Rev. DeVries is pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church in Wingham, Ontario, Canada.
We live in an age of almost unparalleled tolerance. Tolerance is put forth as one of the great virtues of our times. It is possible to give it other names, to use another label for this notion, different terminology. It may be called “cultural accommodation”; it may be termed “political correctness”; it may be euphemistically labeled “sensitivity.” But underlying all of these characterizations is the notion of tolerance. Though many in our day would undoubtedly desire to add “tolerance” to the list of the fruits of the Spirit and formulate another beatitude around it, Scripture doesn’t use the word. A form of the word, the word “tolerable,” is used by Scripture in reference to the degree of God’s judgment upon the ungodly. But Scripture certainly speaks of compassion, longsuffering, and many other beautiful virtues.
Properly speaking, tolerance is defined as a recognition of and respect for the opinions, beliefs, or actions of others. And it implies neither approval nor disapproval as such. To be tolerant of someone means to put up with him, to accept his legal right to believe or do what he does. The toleration of various beliefs and activities is, to a degree, necessary, living in the midst of this world of various peoples and cultures. Certainly tolerance, as properly defined and understood, is manifest in the lives and activities of God’s people, also of the saints in Scripture. For example, we may say that Abraham tolerated, put up with, the Canaanites that were dwelling in the land of promise to which the Lord had led him and in which by faith he remained a pilgrim and a stranger.
But Scripture knows not, and never condones, a tolerance by God’s people of sin, of the lie, or of the impenitent sinner in the fellowship of the saints or in the communion of the church. (SeeI Corinthians 5, Revelation 2:12-17, 20.) We must understand that something very devious has taken place in our society and in much of the church in regard to this notion of tolerance. Well-known Canadian author and social commentator William D. Gairdner, in his book The War Against the Family, lists ten “popular illusions,” which he defines as popular beliefs without foundation that conflict with the core values of our society. One of these “popular illusions” he terms “The Tolerance Illusion,” and he carefully explains how the idea of “tolerance” is turned (twisted) into the notion of “approval.” He writes, “Little by little, the idea of tolerance has been forcibly altered to mean ‘approval’, and it is used by the media and by activists, by human rights types, and by lobbyists of all sorts to promote their agenda against a soft-headed gullible public.” He points out that the quickest way to get someone to back down on any issue is to accuse him of being intolerant. Gairdner gives compelling examples that demonstrate his point. To mention only one, the abortion issue, he writes, “If you approve of abortion, you are ‘pro-choice’ (tolerant). If you don’t approve, you are ‘anti-abortion’ (and to be ‘anti’anything in our culture is to be intolerant).” So he shows that the public has been effectively manipulated into accepting the idea that approval is the politically neutral, correct posture; tolerance equals approval, as he puts it.
Now, to be quite honest, all of this, as it applies to society in general, does not concern me all that much. Oh, yes, I am grieved by the abounding immorality and corruption we see here in North America—the tolerance of gambling, pornography, divorce and remarriage, illegal drug use, homosexuality, and, especially at this time, the same-sex marriage legislation that is being emphatically promoted here in Canada. But what truly grieves my soul is that this phenomenon, this, to use Gairdner’s terminology, “tolerance illusion,” has to a great extent beguiled the churches, even Reformed and conservative Presbyterian churches of our day. Bret McAtee, a Christian Reformed pastor, astutely pointed this out several years ago in an article in The Outlook entitled, “The Need for a Sure Word.” In describing how we are told by those with supposed compassion that we live in modern times and our culture demands a new sensitivity (or tolerance) from the Bible, he writes, “The Word must be sensitive to the homosexual who ‘loves Jesus’, sensitive to the person who is clucking ‘in the Spirit’, sensitive to feminists who arrogate to themselves positions of authority, and sensitive to those who find God’s masculinity offensive. And of course, being sensitive (read “tolerant”: MDV) these days is code language for ‘agrees with.'”
Though examples are “all around us,” notice the following shocking examples, even in Reformed churches at the present time:
R. Albert Mohler Jr. reports in the February 9, 2005 issue of Christian Renewal in an article entitled “The Church that Cannot Make Up its Mind” as follows:
The famous Dr. Seuss once told the story of a “young man from Zoad, who came to two signs in the fork of the road.” Forced to choose between two directions, the indecisive Zoad simply decided to go both directions at once. As Dr. Seuss explained, “that’s how the Zoad who would not take a chance went to no place at all with a split in his pants.”
