The SBC & a Collapsing Big Tent Philosophy

Advocates of a big tent believe that people with a broad variety of political approaches and viewpoints can unite within a single party to advance shared core issues, even if they disagree in other areas. This way the party can attract a large base of support at the polls. (full article here)

The “Big Tent” political philosophy remains alive and well in our nation today.  We are beginning to see some Republicans — particularly supporters of Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels — advocate for the Big Tent.  What these people seem to forget is that the philosophy espoused by Daniels and his supporters — as Rush Limbaugh rightly points out — always leads to the collapse — not the expansion — of the tent.  And it leads to electoral defeat. 

But, why should that be the case?  Because the Big Tent philosophy, while sounding magnanimous, is never enough to unify disparate Republican factions whose political/governing philosophies are fundamentally different.  Folks who are pro-life and pro-abortion cannot long coexist in a Big Tent, at least if both groups are vying for power and control.  Only one main group can be in the driver’s seat at any given time.  The Democrats realized that principle early on and either purged (Bob Casey) or re-indoctrinated (Clinton, Gore, Gephardt — Baptists all) their pro-life politicians to a pro-abortion choice position.

Even with decisive defeats (Dole, McCain) at the polls for Big Tent Republicans, there are still those who insist on beating their heads against a wall.  Perhaps, as Rush opined, it’s the elites’ arrogance and conceit that “blinds them to reality.”  These days, that arrogance is in no short supply with Mitch Daniels, who openly states that he can beat President Obama in 2012.  Not gonna happen!

Unfortunately, the Big Tent philosophy is not confined to politicians in Washington, D.C.  Even religious organizations can fall prey to the Big Tent philosophy.  Take the Southern Baptist Convention, for example.  There are many competing philosophies that have arisen within the nation’s largest Protestant body.  Dave Miller at SBCVoices has clearly identified at least 12 groups within the SBC whose philosophies may lead to the splintering of the 45,000+ churches that comprise the Southern Baptist Convention.

Regardless of the issues confronting Southern Baptists today — Calvinists vs. non-Calvinists, Megachurch vs. non-Megachurch, Contemporary vs. Traditionalist, or Great Commission Giving vs. Cooperative Program Giving — we are witnessing what I believe is a struggle between “Big Tent” Baptists and “Smaller Tent” Baptists.

This new Big Tent philosophy is not like the old one that sought to include so-called theological moderates in the tent (although there are some who still advocate for that).  This Big Tent philosophy — which is theologically conservative — can be summed up by this statement from Dave Miller:

“We must, as a denomination, define the lowest common denominator of our fellowship.”

Big Tent Baptists would use a church’s general agreement with the Baptist Faith and Message 2000 as the lowest common denominator for whether or not one is welcome in the SBC tent.  Some will have very low denominators while others will just have low ones.  However, a church’s general agreement with the BF&M2000 (and at least nominal CP contributions and non-endorsement of homosexuality) becomes the only price of admission into the SBC’s Big Tent.  With this type of Big Tent philosophy, just about everyone who calls themselves a theological conservative (whatever that means) will be welcome in the SBC. 

Let me state for the record that I do not believe that the Big Tent philosophy is evil or morally reprehensible.  It is a respectable position to take and many, including Dave Miller and others, are to be commended for their willingness to find a solution — in this case, the Big Tent — to that which is causing division within our ranks.  For Dave, the Big Tent philosophy is rooted in God’s command to walk in love.  I would commend to you his latest post, “The More Excellent Way: Paul’s Solution for a Splintered SBC,” so that you can better understand the basis for his approach.

In contrast to the Big Tent Baptists, Smaller Tent Baptists would raise the price of admission to include not only general agreement with the BF&M2000, but also some type of agreement with an overarching Southern Baptist culture or identity.  There are multiple issues which affect our culture or identity, but Smaller Tent Baptists seek to conserve (where we get the word “conservative”) those core values that they believe are integral to what it means to be a cooperating Southern Baptist.  Perhaps at the heart (some would say the glue which holds us together) of that culture or identity is the grassroots cooperative spirit embodied in and through the Cooperative Program. 

As much as I admire Dave Miller’s passion to see the SBC avoid splintering, I believe that a splintering — in some form or fashion — is inevitable.  We are already witnessing this on the State Convention and local association level.  And, contra Dave, I do not think that “walking in love” will prevent further splintering.  That’s because love cannot erase the fundamental differences in philosophy that Big Tent and Smaller Tent Baptists have.

