Or Reflections on the Realities of Big Tent Christianity
“As Christians, we are seekers after truth, not merely its custodians.” Michael Bauman1
“Christianity is in trouble,” everyone seems to be saying, for a variety of reasons. The rise of the “nones.”2 Increased dissatisfaction with institutional religion.3 The forthcoming disintegration of American evangelicalism over politics.4 The growth of the “spiritual but not religious” worldview.5 The general failure of the American Church’s members to reach millions of their friends, neighbors, and coworkers.6 The COVID shutdown that threatens some churches with the prospect of never reopening.7
Of course, from one point of view Christianity is not truly in trouble;8 these are largely problems with the American Church, and some may even be viewed as corrections of centuries-old corruptions within the Church. Yet on the other hand, these troubling trends may be fairly interpreted as indicators of the Church’s decline. More and more people see Christianity as boring, antiquated, and even harmful to personal happiness and ongoing social progress. Year by year, the Church becomes more irrelevant for individuals and its cultural influence deteriorates.
Now, I am hardly the first to point out the increasing darkness that surrounds the future of the Western Church. Potential solutions are as common as explanations of what is wrong. Some say we need to double down on our evangelism efforts; others call for a more culturally engaged church and a return to the politically fraught culture wars of years gone by; and still others call the Church to return to the monastery and weather the coming storm.9
Whatever the proposed solution, more and more leaders in the Church see the gathering storm and recognize that something has to change.10 It is no longer enough to thoughtlessly embrace existing patterns of Christian life, worship, and service; it is no longer enough for the Church to proceed as normal. Denominational politics, inward-looking country clubs, ineffective institutions, and church bodies more concerned with money or power than reaching future generations—none of this is enough.11
Fortunately, some Christians have long recognized these realities. The non-denominational reformation12 is a trend that speaks to this awareness, as are the growing number of new, smaller, more historically centered denominations such as the Anglican Church in North America.13 Pushback against “Church Inc.” has grown in recent years with the preaching and teaching of people like Francis Chan, David Platt, Skye Jethani, and others.14 Similarly, the megachurch movement, growth of multisite churches, many church planting movements, and a variety of parachurch organizations exist in large part due to the conviction and awareness that the Church must proclaim the gospel in fresh and engaging ways to a changing and tumultuous culture.
In addition to these existing something-needs-to-change movements, I wish to submit another approach: the establishment of mere Christian churches. Let me explain.
What is Mere Christianity?
The term “mere Christianity” has enjoyed popularity since C.S. Lewis titled one of his most famous works by the same name. In Mere Christianity, Lewis describes the kind of plain Christian faith he believed this way:
The central Christian belief is that Christ’s death has somehow put us right with God and given us a fresh start. Theories as to how it did this are another matter…. We are told that Christ was killed for us, that His death has washed out our sins, and that by dying He disabled death itself. That is the formula. That is Christianity. That is what has to be believed. Any theories we build up as to how Christ’s death did all this are, in my view, quite secondary: mere plans or diagrams to be left alone if they do not help us, and, even if they do help us, not to be confused with the thing itself. All the same, some of these theories are worth looking at.15
Lewis himself did not coin the term, but instead built upon Puritan Richard Baxter’s use of the term and concept. In “On the Reading of Old Books,” Lewis provides his most succinct summary of mere Christianity, saying that it is “a standard of plain, central Christianity which puts the controversies of the moment in their proper perspective.”16
Baxter and Lewis, of course, were far from the first Christians to call for a focused and unified faith. Even within the New Testament, we see calls for the unity of the Church (John 17.20-26; Ephesians 4.1-6) as well as the necessary precondition for such unity: a discerning and nuanced articulation of faith (1 Corinthians 10.5; 2 Timothy 3.1-5; 1 Peter 5.7-9). Fifth-century theologian Vincent of Lerins advocated for the standard that, “in the universal Church… we should hold that faith which has been believed everywhere, always, by all.”17 In historical usage, then, mere Christianity is not a desire to return to a golden age of Christian faith and practice (as if there were such a thing); rather, it is a call to major on the majors and minor on the minors when it comes to belief and praxis.
