In recent years ongoing negotiations over the constraints on membership and participation in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have often invoked the language of political parties in favor of inclusiveness. These authors use the term “big tent Mormonism” to describe an LDS Church that could tolerate a wider range of opinions and philosophies than it has in the latter twentieth century. This terminology draws not on the metaphor of the Hebrew tabernacle that stands behind the nomenclature of “stakes” of Zion, but on twentieth-century political partisanship. A “big tent” philosophy suggests that a party will be more powerful if it manages to unite disparate factions for the greater purpose of social dominance and success vis-a-vis opponents. I am sympathetic to, and generally agree with, calls for more inclusive Mormonism, but I think the metaphor of the big tent is fundamentally wrongheaded. We must be able to accommodate a wide array of different people with different needs and outlooks and concerns, but we ought not to use the techniques of political parties to achieve that end. In its place, I propose a metaphor from the world’s most famous tent maker, the Pharisee Saul who took the new name Paul as an emblem of his life in Christ. In an address to the church at Corinth squabbling over who was better on the basis of the distribution of certain spiritual gifts, Paul urged those Christians
But all [spiritual gifts] worketh that one and the selfsame Spirit, dividing to every man severally as he will. For as the body is one, and hath many members, and all the members of that one body, being many, are one body: so also is Christ. For by one Spirit are we all baptized into one body, whether we be Jews or Gentiles, whether we be bond or free . . . . For the body is not one member, but many. If the foot shall say, Because I am not the hand, I am not of the body; is it therefore not of the body? And if the ear shall say, Because I am not the eye, I am not of the body; is it therefore not of the body? If the whole body were an eye, where were the hearing? If the whole were hearing, where were the smelling? But now hath God set the members every one of them in the body, as it hath pleased him. And if they were all one member, where were the body? But now are they many members, yet but one body. And the eye cannot say unto the hand, I have no need of thee: nor again the head to the feet, I have no need of you. . . . That there should be no schism in the body; but that the members should have the same care one for another. And whether one member suffer, all the members suffer with it; or one member be honoured, all the members rejoice with it. Now ye are the body of Christ, and members in particular. (1 Cor. 12, KJV)
I love this image, even if the Jacobean translators managed to beat it senseless, and I return to it often (net Bible will be clearer). As I understand Paul, he is indicating that the church community is best understood as a body, in which tissues and organs are all distinct, with very different needs and talents, but in Christ and Christ’s mystical body these various tissues and organs together constitute the great miracle of an integrated body.
I believe strongly that the body of Christ is a better metaphor for inclusion within the Church than the big tent. It would be easy to dismiss my concern as quibbling over “mere semantics” (an oxymoron if ever I met one), but I believe that body instead of tent is a distinction with a difference. In a body we are intimately interconnected—I study homeostasis professionally, and organs are absolutely necessary to each other in the vastly complex networks of human life. In a tent we are temporary neighbors at best. In the body we are deeply committed to each other, in a tent we are compromising on minor agenda items to vanquish a common foe. In the body we recognize our shared salvation as the reason for integrated diversity, in the tent we hope that tolerating differences in opinion will allow us greater power in broader society. In the tent I am biting my tongue in hopes of achieving some other end. In the body I might bite my tongue because I am the same person I intend to criticize, and we are both Christ.
I believe that the same apparent diversity can be present in both metaphors but the type and degree of inter-human commitment is much greater in the metaphor of the body. The burden imposed by the body of Christ, a burden that I believe is essential to our salvation, applies equally to the majority group and the minority group. Within the body of Christ we criticize only with deep humility and love. This does not mean that we will never disagree. In fact, the different organs of the body have very different needs and requirements. What keeps the body alive is the capacity for different organs to communicate needs and adjust requirements to allow the distribution of energy to meet the needs of the constituent organs. It is our commitment to cooperation, communication, and mutual support that allows a body of incredibly varied people to constitute the sacred and mystically powerful body of Christ.