Remarks on Church and Tolerance
Prof. J. Kamphuis, Professor Emeritus at the Kampen University of Theology
Extracted from Ordained Servant vol. 3, no. 1, pp. 9-16
The subject that we are now dealing with at this conference has been announced as Tolerance. From the nature of this meeting as delegates and observers of churches it is more or less a matter of course that we confine ourselves to tolerance as an ecclesiastical issue. But the subject also has a broader meaning. We cannot confine ourselves to a strictly ecclesiastical field. That will be proved again and again in the remainder of these remarks. Tolerance becomes a topic as soon as we are confronted with various convictions in society. Thus there is also the fascinating and important issue of tolerance in political life with its central question about the limits of what is permissible for a government that rules a mixed population. In the Netherlands the Dutch Reformed dogmatician of the theological faculty of the Utrecht University, A.A. van Ruler, aired provocative views that give insight. On this, compare the two essays from respectively 1956 and 1966 about Theocratie en Tolerantie (Theocracy and Tolerance), in his Theologisch Werk I and III. Compare also for the history of tolerance in the Netherlands in church and state the large work written by R.B. Evenhuis, Ook Dat was Amsterdam, VII, 1974, 237-279. Evenhuis approvingly refers to the views of A.A. van Ruler. Although I have learned a lot from Van Ruler’s studies, I cconcluded that I had to draw different lines and seek more alliance with the Reformed of the seventeenth century. I wrote about this in Lux Mundi, Vol. II no. 4 of December 1992, page 3-9 in an article entitled, An Appraisal of Tolerance. May I refer to that article here and I will return to it under point four. We have no time to deal with the issue of tolerance to a satisfying conclusion of the argument and that is why we only give a number of remarks.
1.1. Tolerance (verdraagzaamheid in Dutch, forbearance in English) functions as a key word, as a central idea in present-day (Western) society and culture and has gradually acquired the meaning of: the willingness to respect the complete freedom of any conviction and of the attitude to life that originates from it and is connected to it, no matter how deviating this practical attitude to life may be from traditional convictions and moral maxims as they may still be found among the majority of the people.
1.2. Thus the idea of tolerance became much broader compared to the term that was most current until recently. In spite of all the difference the central point of tolerance always meant tolerating all deviant conviction and behavior.
This tolerance was always limited and bound to certain conditions e.g. in view of publicly propagating it. This tolerance had its starting point in an authority that decided because of reasons moving him or her to tolerate what in itself could not receive positive approval. Compare the survey article that gives insight written by W. F. Adeney in Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics XII, 1921, 360 e.v. (Unfortunately, the article is not fully accurate in some historical details). We quote the extensive description of tolerance given by Adeney on page 360:
The word toleration in its legal, ecclesiastical, and doctrinal application has a peculiar limited signification. It connotes a refraining from prohibition and persecution. Never-the-less, it suggests a latent disapproval and it usually refers to a condition in which the freedom which it permits is both limited and conditional. Toleration is not equivalent to religious liberty, and it falls far short of religious equality. It assumes the existence of an authority which might have been coercive, but which for reasons of its own is not pushed to extremes. It implies a voluntary inaction, a politic leniency. The motives that induces a policy of toleration are various, such as mere weakness and inability to enforce prohibitory measures, lazy indifference, the desire to secure conciliation by concessions, the wisdom to perceive that force is not remedy, the intellectual breadth and humility that shrink from a claim to infallibility, the charity that endures the objectionable, respect for the right of private judgment.
But at the end of his article Adeney points out (and he did so at the beginning of our century!) the great change that takes place in our time:
The champions of liberty now resent the use of the term as representing a gracious concession on the part of the privileged, and claim to go far beyond it in their demand for the abolition of all theological and ecclesiastical privileges and the establishment of absolute religious equality.
You might say that the present use of this term has been bent towards this equality!
1.3. The present-day idea of tolerance and the use of words that agree with it means a definite breakthrough of the basic convictions of the sixteenth century humanism, that saw the measure of all things in man.
Together with the Reformation of the sixteenth century this humanism opposed the claims of authority of the hierarchical Roman Catholic church. Humanism, however, was in favor of human autonomy and that’s why it opposed the reformation, which looked for the deliverance of life by obedience to the word of God.
It is important to bear in mind that the Reformation also took its stand against humanism, being often connected with numerous Christian convictions at that time, the so-called Christianity of biblical humanism that had a spokesman in Desiderius Erasmus, elder contemporary of Luther (1469-1536). Erasmus opposes Luther at the point of man’s free will. In spite of all the criticism on all kinds of evils, he sided with Rome here. From the dispute between Luther and Erasmus it becomes clear that they also go different ways at the point of certainty as to the doctrine that God had revealed in his Word. Erasmus thinks that little can be said with certainty at the points that were in discussion between Luther and Rome. Luther on the contrary vigorously maintains the clearness of God’s revelation (the Holy Spirit is not a septic !). On the basis of this the believer and the church can confess with certainty.
