system or the acknowledgement of Thanksgiving Day in our U.S. services. We can understand the need to tailor the legal structures of the church to the particular state or country in which those congregations are located.

It is quite another thing to welcome a kind of diversity that envisions conflicting beliefs and conflicting moral standards among church leaders and members. If congregations and pastors teach conflicting ideas, will that not demolish the credibility of what is taught? How will seekers considering the claims of Christianity respond to a church that cannot give clear answers to important questions about what to believe and how to live?

I am not saying there has to be unanimity at every point. I do think there needs to be agreement to the doctrines covered by our doctrinal standards (as written, not “reinterpreted” to mean something else). It is important to have agreement on basic moral standards like the appropriate context for sexual relationships, as well as integrity in personal relationships, financial responsibility, responsible self-control in personal habits, and other areas of moral concern. Having a unified understanding of what constitutes marriage is an important moral and theological issue.

I recently read comments from a General Conference delegate from North Texas featured in a publication of Mainstream UMC. He said, “It is my belief that if human sexuality is a church defining issue, then we have lost sight of what it means to be the church. The one church defining issue is our faith in Jesus Christ. After that there is room for people from all ends of the spectrum.”

I fear this delegate has confused ecumenical Christian unity with denominational unity. What unites all Christians is a common faith in Jesus Christ as God’s Son and the Savior of the world. Beyond that, there are as many differences as there are denominations. We can pray for, support, and cooperate with Christians from all different denominations on things we agree upon. But it would never work for all Christians to be part of one “big tent” denomination.

Some congregations would make decisions solely as a local body, while others would want to be governed by a larger structure. Some would want bishops, while others would find bishops unacceptable. Some would preach baptism only for believers by immersion and be willing to re-baptize people who experience a return to God, while others would teach that baptism is for infants as well as adults and could not be repeated. Some would welcome female clergy, while others would not. Some would maintain that marriage is between one man and one woman, while others would support same-sex marriage and a few even polygamy. Some would teach that sexual relations are reserved for marriage, while others would permit sex in other kinds of relationships. The list could go on and on.

Denominations make decisions about how we are going to live together. Indeed, the first Methodist conference in 1744 dealt with three broad questions: 1) What to teach. 2) How to teach. 3) What to do. (This covered the areas of doctrine, discipline, and practice.) Having some consensus on the answers to these questions allowed the early Methodist movement to flourish. Those who could not agree with the consensus answers eventually fell away or separated from Methodism and pursued ministry in other forms and venues. John Wesley would never have dreamed that those in connection with him could teach conflicting doctrines or engage in conflicting moral practices. The General Rules were for that reason “general” – they were equally binding upon all Methodists.

That is the profound difficulty with what the delegate’s quote implies. Would he support United Methodist pastors refusing to baptize infants? Would he support a United Methodist congregation refusing to accept a woman as pastor? If not, he would then no longer say that the denomination’s unity is found only in our faith in Jesus Christ.

It appears that what he means is that other doctrinal and moral issues can be church defining issues, just not human sexuality. But why do we remove understandings about human sexuality from our shared moral standards in the church? Is it not because we live in a culture that is hopelessly confused and saturated with broken sexuality? The victims who have spoken out within the #MeToo movement is one testimony to just how broken our culture’s sexuality is. Might not the positive acceptance of same-sex relationships or the rising prevalence of transgenderism be other signs of brokenness?

In any case, to single out human sexuality as the one area where diversity of moral standards is allowed is a case of special pleading: “Applying standards, principles, and/or rules to other people or circumstances, while making oneself or certain circumstances exempt from the same critical criteria, without providing adequate justification. Special pleading is often a result of strong emotional beliefs that interfere with reason” (

Exempting human sexuality as the one area where we cannot make shared moral standards for the church, while believing that moral standards are good and necessary (no lying, theft, sexual harassment, etc.) is a case of special pleading. Similarly, for evangelicals to ignore divorce or adultery among pastors and lay leaders, while advocating for standards relating to homosexuality, is also unacceptable.

What unites a denomination is more than just a shared faith in Jesus Christ. We are united by shared doctrine, discipline, and practices. Without these, there cannot be true unity.

Thomas Lambrecht is a United Methodist clergyperson and the vice president of Good News. He also served as a member of the Commission on a Way Forward.



  1. To single out human sexuality as the ONE area where we cannot make shared moral (BIBLICAL) standards for the church is tantamount to declaring the UMC to NO LONGER being honestly, sincerely, and trufully a church of repentance and salvation. (Plus, once the practice of sexual immorality as Biblically defined sin is exempted, that would surely be followed by additional Biblical sin exemptions) Those advocating this human sexuality exemption do not realize what they’re advocating, especially in light of the radical extent to which our culture is broken sexually. Our UMC would cease being an avenue for those broken sexually who are seeking real reconciliation with God a place of truthful repentance and salvation. That, it would seem, would be the biggest tragedy of this one church/local option/big tent plan.

