I was sitting in class my very first semester of seminary filled with tremendous excitement and trepidation. Once again, I was studying the subject my heart has never stopped seeking after: God and His Word. Very much like my first class of Bible College in 2003, I was simply giddy to be sitting and learning about the Bible and Theology. It was during one of Dr. Metzger’s fiery lectures in first semester Theology (which you would be familiar with if you have ever had the privilege of hearing him teach) that the simple phrase “Bigger Table Theology” came to me. It made sense to me at that moment, but when I tried to write about it or tell someone about it, it came out all jumbled. So I hid it away, feeling that my idea was ultimately smarter than I was, and that I wasn’t educated enough to develop such a lofty concept on my own.
Besides the challenge of trying to put words to my idea of “Bigger Table Theology,” a few other factors also contributed to my hiding the idea away in my mind for a time.
First, I had just been offered a job at my local church, where my husband and I had been attending for about five years. This was so validating because I have always felt called to vocational ministry and the head pastor was just the male advocate whom I needed to have permission to step into this role. I felt empowered and supported. There was one hitch, however. My title was “Administrator”. It didn’t bother me at first until I began to realize how much this role was just another “back door” approach I had to take in order to have a seat at the table of ministry. I knew I wanted to contribute more than just sending out the monthly newsletter. But as a woman, I resigned myself to take what was offered at the time. So I gladly took on the role and ultimately functioned like an “Associate Pastor” under the guise of “Administrator” until it became apparent that I was no longer welcome in that space.
Second, this same pastor who advocated for my ministry role also cheered me on when I decided to go to seminary. This was another empowering experience, and it led me to pull out the loans and apply. But nothing can make a woman more aware that she is in fact a woman than sitting in a male dominant classroom. My first semester of Biblical Greek class was made up of four guys and four women. I couldn’t believe it! So many ladies learning Greek, hurray! Then one by one, week by week, another woman would drop the course. By the third week, I turned to my new friend Stephanie and she looked back at me like, “You better not leave, Sister!” Luckily, she and I stuck it out together for two years and I couldn’t have asked for a better friend. But as I looked through my notes that first semester, I noticed little areas of processing I was doing along the way. Much of it had to do with “Why the heck am I in seminary?!” I may have been supported to start the journey, but I had zero vision for how to sustain this calling.
Last but not least, I felt so much angst about my decision to study theology all over again. My main motivation for beginning seminary was because I wanted to think theologically for myself, but I felt stymied. I hesitated to start because I wondered “Why bother? I graduated from college with an undergrad degree in Bible and Theology, which I barely used. It seemed like such a waste. So why add more loans to my debt, which, by the way, I am still paying off. It was hard to see at the time that it was an investment for the future.
My undergraduate courses in Systematic Theology entailed memorizing a set of theological arguments about things like Eschatology (study of the end times), Ecclesiology (study of the Church), soteriology (study of salvation), etc., etc. I never once felt I had the tools to develop these arguments on my own. I didn’t want merely to memorize propositions. I wanted to build my own paradigm.
So, there I was that first semester in seminary, listening to Dr. Metzger engage in theological reflection, burdened with all my personal, theological angst. I desperately wanted a seat at the table of theological discourse, but I did not feel there was room or even an invitation being extended. At that moment, an old quote came to mind:
When you have more than you need, build a longer table, not a higher fence.
Well isn’t this true for the Kingdom of God!? Yes, and Amen! We are abundantly overflowing with the Spirit of God, commissioned to go throughout the earth to preach the Gospel. Isn’t God’s table big enough for all of us!? Yet so many encounter only higher and higher fences that keep them out from important conversations within the faith community rather than experience longer tables where they can sit and significantly contribute to the dialogue. Our theological rules have silenced half the church and have siloed the rest into minority groups that we simply ignore most of the time.
For too long, I have desired for a seat at the table but have felt like I had to manipulate or create an argument of convenience (“I can just take notes.”) to even be in the same room. This shows up for me specifically in ministry roles. I have never desired to be in ministries where women are allowed to lead (Women & Children). These are wonderful and necessary ministries, but they are not where my heart is. I want to speak into the church both locally and globally. I desire to participate in the fullness of God’s kingdom and contribute my thoughts to the conversation.
I want a seat at the table because God’s table is big enough for me.
Not only that, I want to add seats to this table that have been taken away. I want to add a seat for the Native American woman and AME Zion preacher down the street. I want to hear where we disagree and what we can teach one another. I want to learn how they see God and His church. Give me all the good and ugly experiences, and how that has shaped your theological views. Remind me that when I go off on my feminist tangents that feminism primarily empowered white women only for the longest time.
Bigger Table Theology is about adding seats to God’s huge Kingdom table and giving people a chance to speak and contribute to the conversation. Here’s the thing about theology we all have to remember: we are limited by our own cultural context. I can only do theology as a white, almost 40, college educated, working class, urban, female. That’s it. So in order for me to have a broader, more global idea of God’s Church, I have to be sitting next to people on a regular basis who don’t look or think the same way that I do. I have to change the literature I am reading and dive into areas of the Kingdom of God that are complete mysteries to me. Our cultural limitations aren’t bad or wrong, it’s just what it is. However, what is bad is when I don’t take into account my limitations. When I know that I am limited and can accept that, it becomes much easier to sit at God’s Kingdom table and welcome others to sit beside me.
Here’s the warning to all us believers in Jesus: if we choose to interact only with people who think and look like us, then we become easily manipulated and deceived by our inactive imaginations to believe the Kingdom is like a very small table. This ultimately keeps us stuck in rigid self-righteousness and dehumanizes our fellow believers, aka building a higher fence. And listen up, we don’t have to have the hammer in hand to build it, our ignorance and ignoring others will do the trick. Our theological views and the way we see God’s table is ultimately about how we live and participate in God’s Kingdom. Our views are a part of our daily decisions whether we are aware of it or not. They shape the way we see ourselves, our neighbors, the environment, and God. Just because you are not sitting in a classroom like I am doesn’t mean you aren’t a theologian. You are making decisions and creating behaviors out of a set of theological beliefs all the time. But many of us are not aware of it, even more terrifying, many of us do not actually live what we say we believe.
Bigger Table Theology is about opening our eyes and hearts to see both the diversity of God’s Kingdom and to invite that Kingdom community to participate fully together. The table is already set and what we need now is a theology that reflects it involving a diversity of participants, including you, me, and them. Not one voice, but many. It’ll be messy and chaotic. There will be plenty of arguing and tears. But there will also be laughter and embracing and rejoicing in the common life we all have in Christ. For God has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ, so let’s start adding more chairs.
Edited by Dr. Paul Louis Metzger