When I was a younger man, the word ‘tolerance’ began appearing in workplace training. I was encouraged to ‘tolerate’ others’ viewpoints and life choices so that ‘we could all just get along’. There was a cheerful, campfire sort of feeling about it — look how happy we could be, to be so supportive and kind to each other!
For a little while, I bought it. I was new to the workplace, and a bit naive. Who wants to be a bigot? What does it matter, in the office, if you’re of one political party or another? Who cares, in the context of work, if you’re married or single, Muslim or Christian, gay or straight? It seemed a very American sort of fair deal — I tolerate them, and they tolerate me. So far, so good, right?
I didn’t realize until much later that I had been effectively and efficiently silenced; as a person who knows the Truth of the Gospel, I could have spoken into some of my co-worker’s lives, if I had been bolder. But I believed the subtle, unspoken lie that the principles of my faith had no place in the secular marketplace.
Over time, the rules changed. Tolerance continues to be taught (well, mandated) for anyone except anyone who subscribes to any absolute view. If you believe in such outmoded concepts as the existence of God, Good and Evil, Right and Wrong, or even logic, then you are exempt from the benefit of Tolerance. Today, if you speak up and insist that the definition of marriage is ‘a sacred union between a man and a woman’, you will be silenced, labeled as a bigot, and (maybe) fired from your job.
(This actually happened to Brendan Eich in 2014, who had the temerity to donate a grand total of $3100 toward California’s Proposition 8, more than four years earlier. Even after slavishly apologizing, he was forced to resign after only 11 days as CEO of Mozilla Corporation.)
So I cringe whenever I hear the word ‘tolerance’, because I now recognize it as a clever (but dishonest) mechanism to silence unpopular viewpoints, especially those of Christians.
Fast forward to the present day, in the context of the Church. The value of “Unity” is much bandied-about by church leaders. I suspect that the word ‘Unity’ in the modern American church has become a club to silence those who might make others uncomfortable with hard truths from Scripture. At the risk of being clubbed myself, let’s look at what Unity is, and what it is not, according to Scripture.
|Scripture (ESV)||What Unity Is||What Unity Is Not|
|1 Corinthians 1:10 — “I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment.”||Commanded for believers, achievable, resulting in the same mind and same judgment||Agreeing to disagree|
|Acts 4:32 — “Now the full number of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own, but they had everything in common.”||Having the same goals and allegiances, expressed by love in the form of sharing with each other||Divorced from action|
|Philippians 2:2 — “complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.”||Same as 1 Cor. 1:10 — commanded, achievable, reflecting people completely ‘being on the same page’||An automatic state of the Church, as opposed to something that involves a conscious choice and effort|
|Romans 14:19 — “So then let us pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding.”||Requires pursuit
Has an end result of making the church stronger
Is characterized by peace
|An automatic grant of being a believer in a church|
|And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ …||Involves diligence and work to equip the entire body of Christ, needing many spiritual gifts to achieve||Something that can be attained by immature, unequipped Christians|
There are a LOT of passages in the Bible about Unity — I’ve only listed a few, and I don’t claim this is an exhaustive treatment of the term. But it is interesting to note how many of them include some variant of the phrase ‘same mind’. While it is true that Romans 14 teaches that some minor differences can be resolved through grace and maturity, many disagreements are about critical truths, closely connected to the ‘essentials of the faith’.
While road-tripping recently, Kathy read to me a chapter from Tactics, by Greg Koukl. I found a few of the things he wrote to be especially pertinent:
“If the notion of truth is central to Christianity, and the ability to argue is central to the task of knowing the truth, why do some Christians get upset when you try to find the truth through argument and disagreement? Two things come to mind that are especially applicable to those in a Christian setting, usually a church environment.”
“First, some fear division. When people are free to express strong differences of opinion, especially on theological issues, it threatens unity, they say. Consequently, the minute a disagreement surfaces, someone jumps in to shut down dissent in order to keep the peace. This is unfortunate.”
“True enough, Christians sometimes get distracted by useless disputes. Paul warns against wrangling about words and quarreling about foolish speculations (2 Timothy 2:14,23). But he also commands us to be diligent workmen, handling the word of truth accurately (2 Timothy 2:15). And, because some disputes are vitally important, Paul solemnly charges us to reprove, rebuke and exhort when necessary (2 Timothy 4:1-2). This cannot be done without some confrontation, but disagreement need not threaten genuine unity.”
Just a paragraph later, Koukl writes:
“There’s a second reason why Christians resist arguments. Some believers unfortunately take any opposition as hostility, especially if their own view is being challenged. In some circles it’s virtually impossible to take exception to a cherished view or a respected teacher without being labeled malicious.”
“This is a dangerous attitude for the church because the minute one is labeled mean-spirited simply for raising an opposing view, debate is silenced. If we disqualify legitimate discussion, we compromise our ability to know the truth.”
It seems clear to me that unity is not something the Church already has by default — it is a gift of God that can only be attained through obedience, united purpose and humble submission to the Holy Spirit. It is the result of a sustained, faithful effort, not achieved by simply silencing anyone who sounds the alarm. In the past year, the unity of my home church has been damaged by one-sided discussions on race, social justice and our response to COVID-19.
I use the term one-sided because (as in the case of workplace ‘tolerance’) the very rules of discourse seem to have pre-supposed that some arguments and positions are invalid, before they can even be heard. If I were to argue that racism in America has been largely eradicated, or that social justice shouldn’t involve stealing from the rich to give to the poor, or that masks don’t really protect us from COVID-19, I would be labeled as a racist bigot, an oppressor of the poor, and a hater of the vulnerable elderly.
Koukl ends his argument with these final remarks:
“When the church discourages principled debates and a free flow of ideas, the result is shallow Christianity and a false sense of unity. No one gets any practice learning how to field contrary views in a gracious and productive way. The oneness they share is contrived, not genuine. Worse, they lose the ability to separate the wheat from the chaff. Simply put, when arguments are few, error abounds.”
As believers, our unity must be centered on the gospel and the truth of God’s Word. It should draw us closer to Him and to each other. It should point people to Jesus. Above all the unity of God’s people should bring Him honor and glory. As Paul wrote:
May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus, that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God. (Romans 15:5–7)