Perhaps the best articulation of the mere Christian approach comes from the statement, “In necessariis unitas, in dubiis libertas, in omnibus caritas.”18 That is, in necessary things unity, in doubtful things freedom, in all things love. In other words, mere Christianity focuses on the core, central facets of the Christian faith while allowing for differences of faith or practice on non-central things, all surrounded by charitable understanding where disagreements occur.
Such an approach to faith obviously pushes back against the situation that the Church finds itself in, by positing that a focus on the central necessities of the faith can help limit the infighting, divisions, and distraction of non-essential issues that far too often prevent people from hearing the Good News of Jesus and following Him. Mere Christians contend that Christianity’s image problem—the all-too-common perception that the Church is composed of divisive, sheltered, sexually-repressed, judgmental, political, hypocrites19—is in large part self-inflicted, and can be mediated by the mere Christian approach that emphasizes what Scripture (and Tradition) contend are important, while refusing to divide overe other issues.
Remaining Christian While Being Mere
Of course, it’s one thing to talk about mere Christianity, but another to actually put it into practice. One question that mere Christianity immediately raises is that of boundaries: how are we to distinguish between “plain, central Christianity” or “necessary things” and non-central doctrinal points or non-essential issues? In many instances, this is where mere Christianity runs into trouble.
The mere Christian perspective inherently pushes back against the rampant problem of divisive and sectarian Christianity that has dominated the global Church, and especially the Western Church, since the dawn of the Protestant Reformation.20 Yet adopting a mere Christian approach can easily become fodder for a number of other problematic approaches to faith. In his excellent book Finding the Right Hills to Die On, Gavin Ortlund classifies such viewpoints under the banner of “doctrinal minimalism,” where any doctrine or practice should be treated with skepticism and avoided altogether.21 Using this as a cautionary standard for what to avoid, this means the mere Christian approach should not devolve into theological liberalism, where the theology, history, and morality of Scripture are viewed as negotiable rather than norming.22 Likewise, mere Christianity should not stand in for ecumenical approaches, which are often high on intellectual camaraderie but low on practical unity. The mere Christian approach is also not the same thing as postmodern Christianity, where faith is exclusively personal, service to the world need not be done in the name of King Jesus, and the institutions of the past are viewed as something to be torn down rather than learned from.
As I am describing it, mere Christianity should not take any of these forms, because the mere Christian approach can also affirm that “many doctrines are significant even if we don’t divide over them.”23 Mere Christianity continues to recognize the norming status of Scripture and the Great Tradition of the Church. The central core of the faith and its attendant authorities—Scripture, Tradition, Experience, and Reason—are still recognized as valid by the mere Christian approach (though not all such structures are necessarily of equal validity or value). In short, those adopting mere Christianity must be able to equally label themselves as “mere” and as “Christian,” a test that many doctrinally minimalist viewpoints struggle to pass.
Characteristics of Mere Christianity
How else may we describe and explain the mere Christian approach? I propose the following seven characteristics:
Gospel-Centered. The Good News of the Kingdom of God—that King Jesus, the Messiah of Israel, has come to earth, died on a cross, rose from the dead to defeat death and inaugurate the reign of God, and will soon come again—stands at the heart of mere Christianity. Without the proclamation of this news as the guiding principle and central focus of this approach, mere Christianity would be worse than useless (1 Corinthians 15.1-19). Mere Christianity starts with and focuses on the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—who God is, what God has done, and what God is continuing to do in creation. Bringing the good news to a dark and distorted world is the whole point. The gospel must always stand at the center of the mere Christianity.24
Creedal. As we express, proclaim, and seek to live out the gospel, mere Christianity takes its definitional leads from the great creeds of the Christian tradition, namely, the Apostles’, Nicene, and Athanasian creeds. The particulars of what we confess and believe are important—so important, in fact, that the creeds formulated by the great cloud of witnesses who have gone before us in faith serve as better guides for the boundaries of our understanding of what is central to faith than any novel statement of faith or clever articulation we devise.25 On the question of what counts as necessary or unnecessary, the creeds instruct us: who God is, what He has done, and life in Him are the essentials. Beyond those issues—and even, quite frankly, in the minutia of those issues—we may (and at times, must) find nuance and theological dialogue. But creedal Christianity forms the core of mere Christianity.
