Sunday, November 22, 2009

What Can You Tolerate in the Church?

Yesterday I had the honor of speaking to Northumberland Presbytery on the subject of conflict and competition in the Presbyterian Church (USA). My main theme was that the church has always been diverse and always will be. This means that there are some beliefs and practices that some people in the church engage in that other people have to tolerate.

There are limits to what the church will tolerate on the left and the right. There are beliefs and practices so standard and orthodox that nearly everyone accepts them. And then there is a gray area in each tail of the bell curve between those poles. Here lie things that someone is merely tolerating.

The danger that conservatives pose to the church is the belief that if we just expel this group of intolerables, the church will be pure. And if they don't get that expulsion, they are inclined to leave. But the legacy of schism is more schism. And a church of millions will never be pure. Some things will have to be tolerated by the right.

The danger that liberals pose to the church is the belief that merely tolerating some things is unjust because it creates a "second class" status. They believe that it we just all embrace every practice and belief that is allowed in the church as equally good, the church will be just. And if they get something tolerated today, they will come back tomorrow to argue that it is just as good, right, and orthodox as anything else in the church. But it is possible to be so open-minded that your brains fall out. Some things will have to be tolerated by the left.

We did an exercise in the presbytery meeting. I asked everyone to write down one belief or practice that anyone would need to accept to be an officer of the Presbyterian Church. We then talked about them. The items that different people came up with were a little different. But everyone came up with something. Everyone agreed that the church must have some standards. We then began the discussion of which things they would find tolerable, even though they are not ideal. We did not come to a conclusion on this discussion. But I think everyone accepted that there are some items in the "tolerated" category.


Kim said...

I am Roman Catholic so I don't know. Do you Presbyterians vote on your beliefs and doctrines? Is your church a democracy?

Mark said...

I left a comment but it wasn't published. Why not?

Gruntled said...


Every church has a mechanism for deciding on (and changing) doctrines, the Catholic Church included. The Presbyterian system is more democratic that most, but not unique.

More to the point, no matter what the official doctrine is, as a practical matter every church rules some things out, and others are practiced by a minority but only tolerated by the majority. To take two Catholic examples, priestly pedophilia is beyond the pale for the whole church; flagellation is a minority practice that is distasteful to many and not practiced by the vast majority, but tolerated.

Gruntled said...


I am not sure what the problem is. I don't moderate the comments. Computer glitch is most likely. Repost?

randy said...

i think that the problem may be one of semantics; in this case, understanding the word tolerance too broadly and for that mattr, out of context. 'Tolerance' in this and similar cases is NOT meant to have the whiff of judgement, of barely concealed distaste hat it presently does in common parlance...all it means is 'allowed', 'not-forbidden', 'a matter of choice'.

i've noticed this sort of thing happening a lot; trouble arising from taking the everyday meaning of a word for what it means in a certain very specific context:

thus i sometimes find 'success' in the sense of biological evolution to imply some sort of superiority or merit(i.e. homo sapiens being somehow Better, more Advanced than homo neanderthalensis simply because h. sapiens is an evolutionary success, and h. neanderhalensis is not...or, there is the case of judicial Innocence , wch simply means that citizen x did not commit crime y, being allowed to take on the quasi-angelic, moral, stainless aspects which the word Innocence can imply in everyday speech-thus allowing citizen x to seem positively saintly...even tho he may have commited plenty of OTHER crimes-just not crime y.

see what i mean? it's subtle. words have invisible auras of emotion associated with them and one can get tripped up if one is not pretty rigorous about keeping meaning/definition straight.

Kim said...

"To take two Catholic examples, priestly pedophilia"

Are you saying pedophilia is an example of Vatican doctrine or belief? Wow! I expected better of you than religous bigotry.What an insult.

Thomas M. Cothran said...

It's true that a desire to purify the Church can lead to an extremism that is itself schismatic (the Novatianists and Donatists are the classical example here). Yet it's also true that toleration is not always the answer; when heresy arises, for example, bright lines have to be drawn. The Nicene Creed is one example of the Church saying that if you cannot agree to the substantive content of the creed, you are no longer part of the Church. At that point excommunication is, in a sense, a formality; a recognition of a division that is already there.

I would think that the paradigm for dealing with these sorts of things administratively would be the Nicene Council and the subsequent related councils.

virginia said...

Kim, I think Gruntled is saying that the sex abuse which was practiced (shamefully) by a small minority is considered intolerable by the Church as a whole, while the flagellation/mortification practiced by a small minority is not widely accepted but is tolerated.

Gruntled said...


Yes. Two things actually practiced by a small minority in the church; one universally condemned, the other tolerated.

Michael D. Bush said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Michael D. Bush said...

"so open minded your brains fall out"

Betty Achtemeier used to say that. Never stopped being funny. Thanks for that reminder of a wonderful lady.