The Danger of Tolerance
In reading the history of my former church of over thirty one years, I am stricken with the degree to which they held their membership when considering the manner of life they were living. It was not uncommon at all for them to call a member before the church in a disciplinary action. The interesting fact is that they were excommunicated and soundly warned for doing things that the churches of today don’t even notice much less consider them a cause for discipline. Public drunkenness was cause for church action. If a woman was seen smoking in public they were called before the church. Profanity was something that would bring discipline. Irregular attendance in the services would also bring action by the church. Gossip would not be tolerated and one had to answer for it. Yes, in the early days of the church, people were expected to exhibit a Christian way of life and demeanor if they were going to claim Christianity and remain a member of the church in good standing.
There was also another side to the situation. The church, which met only once a month in those early days of the late seventeen and eighteen hundreds, also disciplined in love. They would send a committee of two or three men to talk to the offending member about their moral and spiritual failures. If the person repented, they were restored in good standing in the next monthly meeting. If they did not repent they were finally excommunicated until such time that they came before the church and publicly confessed their sin seeking restored membership. All of this demonstrated that the people of the church took seriously their relationship to the Lord and to His Church. One can read the historical minutes of the church and see that this action continued in many of the churches well into the twentieth century.
But, something has taken place in the last one hundred years. The churches have ceased to demand that their members act like dedicated Christians whose lives have been changed by the Spirit of the Lord. A dangerous word and concept has slowly and almost imperceptibly become operative and that concept is tolerance. As the spiritual commitment of the people began to wane, it was easy to tolerate sin in the camp because many members knew they were harboring sin in their own lives. Sin found its way in the door almost unhindered as tolerance became the norm. One would have to do something absolutely horrible to be questioned at all. Adultery became unquestioned except in the dark halls of gossip. Public cursing, smoking by women, drinking, slander and non attendance no longer even rated on the scale of unacceptable conduct. Things which would formally bring absolute and sudden discipline and even excommunication became something hardly noticed by the church. This didn’t happen over night. Satan is more subtle than that. It was something that slowly and imperceptibly took place. The church awoke one day and people could be heard to say: “I remember when a person would never do such and such because they feared the discipline of the church.” In the days when the church held its people to a close Biblical standard and when people had a healthy fear of church discipline, society had a disciplinary force beyond the law which held it to account. In fact the “long arm of the church’s disciplinary action” was far more feared than the “long arm of the law.” But, as people absorbed the idea that tolerance was a good thing, the church began to lose the ability to be the moral agent it had been in previous times. When it watered itself down, it also watered down its ability to speak to the ills of society and to be taken seriously.
This politically correct world in which we live expects the church to operate within limitations to call someone into question for moral and spiritual lapses. The worst thing one can do today is to tell someone they are wrong. Correction is tantamount to an insult. Why, there is no right and wrong any more. “What’s right for me is right for me and you had better not tell me that I am wrong.” That is the mantra of this politically correct world in which we presently live. Sadly, the church has been drawn into believing and practicing this same frame of mind. Calling someone before the church today would not only invite a law suit (over against what Paul says about that) but it would also bring the questioning disdain from many of the other members of the church. “Why, who in the world gave them the right to call this person out for their actions?” That would be the thought of many of the people because many of them recognize that such church action could also apply to them if they allow certain things into their lives. So, what is done today? The situation is hardly ever dealt with. “I’m just hoping that they will work out their problems” is often the statement. “I really don’t think we should get involved” is also readily heard. The church leaders just look the other way, continue to do as they are doing, and hope that the problem doesn’t get any worse. The idea of dealing with the situation in the proper way and keeping the body of Christ free from “infection” is never seriously considered. The Pastor and church leaders cannot pass off the responsibility to someone else to solve the problem at hand. They must step up as leaders and exhibit that leadership if things are going to work as they should.
This writer is not under the false impression that such an approach to church life will ever be practiced again. That is not what he is expecting. The purpose of this little essay is to point out again what many already know but don’t want to address: the modern day acceptance of tolerance is killing the influence of the church by degrees. In fact, the world gives the church only an occasional glance and that only when it is deemed helpful. They will still occasionally appeal to the church but mostly when their actions have developed into something so serious that they have to turn to the church for help. Because of the adoption of the attitude of tolerance toward sin, the church has lost and is losing its moral and spiritual ability to influence society and be the preservative we were meant to be. The day in which the church was viewed as the “glue” which held society together morally and spiritually is quickly vanishing. When people drive by a church on Sunday their thought is something like this: “well, those people have chosen to spend their time in church but I choose to spend my time at the lake today.” “If they want to go to church, that’s o.k. but I’ts also o.k. for me not to go.” The necessity of a strong spiritual nation has vanished and that fact is due in large part to the fact that the church has accepted tolerance as her operative norm.
So, we have come to a day when the things such as drinking, smoking in public (by a woman), public profanity, adultery, non attendance in church and other situations which brought strong disapproval from the church body no longer even rate on the scale and which are practiced by not a few of the members. We have drifted into a day when one must commit some gross action before they would have to even worry much about how the church people feel about it. The Body of Christ is meant to be pure before the world in order to be an agent of salvation. But, in this day, the Body of Christ (church) is guilty of sins to the same degree that the world is guilty. We are not suppose to be viewed as a good moral and spiritual entity simply because we have fewer people harboring sin in their lives than the world at large. It is meant that we should set the example of holy living to mark the difference Jesus makes in our lives. We are suppose to be held to a higher standard than the world. How can we be used to save people from something that we are guilty of to the same degree? Tolerance is killing the influence we are suppose to have in and on the world. I am delighted to be able to say that the church has many, many people who are seeking to serve God and give the proper witness in the world to His life changing power. They are functioning within the church as God is leading them to do. Without them, the church would be totally absorbed. They are the faithful who would totally agree with what has been stated here and are acutely aware of what has been discussed. They are easily picked out of the crowd by someone who spiritually aware. We should thank God that such a remnant is in our midst.
Once ground is given up it is twice as hard to reclaim, but we must seek to return the church to a day in which purity was deemed necessary and in which the Church was internally concerned about its own holiness. Tolerance is the poison by-word of the church’s acceptance of sin in its midst. And, as long as that is the situation, Christianity will become weaker and weaker. Our strength is found in winning people to Jesus and standing against sin. We lost our strength when we cease to fulfill those functions. May heaven send us a genuine Holy Spirit led revival which will capture our hearts and refocus our commitment to being His spiritual Body on planet earth.
William F. Harrell