Balanced. Mere Christianity is neither lax nor dogmatic; it finds its place between the polarities of dividing over everything and dividing over nothing. In the spirit of Romans 14, both conviction and charity must bear out. To restate what was said above, mere Christianity recognizes that all theology is important, but not all theology is essential, urgent, or worth breaking community or communion over. Accordingly, when disagreements do occur, they are confronted in a spirit of dialogue and mutual submission, not division or condemnation.26
Embraces Particulars. Mere Christianity is not afraid to get into the nitty-gritty of theology and life. This is not the approach of “avoid disagreement at all costs” or even “let’s just talk about where we agree.” Mere Christianity embraces, converses about, and even celebrates theological and practical distinctives. Differences on non-necessary or tertiary issues are not not important; to the contrary, they are worth talking about and learning from.27 The distinction, however, is that the mere Christian approach engages those divergences and does not divide over them. Perhaps the best example of this aspect of the mere Christian approach today comes in “views on” books like the Zondervan Counterpoints Series. In these volumes, Christians of different convictions and viewpoints come together to discuss issues while continuing to affirm each other’s status as a follower of Jesus.28 This is the kind of embrace of particulars that the mere Christian approach celebrates.
Intellectually Humble. Mere Christianity emphasizes rejects legalistic approaches to faith while encouraging Christian freedom and recalling our own human fallibility.29 This approach highlights the fact that we—the saints of God and members of the bride of Christ—cannot determine with full certainty the precise articulations of every theological issue or question. We all have our biases; we all have our soapboxes; we all have our experiences; we all have our sin and tendencies toward distortion to overcome. Accordingly, the mere Christian approach champions holding much of what we believe with open hands and takes a spirit of humble submission and speaking the truth in love.30 Truth is contextual, contested, and often difficult to find; thus, while we seek after the Truth, we do so with the knowledge that we might be wrong. Mere Christianity embraces teachability; in the words of Michael Bauman, “The Church rarely prospers more than when its teachers are teachable.”31
Drawn from the Great Tradition. Rather than rejecting wholesale the particulars, lessons, or emphases of denominational Christianity, mere Christianity seeks to learn from the best parts of the Great Tradition of the Church. While mere Christianity does not necessarily embrace (for example) a Baptist view of baptism, a Catholic view of communion, or a Methodist’s view of church governance, mere Christians learn from these particulars. Functionally, this means that many mere Christians find themselves connecting, gathering, growing, and serving alongside Christians from other backgrounds and denominations.32
Faithful and Practical. The mere Christian approach is never just about faith, belief, doctrine, or what’s in your head; neither it is only about practice, praxis, or what you’re doing with your hands. In the words of James 2:16, As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead. Mere Christianity seeks to balance faithfulness and practicality with a living faith that rejects cheap grace and embraces sacrifice and the servant-hearted life. Mere Christians live out their faith and show it by what they do.
Mere Christianity in Practice
At this point, it is natural to ask what the kind of mere Christianity described here looks like in practice. There are a number of churches that can easily be described as having adopted this approach, even some which have self-consciously used this language.33 Below, I provide only the briefest examples of what the mere Christian approach may look like in practice.
Rooftop Church is a nearly twenty-year-old mere Christian church located in St. Louis, Missouri. Rooftop’s take on mere Christian characteristics manifests in its simple doctrinal statement, baptismal practices, emphasis on service to its community, commitment to working with other area churches, interdenominational make up, embrace of skeptics, apolitical posture, and ability to address “disputable matters.” More often than not, Rooftop calls this approach “big tent Christianity,” which is a fitting image of everyone involved gathering under a big tent. This is a useful image to draw on, as it conveys the approachability of such a church, as well the reality that boundaries do exist and the fact that there is a core—the ring where everyone should be focused.
