Tolerance is allowance for error or deviation. The human body is able to tolerate certain environmental factors which work physiological detriment externally, or the body can tolerate a certain level of poison (drugs) which combat the body’s well-being internally. The term toleration is also commonly used in the manufacture of tools and machines. By using hard metals and precise measurements, workmen are able to produce parts which deviate from a standard by as little as .005 of an inch. This allows for mass production and the interchanging of parts. The third area in which our subject is important is that of intersocial volition; here tolerance is sympathy or indulgence for beliefs or practices differing from, or conflicting with, one’s own. We are, of course, interested here not in physiology or industry, but in this last area of personal relations, more precisely, those relations where a child of God is involved. It is here that the question raised in the title is most pressing.
There is scarcely an aspect of life where men would not have us believe that tolerance is the ultimate virtue. It seems that a good church member is above all else a “nice” person. He is friendly, he does not offend, he is tolerant. If he should come into contact with a man who holds positions or practices which differ or conflict with his own, why, he smiles rather than confronts. He judges according to the touchstone of sincerity. A man may believe and do pretty much as he pleases; yet he gets high marks if only he is sincere. With such “good church members” the work of the church can go forward, forward in such things as the preaching of the Gospel, discipline, ecumenism, evangelism projects, and education, both at home and at school. It is certainly the case that such things are affected by the matter of tolerance or intolerance.
Basic to the entire tolerant position in matters of a moral, ethical nature is the premise that man, that is, man in the church, does not have an absolute standard of truth. It is so often said that truth is not as absolute as some would make it. There must be room for diverse opinions in matters of doctrine and walk. And since there is no absolute standard, who would dare to condemn an idea or an action? Maybe the other fellow is right. Maybe the other fellow is partly right. So there is in the church a growing agnosticism, perhaps better called a Christian agnosticism, that states that we really can’t know who is right and who is wrong. When the Bible is brought forth as just such a standard by which all doctrines and behavior may be evaluated, various ploys are used to escape such consequences that would then follow. They are familiar: the Bible, especially the Old Testament but also the New, is bound to the time of its composition: there are errors in the Bible which ought to make us hesitant in using it too strictly; and then the catch-all, who can tell what the Bible really means? Is it not sufficient that a man sincerely holds to what he thinks the .Bible means? Must there not be room for diversity of opinions?
Let it be stated here that the truly Christian man is intolerant. And he is intolerant according to the Scriptures. He does not allow for error or deviation. That is, he does not give room to practices or beliefs which differ from or conflict with the teaching of the Word of God. He does not allow room for sin, any sin. He does not allow room for doctrinal error, however small or insignificant that departure may appear. If this shakes you a little bit; then it ought to be recognized that Christianity is an intolerant religion. Although Mohammedanism, Confucianism, Hinduism, Shintoism, Taoism are content to occupy the stage with Christianity, true Christianity does not reciprocate this contentedness. Nor is true Christianity content with much that happens within the sphere of, and under the name of, Christianity. Here tolerance says, “Let it go.” Christian intolerance says, “Let it stop.” Tolerance says, “Maybe.” Intolerance says, “No.” This “no” must be directed not only against opponents outside the church but against the opponents within as well. Opponents of the Bible do not become less dangerous, but they become far more dangerous when they are found within ecclesiastical walls.
Jesus, the apostles, the entire Bible, present an attitude and a teaching that can only be called intolerant. According to John 14:6 Jesus says, “I am the way, the truth and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by Me.” This answer of Jesus to Thomas employs the, most absolute words possible; there is no life apart from Christ, there is no truth except as it is in Christ, there is no way unto the salvation of the Father other than Christ. In the church on earth that must be, preached with all authority and emphasis. Any departure from those words is a lie, destroys the way’ of; salvation, and invites devilish heresies. InGalatians 1:8 inspired Paul dares to say, “But though we or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel unto you than that which we have preached unto you, let him be accursed.” What lies behind such absolutism? Surely there lies in Paul’s heart the Spirit-worked conviction that what he has preached is truth! And that which the false teachers present are damnable5 heresies that subvert the entire gospel of Christ. What sort of evangelism can be indifferent to the question of what is being preached? Writing his second epistle, John admonishes, “If there come any unto you, and bring not this doctrine, receive him not into your house, neither bid him God speed: for he that biddeth him God speed is partaker of his evil deeds.” The doctrines of the Word of God are clear and understandable. The church member may not receive or send off with well-wishing any that do not hew strictly to those doctrines.