  2. I get the writers point. And while I understand it, this really isn’t the reality of the world today or the view of most pew sitters even those in the most conservative congregations. Organizations that are large tents tend to grow and those that are small tents, defined tents tend to wither and die. It is not that people love God less. They don’t. It is not that people are not joiners. Facebook, Snapchat, and Instagram all have significant Christian communities on the platforms that dwarf any congregations size in the denomination. People want to be part of a community. But they don’t want to be dictated to. They don’t want to have their lives prescribed to by others. If they choose a discipline they want to dictate the terms that this occurs under. And here lies the issue with the Church as it currently exists. We operate under a Discipline and we have rules to enforce said discipline. There is a book and the book dictates the rules. And for 46 years these rules have been in place. But in those same years, the US has changed radically to the point that the current system isn’t effective anymore. The major sports leagues have been in a separate effort to change their rules and experiences to bring in new people. The entertainment industry has had to create new channels to rebuild audiences lost to the internet. And business has had to completely rebuild itself to remain relevant.
    We all know this system needs a radical change to the tune of what Wesley implemented when he came here as a priest. I don’t think either the Progressive nor the Renewal wings of our party get how much things need to be rethought to meet the needs of Americans today who are wholesale choosing God but rejecting the church. People need to experience God and God wants to be with us. But this approach of living in small tents and throwing rocks from the pulpit just chases people out of the congregations and into cafes, bars, online forums, and other places to meet those needs.
    The worst kind of Christian is one who only seeks to save themselves. We are called to spread Christ to everyone in any means necessary. We have seen what happens in other denominations that have gone through this. Neither group goes on a massive growth spurt. In fact, at best renewal communities are holding steady or simply shrinking slower than their more progressive counterparts. There has been zero proof that splitting has created the level of growth needed to reverse the steady decline of the institutional church in America.
    I used to find it awesome that within my home church we had conservatives and progressives all in ministry together. When the church finally died as many do I assumed that folks would gravitate to like-minded groups. What happened was that maybe 20-30 are still in the church. That doesn’t mean that we stopped being together! We still have picnics, facebook groups and other things that continue the community that was destroyed. Many just don’t go to church anymore. And this coming split will do the exact same thing just on a massive scale. People won’t choose the Church, they will choose their beds, couches, and restaurants being together with their old friends in communion and in prayer. But…we will be “right” in our empty pews.

    • Eric, your premise that the big tent leads to growth is incorrect for denominations if we look at recent history. Every denomination that has tried the big tent approach has decreased rapidly, while conservative denominations, such as the Assembly of God, are growing. As far as not wanting to save people, traditionalists are all about saving people and bringing them to Christ. However that means they have to give up their sinful ways and adopt the ways of Christ. We do not affirm people in their present fallen state. We affirm that giving our lives to Christ and changing them is the way to go. You said the church hasn’t changed its rules while society has changed. The essential question is, has God changed the rules. As James tell us in Chapter 1 verse 17, the Father does not change like shifting shadows. God does not bend to suit our desires, shifting positions when society does. We are to bend to God’s will. I have seen scripture stretched and twisted to contradict the scriptural prohibition on homosexuality, but I have never heard any scripture that directly contradicts the plain language of the scriptures.

  3. Mary Rivera says

    Amen! They are opening Pandora’s Box.

  4. Mary Rivera says

    We no longer have the tent meeting bringing those to Christ.
    Now, it’s a Circus Tent, sending in the clowns called the COB,
    while the rest of the church sits in the bleachers watching the whole show end. They don’t have elephants, but I think they still have lions…
    “The Word of God is like a lion. You don’t have to defend a lion. All you have to do is let the lion loose, and the lion will defend itself.”
    Charles Haddon Spurgeon

  5. Parker Wayland says

    I don’t recall seeing one reference to Scripture in the many arguments put forth online. Does the UMC concede that there is no authoritative message there? The arguments focus on UMC documents, history and analyses of the impact the various options may have on the church. We are asserting man’s “wisdom”. Where is faith that God can bring fruit if our actions are based on His word? This whole thing seems quite fleshly on both sides. My concern is that God’s Word will not be honored and eventually become functionally irrelevant. In that case, the UMC will have nothing to offer the world.

    • Amen, Parker! I couldn’t have said it better. The UMC will have to decide if we are to conform to this world in order to reach it, or not be conformed, but be transformed by the renewing of our minds, in order that we may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect WILL OF GOD! (Romans 12:2)

  6. Darlene Truitt says

    The One Church Plan is just plain silly!!! How can there be unity when one group is preaching that Jesus is the Way, TRUTH, and Life and that Jesus in Matthew 16:24 says “If anyone desires to come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me.” Another group is preaching from the Culture Gospel that teaches that if it feels good do it and approval trumps redemption?

    • Exactly. If the UMC abandons its mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ as a church of repentance, forgiveness, salvation, and transformation, then it should shut and lock that “open door” and call it quits, or admit that the church has become little more than a social club along the lines of a country club. This one church/local option/big tent plan is just that, abandonment of the Good News Gospel of repentance and salvation through Jesus Christ — the abject abandonment of the Word of God. Such a church could not preach/teach two diametrically opposite messages regarding sexually immoral sin. It would eventually have to STOP addressing sexually immoral sin altogether out of embarrassment, humiliation, and hypocrisy. How could the church even utter unity when one UMC preaches that those practicing sexual immorality cannot inherit the Kingdom of God while the other UMC across town preaches that the practice of sexual immorality is not sinful and God doesn’t mind? How could such a church travel both east and west simultaneously? How could a Book of Discipline be written describing all this? Even a hardened atheist would see through all this and laugh. How can this one church/local option/big ten plan not be the work of the Great Deceiver?