It is this core that Rooftop constantly points people toward: “We take Jesus seriously, but not ourselves” is a constant refrain at Rooftop, particularly when disputes occur. A couple of years ago, the oft-contentious issue of creation and evolution came up. As people joined this side or that, leadership at Rooftop stayed a course of framing the issue as that of a disputable matter: an important theological conversation that Christians should engage, understand, and come to conclusions on, but one that should not divide the church or cause people to break fellowship with one another. Rather than taking one position or another, and rather than saying that this issue didn’t matter, Rooftop took the mere Christian route: they focused on the core of faith, embraced the messiness of the moment, and continued to pursue unity while not denigrating the importance of the non-central doctrine.
Another example of a mere Christian church is Arise Church, a church plant coming to the St. Louis metro area later this year. Obviously, as a plant, Arise hasn’t had the practical experiences that Rooftop has. From a planning and articulation standpoint, however, Arise positions itself as a mere Christian church. Its statement of faith, for example, is very mere, simply saying, “We believe in biblical and historical mere Christianity as expressed in the Apostles’ Creed…” followed by the Apostles’ Creed. When further clarification on a doctrinal or practical question is required, for instance on the question of who may lead in the church or how baptism should be undertaken, Arise begins its explanations with the following statement:
Scripture was written in and for diverse contexts and situations. Accordingly, within the New Testament there exist affirmations of “mere Christianity”— a focus on the core proclamation of the Risen Jesus while simultaneously allowing for freedom when it comes to non-essential beliefs and practices.34 We see this applied to various issues, including baptism, communion, eschatology, leadership structures, how to interpret the Old Testament, and the like. In each of these areas, there is a core idea that allows for a relatively diverse expression of practice. Following the New Testament model for the Church today, then, is not so much about discerning the single way to understand what Scripture says, so much as discerning what is core to faith in the Lord Jesus. Put another way, gospel freedom, when properly focused on the Good News of Jesus Christ as the redeemer of creation, allows for a certain amount of diversity on non-essential issues. Thus, an appropriate guiding principle for Christians is, “In necessary things, unity; in unnecessary things, liberty; in all things, charity.”
Although this brief overview of some key aspects of two mere Christian churches by no means exhausts the characteristics of this approach, Rooftop and Arise do stand as helpful examples of this perspective and its workability in our current context.
Mere Christianity commits itself to focusing on the core, central aspects of the Christian faith while allowing for differences of faith and practice on non-central things. It’s gospel-centered, creedal, balanced, embraces particulars, intellectually humble, drawn from the Great Tradition, and both faithful and practical. Is this approach perfect? Will it solve all of the problems that contemporary Christianity faces? Probably not. But it does represent a path forward, one that I believe can provide a sound, helpful way forward for a Church that is focused on bringing the good news of Jesus to our world.
1 Michael Bauman, Pilgrim Theology: Taking the Path of Theological Discovery (Manitou Springs, CO: Summit Ministries, 2007), 11.
2 Nathaniel Peters, “The Rise of the Nones,” Public Discourse, 18 August 2019.
3 Peter Beinart, “Breaking Faith,” The Atlantic, April 2017.
4 The best example of this is probably the Donald Trump-Christianity Today-Mark Galli kerfuffle from December 2019 and its ensuing fallout.
5 Barna Group, “Meet the ‘Spiritual but Not Religious,’” Barna Group, 6 April 2017.
6 Derek Thompson, “How America Lost Its Religion,” The Atlantic, 26 September 2019. See also Noah Meyer, “The Failed Influence of the American Church,” The Meyer Standard, 10 June 2018.
7 Charles F. McElwee, “Easter’s Empty Basket,” City Journal, 10 April 2020.
8 Nor will it ever be—at least, insofar as something labeled Christianity follows the Christ who promised that the gates of hell would not prevail against his Church (Matthew 16.17-19).
