Editor Note: The following is the text of an address given at the 1973 Protestant Reformed Young People’s Convention held in Hope, Grand Rapids. It was given as an introduction to one of the discussion sessions.
A proper beginning for any topic of discussion would be, I think, a definition of the topic at hand. The topic under discussion this morning is tolerance. What, then, is tolerance? What does it mean to be tolerant? Rev. Kuiper in his article in the Standard Bearer gives us a very simple but correct definition: “Tolerance is allowance for error or deviation.” This concept, as Rev. Kuiper points out, is used in various ways by various kinds of people. To a doctor it usually means how much the human body can bear of a particular kind of medication or treatment, to an engineer it has to do with gears and stress and strain. But we are not concerned with either of those: right now. Tolerance is also a concept used in the whole area of social interaction. It is this latter usage which we, of course, have in mind.
But first, before we get into the subject per se, let me stress to you the importance of the subject at hand. And, that for two reasons. In the first place this topic is extremely important because of its pertinence to our age. I think that it is a fair judgment if we characterize our age as the Age of Tolerance and the Age of Pluralism. That is generally the aim of our society today. We must strive to create a pluralistic atmosphere. What do I mean by that? This: every idea, every notion, every act must somehow be condoned. Each man must be left free to do his own thing, to believe his own thing without interference, without testimony of wrong-doing from another. This has been the age of situational ethics, situational morals, situational religion, situational everything. Key ’73 is as good an example of our age as any. The basic question which motivated the whole Key ’73 movement was not What is right? Or what is the Truth? But the question which Carl Henry asked was “How can we get together? How can we, in cold-war terminology, mutually coexist in peace and happiness and prosperity?” But Key ‘73 is an example among many. We hear the same message wherever we go — in the church world, in the secular world, in the press and every other conceivable medium. Let’s get together, let’s bury the hatchet and the theological hair-splitter, let’s just sit down together with an ice-cold bottle of Coke and love one another. The Christian of course, wants nothing to do with this kind of talk and thus it is that when tolerance is mentioned, he shies away a bit. Quite naturally so, He doesn’t like what he sees and hears done in the name of tolerance. Everybody’s right, nobody’s wrong. Isn’t it ironical that in such an age of tolerance that our nation can be so righteously appalled at Watergate? One’s own baby cannot be recognized by its father and mother. It is well, then, that you talk about tolerance. It’s pertinent to an understanding of our age.
Secondly, it is well that you talk about tolerance because of its peculiar pertinence to young people. If I may generalize for a moment, it would be my guess that young adults, more than any other age-group it seems, are constantly pestered by questions involving tolerance. What may we tolerate? That specific question is not often asked in that way, but it is essentially the same question as, “What may we do? Where may we go? How far may we go in this area or that?” These are questions not usually raised by older folks but by young people. So, you see, this question is especially pertinent because you are young.
In light of what we have just said then, what about the Christian? Given our definition of tolerance as the allowance for error or deviation, must the Christian be tolerant? May he be? Or must he be intolerant only? The answer which I will attempt to give is Yes to both questions. The Christian must be both tolerant and intolerant at the same time; and, if he must be tolerant, then he may be, too. But saying that means that we need to spell some things out.
Now I think that everyone can easily see that the Christian may not tolerate anything which is contrary to the Word of God and the confessions. The Christian certainly may not allow doctrinal heresy. He must constantly guard against any profanation of God’s Word. And, neither may the Christian tolerate any action which is sin. Those doctrines, then, which are clearly contrary to God’s Word and the confessions and those actions which are clearly contrary to the way of life prescribed in God’s Word may not be tolerated. The Christian’s witness here must he unequivocal: Put the heretic and his heresy out of the church and stop the sinful acts. Sin, all sin, whether of doctrinal heresy or practical walk may not and cannot be tolerated. The Bible is very clear on this point. Galatians 1:8 says: “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.” And John I chapters 1 and 2 clearly enjoin us to forsake the darkness and walk as children of the light.
