‘Open Source Church’ concept explored during Theologian-in-Residence lecture series

What “open source” means in relation to faith and church life was the focus of the first session of the Theologian-in-Residence lecture series Tuesday (Feb. 7) at Tusculum College.

The Rev. Landon Whitsitt, author of “Open Source Church: Making Room for the Wisdom of All,” is leading the annual series, which is co-sponsored by the Holston Presbytery and Tusculum College with funding from Ron Smith.

As a person who grew up in the personal computing and Internet age, that experience affects his world view, said Whitsitt, stated clerk of the Synod of Mid-America. Similarly, he said, those experiences also affect how he and others who have grown up surrounded by and using technology see their Christian faith.

Emphasizing that there is no right or wrong way to “do” church, he said that the open source church is not for everyone. By describing the concept of the open source church, Whitsitt continued, he hopes to provide an insight to how the Internet generation views their Christian faith and perhaps help churches who have small numbers of younger people in their congregations understand how to connect with this group.

The open source church concept was inspired by the open source software movement. For software developers, open source means freedom in two ways – in gratis (no payment required) and in libre (freedom in speech and expression, the ability to edit and use the software as desired), Whitsitt said.

“The ideas of gratis and libre are woven into the Christian DNA,” he continued, noting writings by Martin Luther about Christians’ freedom in Christ, which is a gift of God, and their duty to serve others. “It is a way to describe our relationship with God and each other.”

As the open source software movement grew, it became apparent that definitions of freedom varied between developers, and one developer decided to create a definition of open source software. His definition, which includes 10 points that have to be met for software to be called open source, was embraced by the computing community and has become the standard.

The Rev. Landon Whitsitt introduces his subject of the “Open Source Church” during the first session Tuesday of the Theologian-in-Residence lecture series.


After reading the 10 tenants that open source software must meet, Whitsitt said he thought they could be adapted into a good expression of the way that those of the Internet age see the world and Christian faith.

Calling them the “10 commandments of the open source Christian world view,” Whitsitt said the first is “thou shalt freely give what thou hast freely received.” “Software exists to do something, and the gospel exists to do something,” he said. “The point of the gospel is to set people free.” The church and Christians are to share the message of the gospel – God’s love is free to all and people should not be made to pay for it, he said. He described payment as some type of requirement to be met and gave an example of requiring people to say a specific prayer before they are considered to have faith.

“Thou shalt not restrict access to Jesus Christ, the Word of God” is the second commandment. “Jesus is God in a way that I can understand,” Whitsitt said, and people should be given access to Jesus to understand Him, but that way of understanding should not be dictated to them.

The third is “thou shalt celebrate the incarnation (of Jesus) by celebrating contextualization,” he said, explaining that there has to be freedom to deliver the gospel in different ways as environment and culture dictate.

“Thou shalt respect the integrity of the work and person of Jesus Christ” is the fourth commandment. No one can claim to definitely know the mind of Christ and what He is doing in the world, Whitsitt explained.

The remainder of the commandments involve not excluding or restricting individuals, ministries or groups.

The fifth is “thou shalt not exclude any person or group. “When we exclude a group,” he said, “we are saying that it does not have anything to offer. This encourages us instead to keep the long vision and stay humble. We have to realize God knows what is going on and we don’t.”

Similarly, the sixth says “thou shalt not exclude any mission or ministry.” While a person may not personally like a mission or ministry, it has value if it is bringing people to Jesus, to experience the freedom He brings, Whitsitt added.

The seventh and eight regard the truth that the gospel is for all people and that no one theology is correct to the exclusion of all others. “Thou shalt extend the benefits of the gospel to all” is the seventh, and the eighth is “thou shalt not restrict the benefits of the gospel to a particular theology.”

The ninth commandment is “thou shalt not deny the truth and benefits of other religious traditions.”  When asked about how that could be reconciled with Jesus’ command to go and make disciples and His statement that He is “the way, the truth and the life,” Whitsitt pointed to writings by Presbyterian theologians that interpret the Great Commission passage to not be about conversion, but about disciplining, and that the understanding of the “way, truth and life” statement should be understood in the context of the situation, in which disciples were being excluded from Jewish religious life.

Because time did not allow for a fuller discussion of the issue, Whitsitt encouraged the attendees to read and investigate further on their own.

The tenth is “thou shalt not restrict the benefits of the gospel to a particular group.” Whitsitt explained that no one can say that Christ is only for a particular group or a particular denomination.

Whitsitt will continue his discourse about the open source church next Tuesday, Feb. 14, when he will focus on the basic principles of an open source church and its different levels of participation and responsibility. The series continues on Feb. 21 and will conclude Feb. 28.

The sessions begin at 10 a.m. in the Chalmers Conference Center in the Niswonger Commons on the Tusculum College campus. There is no charge to attend the lecture series, but reservations are required as lunch is provided in the college’s cafeteria. To register or for more information, please call 423.636.7304 or email eestes@tusuclum.edu.