That little parable comes to mind with the mid-January release of the report on human sexuality conducted by an official task force of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). The “Task Force for Evangelical Lutheran Church in America Studies on Sexuality” as commissioned by the denomination in 2001 and charged to bring a full report on controversial issues related to homosexuality so that the church could consider the issue in 2005. In August, the report will be considered by the ELCA’s “Church Assembly” which will convene in Orlando, Fla. Like most mainline Protestant denominations, the ELCA has been torn by controversy over issues related to human sexuality. Forces pushing for the blessing of same-gender relationships and the acceptance of openly homosexual clergy have been pushing the issue through local and regional levels of the church. At the same time, powerful forces have defended the church’s current policy and discipline which excludes practicing homosexuals from service as ordained ministers and “rostered leaders.” The church also bans same-sex blessing ceremonies as rites recognized by the denomination.
The denomination had been eagerly awaiting the release of this report, but it is likely to please no one. Rather than settling the issue one way or the other, this report is a classic demonstration of the bureaucratic mind at work, couching its language in the voice of compromise and toleration (emphasis mine, MDV) while offering no conclusive answer to the most basic questions at stake….
Acknowledging the level of conflict in the denomination, the task force states: “It has become clear to the task force that the disagreement over these issues before the church is deep, pervasive, multi-faceted, and multi-layered. This church is not of one mind.” Accordingly, the task force’s first recommendation was that the church “concentrate on finding ways to live together faithfully in the midst of our disagreements….”
Regrettably, this ELCA task force took as its model not Martin Luther at the Diet of Worms but Dr. Seuss’s Zoad at the fork in the road. Like the proverbial Zoad, this report will go no place at all—with a split in its pants.
In an article entitled “Polite Rebuke,” written by Edward E. Plowman in World (October 30, 2004) under the heading, “Anglican commission mildly taps radical bishops on the wrist,” Plowman writes:
Pickings were slim for conservatives in the long-awaited Lambeth Commission’s “Windsor Report” on the crisis in the worldwide Anglican Communion.
They had wanted to see the predominantly liberal U.S. Episcopal Church (ECUSA) “disciplined” for consecrating as bishop last year V. Gene Robinson, a homosexual living with his male partner, and for allowing same-sex blessings under official ECUSA auspices. Instead, liberal bishops in ECUSA got off with little more than a mild tap on the wrist, and Bishop Robinson kept his job.
The conservatives also had wanted approval of a plan that would allow conservative congregations to receive spiritual oversight by biblically faithful bishops, regardless of diocesan boundaries. The report rejected such a plan and accused overseas bishops who had come to the aid of North American conservatives of contributing to disunity.
It called for a moratorium on any further interventions, including declarations of broken or impaired communion with ECUSA (as 18 mostly African provinces, representing the vast majority of the world’s Anglicans, have done so far).
One of those overseas leaders, Archbishop Peter Akinola of Nigeria, the world’s largest Anglican province, fired back. “Why, throughout the document, is there such a marked contrast between the language used against those who are subverting the faith and that used against those of us, from the global south, who are trying to bring the church back to the Bible?” he said. “Where is the language of rebuke for those who are promoting sexual sins as holy and acceptable behavior? The imbalance is bewildering….”
Examples could be multiplied. Consider the teachings of the Word of God, both as regards doctrine and life, that are denied, openly denied, which denials are tolerated, yea, approved! The doctrine of creation in six ordinary days, the flood, double predestination, sovereign particular grace, observance of the Lord’s Day, the honoring of the marriage bond, the proper calling of women in the church, the antithetical Christian life, and many more.
And the keys of the kingdom rust from disuse, utter neglect, particularly the key of Christian discipline. That third mark of the true church, Christian discipline, in the love of Christ, is scarcely to be found in our day. There is an astounding degree of tolerance prevalent—a tolerance that can recognize as “Christian” the most blatant contradictions of the truth as it is revealed in Scripture—in both doctrine and life!
What does the exalted Lord Christ say about all of this?
I know thy works, and where thou dwellest, even where Satan’s seat is: and thou holdest fast my name, and hast not denied my faith, even in those days wherein Antipas was my faithful martyr, who was slain among you, where Satan dwelleth. But I have a few things against thee, because thou hast there them that hold the doctrine of Balaam, who taught Balac to cast a stumblingblock before the children of Israel, to eat things sacrificed unto idols, and to commit fornication. So hast thou also them that hold the doctrine of the Nicolaitans, which thing I hate. Repent; or else I will come unto thee quickly, and will fight against them with the sword of my mouth.”