But, there are areas in one’s life, and this is true primarily in one’s walk (although not exclusively — consider the infra and supra controversy, for example) where one must be tolerant. But, we must proceed carefully here. There are some important questions to consider: Does this mean that if we are at all tolerant, that we allow for error in doctrine and walk? Does this mean that we no longer insist that the Bible is an absolute standard, that tire Bible is our only rule for faith and life? Certainly not. But, in order to understand what I am trying to say, we must place ourselves in an entirely different context. One’s tolerance may be and must be exercised first of all in the area of the things indifferent, in the area what is called adiophora. These are the things about which the Scriptures do not specifically speak. We know for example, that adultery, and stealing and murder are wrong because the Scriptures explicitly instruct us that this is so: but, what about smoking, drinking of alcoholic beverages, the length of one’s hair, the length of one’s skirts or the tightness of one’s pants? The Bible does not say how long or how tight one’s clothes must be or whether or not we may drink whiskey or chew tobacco. These are areas in which one’s Christian liberty must be exercised and these are areas, consequently, in which one may expect to find some diversity. There must be room for some variation in the church on these matters. Romans 14 teaches us this. We must, therefore, exercise tolerance, in the area of adiophora.
There is still another area in which one’s tolerance must be exercised and that has to do with accepting our brother’s character and disposition. The problem here, of course, is in doing exactly that — the problem of accepting one’s fellow saints as they are and have been ordained and created by God. That’s not easily done. Proud man, you see, wants to remake everything according to his own image and notions: he wants every-one to be as he himself is. Do you ever catch yourself thinking that way: Oh, if only so and so would be as bright and smart and good-looking and pleasant and cheerful as I am, then everything would be all right. But what a disaster that would be if everyone would be the same. God, you see, is much wiser than we proud people. Diversity in character is fundamental to the unity of the church. One cannot build a building with just corner stones or just small pebbles. No, each child of God has been uniquely created with a unique character, with unique gifts, with a unique calling and with a unique place in God’s kingdom. And, we must accept that. Don’t try to change that. Diversity in character is a thing of divine beauty. It is striking, I think, that the Church Order in Article 85 recognizes that also: “Churches (could also read just as well “people of God”) whose usages differ from ours merely in non-essentials shall not be rejected.” The problem, in this respect, is very real — among yourselves and among our churches. The Jamaican Christians, for example, may not be excluded from our fellowship and communion. I urge you, therefore, also in this area of character differences to exercise tolerance. In your relationships in school and in church, in the formation of your in-groups and out-groups exercise tolerance for in so doing you are exercising the love of Jesus Christ. That is the key. Tolerance is based upon love, the love of Christ Jesus.
Tolerance, then, may be and must be exercised in the things indifferent and in our relationships with our fellow saints.
But I must finish. And, by way of conclusion, a few general remarks:
1) What I have been talking about so far — areas in which one must be intolerant and areas in which one must be tolerant — will make no sense whatsoever and will have no practical value whatsoever unless one is able to make sound judgments about what he must tolerate and of what he must needs be intolerant. You must be able to decide what is to be tolerated or not tolerated. And, I know that you clearly understand that these judgments must be based upon the Word of God and the confessions. The conclusion, then, is obvious: one cannot make sound judgments if he is ignorant of the basis upon which these judgments must be made. A thorough knowledge of both the Scriptures and the confessions is an absolute necessity if one is to exercise his tolerance or intolerance.
2) We talked about Christian liberty. I urge you to exercise some care here. Christian liberty is the freedom to serve God according to the law but without being under the bondage of the law. That liberty is never license; it must always be made to operate within the parameters of the law. Do not, therefore, abuse this precious doctrine by becoming licentious. But equally important, do not abuse this doctrine by becoming legalistic. Christian liberty requires responsible Christians, Christians who know the Scriptures and who act accordingly.
3) Finally, I would urge that you never identify tolerance with compromise. Compromise means that you sacrifice a little of your principle for the sake of peace and an amicable relationship. Don’t ever do that. That kind of peace is without foundation. It seems to me that the theme of your convention fits here. The emphasis in Ephesians 6 is to put on the gospel of peace. That, in the final analysis, is the only thing that will prepare you to know when to tolerate and when to fight.