Further, our confessions demonstrate this same intolerance towards doctrinal deviation and sin in the life of the church member. Please confer the Heidelberg Catechism, Questions and Answers 62-64, 80, 82, 83-85, 87, and 115. All this from the most practical and personal of the three confessions. See also the Belgic Confession and the Canons of Dordt. Any article will demonstrate that truth is sharp and sure, can be known, must be confessed and lived. There is one other document that ought to be read at this point. For every office-bearer in our churches (and others) the Formula of Subscription is binding. It, too, is based on the above mentioned characteristics of truth, as truth is revealed to us by God in His Word. As men today say, Instead of theological differences let us sing together Paul’s hymn of Christian love, instead of controversy let us have prayer, instead of polemics let us have evangelism, let the man of God say, I will have the 1ogical differences, controversy, and polemics when the Word of God requires it of me. And then I will enjoy Christian love, prayer, and evangelism in the way of that same Word.
It is time to inject two important considerations. In the first place, all the above does not imply that there is never any room for a difference of opinion in respect to beliefs and practices. The fourteenth chapter of Romans certainly teaches us that within the Church of Christ there is room for some variation, and there must be room for this. This is the well known question of the things indifferent. The Church Order also recognizes that in the area of church mergers and congregations joining a denomination, “Churches whose usages differ from ours merely in non-essentials shall not be rejected.” (Art. 85).So there is room for the exercise of Christian liberty according to an individual’s conscience. We would point out, however, that this consideration does not vitiate what has been previously stated, because tolerance has been defined as sympathy or indulgence for those things which are contrary to the Word of God.
The second consideration has to do with love. Surely the question has already occurred to many, Where does love fit into this picture? Tolerance is not love; never may they be confused. And intolerance must be grounded in love. What kind of love is it that allows a brother to continue in his sin unrebuked? The brother offends God, experiences a deadly guilt, and loses the sense of God’s favor. Tolerance allows him to stay that way. Intolerance in respect to sin will humbly insist that the brother confess his sin and forsake it, will restore him with the spirit of meekness, and cause him to experience the lifting up of God’s countenance upon him. Again, what kind of love is it that allows a false gospel to be preached on the mission field, a gospel which cannot save? False teachers make a fair show in the flesh and with feigned words make merchandise of their hearers; but God does not use them for the gathering of His Church. If you have love for those who are as sheep without a shepherd, if you are concerned for the welfare, of those who are God’s children but as yet unconverted, then you will want the pure Gospel of Jesus Christ preached unto them. And that will require a position of intolerance toward all errors. John sums this up beautifully by saying, “If we say that we have fellowship with Him, and walk in darkness, we lie, and do not the truth: But if we walk in the light, as He is in the light, we have fellowship one with another, and the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanseth us from all sin.”
Historically, toleration in religion and ethics shows itself to be deadly. The one example of the Edict of Toleration issued by Constantine in 313 will suffice. Although there were certain benefits for the Church due to this Edict, the disadvantages far outweighed them: the Church became wealthy and pre-occupied with material things; because the emperor favored Christianity, hordes of people joined the Church who had no business there, and they brought with them the vices of the pagan world which resulted in a decline of spirituality and discipline; the Church forsook Christ and His Gospel and whored after secular and political matters. It is written large in the history of the church that toleration causes the life of the Church in this world to become sullied, her witness is dimmed, and her true message is put to silence.
The calling of the faithful child of God is, then, to be intolerant, uncompromising, and unbending in respect to doctrinal errors and all sin. His calling is to love God and his neighbor, and this calling he fulfills by standing on the Scriptures and speaking the Scriptures. He will then find that those that shout “Toleration!” the loudest will not be tolerant of him. J. Gresham Machen, writing in “The Importance of Christian Scholarship” (p. 27) notes that “The representatives of the dominant Modern-indifferentist forces have engaged in the most violent adjectival abuse of their opponents; yet they have been called sweet and beautiful and tolerant: the defenders of the Bible and of the historic position of the Church have spoken courteously, though plainly, in opposition, and have been called “bitter” and “extreme.” Words like bitter, extreme, narrow-minded, old-fashioned, cannot hurt those who esteem the favor of Christ more than the favor of men.
What kind of church member do these latter days require? One who is vigilant, who stands firm in the faith, who behaves as a man and is strong!