  7. The question is, how can we expect God to honor a church that does not honor His Word? Membership declines in the Denominations that have surrendered to the popular culture all suggest that He will not honor those who do not honor Him. Forget what the culture is doing or what secular organizations do. Just like Israel had to do so often throughout the old Testament, we need serious, on our knees repentance and turn back to God and His Word. the whole council of His Word and not just the parts we like. Our fight is spiritual, not against people but against the powers and principalities of darkness.

  8. Harold,
    Agree fully. And, one more thing. These people, led by the bishop Carter and his videos, are trying to sell this ‘one’ church/local option/big tent plan to those ‘below’ them, including, of course, the delegates, with a cleverly disguised deceitful scheme. They are attempting to present this conflict as one being greatly exaggerated and way overblown by traditionalists, as a much more minimal issue that is certainly not large enough to divide the church. They refuse to engage in an honest conversation built off Scripture and brush that off as if the Bible is irrelevant and has no place in the decision. They show nothing but outright contempt for those who stand on Scripture, will not cave, and will not go along with their scheme in order to preserve this pretentious ‘unity’ that they claim to be seeking. This is the most egregious display of bad behavior related to this schism.

  9. Thom Bowsher says

    I really appreciate Good News and am wondering how articles like this one can make it into the hands of our delegates?

  10. My advice to Good News is to take off the gloves. The hour is late. Let’s not pretend there is some equivocation on the part of delegates. The One Church progressives have embarked on strategic warfare against conservatives committed to a traditional understanding of scriptural holiness. Let’s not try to finesse our opposition to the One Church Plan with delicacy. The progressives will not be cajoled and wheedled into reversing course. “Aslan is one the move” and is calling us to contend for the true faith.

    • Gary,
      What you say cannot now be honestly and truthfully refuted. By secular standards, Biblical truth is often not a good PR strategy, especially when it comes to sinful behavior. Jesus spoke the truth, obviously, and many were greatly offended, especially the religious leaders of the day. Biblical truth is not always pretty, nice, tolerant, or marketable by secular/cultural/political standards. Progressives in our denomination have cashed in on that phenomenon by demonizing traditionalists and telling people, especially those engaged in Biblically defined sins of sexual immorality, what their itching ears wanted to hear. Secular liberalism invaded our denomination and fooled many with one of the most deceitful strategies of the age. They managed to plant a large seed of Scriptural doubt and questioning in a denomination already struggling with significant Biblical illiteracy and complacency. Instead of leading that part of the denomination into Biblical literacy and faithfulness, which was the duty of those “leaders”, they took full advantage of this situation in order to forward their agenda. And, while this was going on these past 45 plus years, traditionalists seemed to “turn the other cheek” in hopes that these people would eventually see the error of their ways and repent. They did not. Instead, they did indeed step up the war on the denomination and have more recently launched an all out offensive with this egregious ‘one’ church/local option/big tent plan in hopes of victory.

  11. It may be helpful for there to be a review what it was like in the very early Christian church, and how it operated.

    Two good resources for this review are:

    Christian History Magazine “Converting the Empire” Issue: 57

    Christian History Magazine “Worship in the Early Church” Issue: 37

    In Issue 37, see “Awe Inspiring Ceremony” section.

    As one sees in the pie chart in Issue 57, the very early church had a low number of true believing members, and there were several steps a person must go through to become a full fledged member of the church community. This process took several years.

    In issue 37, in the “Awe Inspiring Ceremony” it says this process could take 3 years before they were allowed to be water baptized and receive their first communion, and full membership into the church.

    It wasn’t until after Emperor Constantine that the Christian church exploded up to 34,000,000 by 350 A. D. This was because Constantine made Christianity legal. Many people claimed to be Christians, but many of them only said this for political and monetary reasons. They were not required any longer to go through the three years of learning and training as earlier converts were required to do. The process for becoming a Christian and member of the church was shortened because of the huge influx of people wanting to join the church. Unfortunately, this also allowed room for problems to seep into the church.

    I am not saying we should return to these days of the rigorous steps of the very early Christian church, but neither should we say there should be no Disciplines. There are good reasons for such rules and guidelines.

    It is dangerous to base our denominational beliefs on “pie charts” of church membership as in a marketing strategy. We are not a fast-food chain who is trying to entice new customers with ever new advertising strategies and new products and gimmicks. Jesus said in Matthew 7:14 – “ “For the gate is small and the way is narrow that leads to life, and there are few who find it.” (NASB).

    We are not called to fill our church pews in any manner that works, with any message the masses like! Jesus called the disciples to….. “Go into all the world and preach the Good News to everyone.
    Anyone who believes and is baptized will be saved. But anyone who refuses to believe will be condemned.” Mark 16:15-16 (NLT)

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