9 For Exhibit 1A, see Rod Dreher, The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian World (New York: Penguin Random House, 2017).
10 This is literally the title of a David Platt book sitting on my desk right now: Something Needs to Change: A Call to Make Your Life Count in a World of Urgent Need (Colorado Springs: Multnomah, 2019).
11 Please note that this is not a condemnation of all forms of Christianity in America, simply a statement of the general malaise and ineffectiveness of a Church that’s supposed to be advancing the kingdom.
12 Jacob J. Prahlow, “The Non-Denominational Reformation,” Conciliar Post, 11 April 2018.
13 See the ACNA website.
14 See Francis Chan, Letters to the Church (Colorado Springs: David C Cook, 2018); David Platt, Radical (Colorado Springs: Multnomah, 2010); and Skye Jethani, Immeasurable (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2017) for three prominent examples.
15 C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: HarperOne, 2000), 54, 55-56.
16 C.S. Lewis, “On the Reading of Old Books.”
17 Vincent of Lerins, “Commonitory,” in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Volume 11, ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace (Buffalo: Christian Literature Publishing Company, 1894), rev. Kevin Knight, II.6
18 Often attributed to Augustine, this quote likely originated with Marco Antonio de Dominis (d.1624) and was popularized by Lutheran theologian Peter Mederlin in his 1626 work, Paraenesis votiva pro pace ecclesiae ad theologos Augustanae.
19 For a helpful overview of this perspective, see David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons, unChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks about Christianity (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2007).
20 For a brief history of denominationalism, see Roger Olson, et al, Handbook of Denominations in the United States, 14th Edition (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2018). Also helpful is Michael Patton’s article, “Why are there so many divisions in the Church?” Finally, for a helpful review of the problems of the sectarian approach, see Gavin Ortlund, Finding the Right Hills to Die On (Wheaton: Crossway, 2020), 27-43.
21 Ortlund, 45-59.
22 Kevin DeYoung, “Seven Characteristics of Liberal Theology,” The Gospel Coalition, 26 September 2017.
23 Ortlund, 47.
24 On the hermeneutic appropriateness of gospel centered approaches to scripture (a key interpretive underpinning of this approach), see Christian Smith, The Bible Made Impossible (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2012), 93-126.
26 For more on what this approach to balance requires in terms of scriptural interpretation, see Christian Smith, 127-148.
27 In the words of D.A. Carson, “Every generation of Christians faces the need to decide just what beliefs and behavior are morally mandated of all believers, and what beliefs and behavior may be left to the individual believer’s conscience.” D.A. Carson, “On Disputable Matters,” Themelios 40.3 (2015): 383.
28 In theory, I’d be willing to suggest this as a useful test for determining what a necessary issue is or is not. The actual core of Christianity would be things that never get a “views on” book. I’m reticent to make this any sort of test, however, not because I don’t think it’s useful, but because I’m reasonably certain that Zondervan (and other publishers) will eventually extend into the territory of “necessary things” to make some necessary money.
29 Helmut Thielicke, A Little Exercise for Young Theologians (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2016). See Gilbert Meileander, The Freedom of a Christian: Grace, Vocation, and the Meaning of Our Humanity (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2006), 57-88. See also, Bauman, 35-48.
30 See Ruth Koch and Kenneth Haugk, Speaking the Truth in Love (St. Louis: Stephen Ministries, 1992).
31 Bauman, 15.
32 Mere Christianity thus has strong parallels to interdenominational or trans-denominational churches, though the approach is not strictly limited to those particular manifestations.
33 N.T. Wright immediately springs to mind as someone who, especially in recent years, has intentionally adopted this posture. In Simply Christian, for instance, he writes that “the book isn’t ‘Anglican,’ ‘Catholic,’ ‘Protestant,’ or ‘Orthodox,’ but simply Christian. I have also attempted to keep what must be said as straightforward and clear as I can, so that those coming to the subject for the first time won’t get stuck in a jungle of technical terms.” See N.T. Wright, Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2006), xii.