THE SPIRIT OF TOLERANCE
Dr. Vic Reasoner

As leaders within the conservative holiness movement pronounce divine judgment upon each other over secondary issues, the younger generation continues to leave the movement disillusioned. If we have a future we must learn to speak the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15). We need not only to revive the doctrines of our founders, but we need to exhibit their spirit of tolerance.

Are we known for our moderation? Philippians 4:5 commands, "Let your moderation be known unto all men." We should be characterized by a firm gentleness and a sweet reasonableness. Far too often we are intolerant, dogmatic, "bull-headed," and "hard-nosed."

The command to follow peace with all men is just as valid as the command to follow holiness (Hebrews 12:14). Some holiness professors seem to enjoy controversy. They come across as bombastic, harsh, critical, and divisive. The truly sanctified person, however, will go the extra mile to avoid a fight.

Paul could write that the apostolic church tolerated differences. One person could eat what another person could not eat. One man regarded some days as holy and other men considered every day to be holy. His conclusion was not to legislate uniformity, but to "let every man be fully persuaded in his own mind" (Romans 14:5). That spirit was soon lost to the Church.

During the Inquisition, the Roman Catholic Church punished those who disagreed with them harshly. When Calvinism gained the upper hand, it displayed the same spirit. John Calvin had Michael Servetus burned for his errors.

Philip Melanchthon, the successor of Martin Luther, declared "in necessary things, unity; in doubtful things, liberty; in all things, charity," but Lutheranism was torn by bitter theological warfare.

James Arminius and his early followers were persecuted by the Calvinists, especially after the Synod of Dort. Yet at that synod Simon Episcopius, the successor of Arminius, delivered a speech so logical and magnanimous that it moved many hearers to tears.

Arminianism reintroduced the spirit of tolerance to the Church. The early Arminians were well educated and held strong convictions, but they displayed a different spirit. They had no animosity toward those who disagreed with them; they only asked that their views be permitted to exist.

John Wesley's 52 Standard Sermons were the doctrinal standard of early Methodism. Wesley wrote as a trained theologian, able to exegete the Scriptures from their original languages. He displayed a knowledge of Church history, and his logic is unanswerable. Yet instead of imitating Calvinism's intolerant dogmatism, he included two sermons on tolerance.

"A Caution Against Bigotry" is based on the incident in the life of the disciples where they forbid a man to use the name of Christ without their approval. Wesley warned us not to become so fond of our own "party, opinion, Church, and religion" that we would cut off those who differ from us, but are yet serving Christ.

His next sermon, "Catholic Spirit," again challenges us to think and let think. He declared, "If your heart is right, then give me your hand." It was not necessary for you to hold Wesley's opinions or embrace his modes of worship.

Let all these smaller points stand aside. Let them never come into sight. "If thine heart is as my heart," if thou lovest God and all mankind, I ask no more; "Give me thine hand."

When John Wesley, the Armianian, preached the funeral of George Whitefield, the Calvinist, he said there was a trait Whitefield exemplified which was not common. Wesley said he had a "catholic spirit." He loved all, of whatever opinion, mode of worship, or denomination who believed in the Lord Jesus, loved God and man, delighted in pleasing God and feared offending Him, who was careful to abstain from evil and zealous of good works.

Arminius and Wesley patiently pointed out that they were not heretics, but were in agreement with historic Christianity and the great ecumenical church councils. But they did so in a spirit of moderation. We affirm with them a quiet confidence that the Spirit of Truth is able to convince men. We cannot convince through force or legislative decree. Wesleyans have always allowed for difference of opinion upon the proper mode and subjects of baptism or the proper eschatological scheme, for example.

Toleration is our heritage, yet it can also create problems. There exists the danger that apathy can be substituted for tolerance. We must oppose the attitude that correct doctrine is not important. We must not embrace every wind of doctrine. We are to contend for the faith. But let us display the spirit of Christ as we defend His teachings.

Liberal Christianity does not accept the Scriptures as final and complete revelation. Instead they believe that Christian doctrine continues to evolve. Therefore, we might break with historic Christianity and still be led by the Spirit. In this mind-set we could contradict the Word of God by claiming a new word from God. But we run the risk of redefining the faith until we have lost it.

The spirit of toleration can open the door to compromise with liberalism. The later followers of Arminius, the Remonstrants, did become liberal doctrinally. The same spirit finally overtook Methodism.

In the twentieth century fundamentalism attempted to defend the faith. Today Calvinism is often on the cutting edge of conservatism. They have championed biblical inerrancy, a biblical world-view, the philosophy of Christian education, biblical counseling, and the distinctions between manhood and womanhood. The conservative holiness movement has been influenced by fundamentalism. Paul Bassett even wrote in the Wesleyan Theological Journal for 1978 about "The Fundamentalist Leavening of the Holiness Movement: 1914-1940."

While we may feel that the rest of the holiness movement should have taken more seriously the contributions of fundamentalism, yet inherent in fundamentalism is a spirit of legalism and intolerance passed down from its Calvinistic roots. Today the conservative holiness movement is not only contending for fundamental Christian doctrine, but it is also infected with the dogmatic spirit of fundamentalism. We run the risk of abandoning our heritage of tolerance.


RETURN TO INDEX