At the end of the day, theology and methodology — while different — are wedded together in such a fashion so as to form a cohesive ministry philosophy.  When philosophies of groups become so divergent that we no longer are walking in the same direction, cooperation and partnership become difficult if not impossible.  As Amos clearly states:

“Can two people walk together without agreeing on the direction?” (Amos 3:3 NLT)

 While there are some within the SBC who appear not to want to walk in love, I believe that the overwhelming majority of Southern Baptists exhibit love (albeit imperfectly at times).  However, I also believe that love — which can cover a multitude of sins — cannot paper over fundamental differences in our philosophy of ministry.  We can still love one another, but at the end of the day, our philosophy of ministry may be so divergent that we find ourselves walking in different directions. 

In 1980, Ronald Reagan began what came to be known as the Reagan Revolution.  Thoroughly conservative, the Republican Party was transformed from the party of Rockefeller and the moderate Republicans to the party of Reagan and conservative Republicans (which it still is today).  Are there still moderates in the Republican Party?  Yes, but they are not the base.  The Republican Party is a tent, but it is not a Big Tent where all beliefs are equally embraced.  Big Tent politics, while it sounds promising, always leads to defeat.

Perhaps the Southern Baptist Convention could be that organization that believes in and practices a Big Tent philosophy successfully.  While I am generally an optimist, my realism tells me that the SBC — like political parties — will not be able to build a Big Tent.  One need only read posts and comments at SBCVoices, SBCToday and other blogs to realize that the SBC Tent can only be so big.  How big?  That is an open question.  The Big Tent of the SBC is beginning to sag.  At some point, the Big Tent will collapse.  The new tent that replaces it may or may not be better than the old one.  But, it will never be the same.

8 comments for “The SBC & a Collapsing Big Tent Philosophy

  1. May 11, 2011 at 10:13 AM

    I will excuse the fact that you disagreed with me if you post this at SBC Voices in the next couple of days, (or sooner).

    I enjoy disagreeing with you, Howell.

    • May 11, 2011 at 12:26 PM


      I’ll have it posted for your review in the next few minutes. We can always hope that the Big Tent philosophy will work, but I think it may be merely a wish at this point. I do not see either in the Republican Party or in the SBC someone with Reagan’s or Rogers’ stature and authority. I do not want the job, thank you very much! If someone of that stature does not emerge soon, then I think the tent will collapse of its own weight sooner rather than later. I’m glad that you enjoy disagreeing with me. 🙂 Actually, you are easy (in the sense of your gracious spirit) to disagree with. Others not so much. And, it does make for more interesting dialogues at Voices when we have “friendly” disagreements. Have a great day in the Lord!


  2. May 11, 2011 at 10:14 AM

    And by the way, I am not optimistic that a “Big Tent” philosophy will work in the SBC, just as you said. I HOPE it will, but I do not necessarily believe it will.

  3. May 11, 2011 at 10:15 AM

    One more thing. If the SBC is to come together, we need a Reagan or an Adrian Rogers or someone like that – a statesman with a vision who inspires people to follow.

    Want the job?

  4. Christiane
    May 11, 2011 at 3:35 PM

    Not sure that the ‘base’ can be called ‘conservative’ anymore.
    In the last six months, some Republican governors have taken actions that do not represent their ‘conservative’ constituents.

    There is a need to take another look at the Republican agenda being put forward that will impact the middle class. Another label might be more appropriate than ‘conservative’.

    • May 11, 2011 at 4:42 PM


      Thanks for reading and commenting. Even though some Republican governors have taken “less than conservative” actions, I still believe that the Republican Party in particular and the United States in general are conservative. Even Republican “conservatives” can have an elitist attitude. When they do, they seem to govern more as moderates than as Reagan conservatives. I’m not sure what I would label it at this point. Thanks again and God bless,


  5. Bennett Willis
    May 11, 2011 at 4:42 PM

    You would think that what we have in common would so far outweigh our differences that we would cooperate–and that was the basis for the CP. Recently there are some surveys that seem to show that we are becoming more fractured as a people (United States) and that we hold more aggresively to our positions. Even the very narrow ones.

    Once we began to clearly characterize (exactly) those (and what) we were willing to support, then the tent shrank.

Leave a Reply