Erasmus’s biblical humanism has had great influence on the people’s minds, especially in the Netherlands. To a great extent his views make up the background of the Remonstrants in the Reformed churches, who both in a dogmatic respect pleaded in favor of man’s free will and in ecclesiastical practice wanted to see a broad tolerance observed. In the time that follows humanism remained a real threat for the church, although, together with the help of foreign Reformed churches Remonstrantism was condemned at the Dordrecht Synod 1618-1619, many foreign delegates being present as members of the meeting, who were entitled to vote. In the course of the eighteenth century humanism more and more rejected the biblical elements, which were still present with Erasmus. In the so-called Enlightenment (Aufklärung in German) this humanism more and more sets its stamp on society. Already John Locke in England (1632-1704) and later Voltaire in France (1694-1778) vigorously pleaded in favor of tolerance, which got a broader and broader sense. Voltaire, in his turn, had a great influence on King Frederick the Great of Prussia (1740- 1786), who by his unscrupulous policies, made his country into a great power.
The Christelijke Encyclopedie writes about him: He belongs to the enlightened dictators, who, with maintenance of royal absolutism in government and administration applied the ideas of the Aufklärung. As a rationalist he was indifferent towards Christianity. Denying the Protestant tradition of the house of Hohenzollern and of Prussia his policies aimed at the principle of the secularization of the state. One of his first measures of government was the tolerance edict of 1740, the elaboration of his famous statement: ‘Hier muss jeder nach seiner Fasson selig werden’ (everybody has to be saved here in his own way.) Here tolerance and absolutism go together! Here is one of the historical backgrounds of the totalitarian national socialism of our age. Compare Ben Knapen, Het duitse onbehagen, Een land op zoek naar identiteit (The German discomfort, A country in search of identity), plain indication that the term toleration has real significance that only becomes clear from the context!
1.4. During the nineteenth century humanism developed into an aggressive atheism with the German philosopher Fr. Nietzsche (1844-1900). In our time his influence is very strong in France and in the whole western world and in the Netherlands in particular. Many who have broken with the Christian faith, have been marked by his nihilism and atheism. Compare my Nietzsche in Nederland 1987. Apart from direct influence by one certain philosopher the influence of humanism is becoming stronger and broader in all cultural and public life. The acceptance of the autonomy of man (connected with a strong individualism) makes present-day society really atheistic. Especially in ethical questions autonomy strongly throws its weight around (the right of self-determination in case of termination of life, the legalization of induced abortion, the acceptance of homosexual practice are strongly appealing examples). In all these things an appeal is always made to tolerance being the comprehensive fundamental human attitude, which has to be protected, propagated and established by the state. The equality of all people is sought in the greatest possible freedom to organize life according to one’s own will and insight and to give public evidence of it.
1.5. For the church which wants to live in obedience to the Word of the living God and which also wants to preach this Word, in principle there is no place left for her in this society, although freedom of religion will still be reserved for the churches by the state.
But when the church preaches the salvation and the will of God outside its walls she is felt to be an illegal nuisance. According to the feeling of many people who form public opinion (in particular, by means of modern mass media) the church is considered to be the center of intolerance. This applies to both the Roman Catholic church when her spokesmen wish to adhere to the official Roman Catholic ideas regarding the great ethical questions of our time and also to the orthodox Protestant and Reformed churches. Whereas freedom of religion applies to the strictly ecclesiastical field the modern thought of tolerance clearer and clearer turns out to be at odds with this freedom of religion. If no restraining factors come into action the present, absolute tolerance will more and more turn out to be intolerant towards confessing Christians and towards the church that only wants to live according to the Word of God in everything. Then tolerance will change into intolerance! This shows a remarkable similarity with the experience of the church at the beginning of our era in the Roman empire. Great tolerance towards many religions prevailed here. But when young Christianity openly confessed the name of the only God, the Father of Jesus Christ, and when the church opposed customs which were condemned by the Gospel, and refused to join in the cult of the emperor, there was no tolerance left for that church.
2.1. Present-day tolerance easily infects the climate in the church. In many respects the history of the church of the past centuries has been dominated by the struggle against penetrating humanism. People often try, especially in theology, to achieve a synthesis with philosophical ideas which dominate minds. Then the confession of the church is resisted. The confession of the church of the reformation especially becomes the target of criticism. The accusation of intolerance often goes hand in hand with the accusation of fossilized confessionalism. It was said to be an obstacle to a sound development of theology and of ecclesiastical life and to make it impossible for a church to become really up to date. In the sixteenth and at the beginning of the seventeenth century Christian humanism often addressed the complaint of intolerance and confessionalism to the Reformed. This complaint was raised by the Remonstrants in their struggle against the Reformed confession although they emphatically claimed the name Reformed and a place in the church for themselves.
This was also the case in the eighteenth century when the Enlightenment penetrated the church. This led to separations in the nineteenth century (in Scotland and the Netherlands). The modernism of the nineteenth century found its strongest resistance in the churches of the Separation, but the reproach of confessional intolerance was continuously addressed to these churches.
In our century we see the spirit of modernism becoming victorious in the Reformed churches in the Netherlands which rejected Liberation. An unlimited tolerance has conquered these churches. Professor K. Runia of the theological university of these churches recently wrote (in Centraal Weekblad 9 July 1993), If the members of these churches are asked to choose between discipline and tolerance the great majority will undoubtedly choose tolerance even if they personally do not agree with the concepts defended. The ‘concepts’ here refer to the theologians Dr. H. Wiersinga in his Geloven bij Daglicht (Faith by Daylight), in which he radically breaks with the entire Reformed inheritance, and especially to Prof. Dr. H. M. Kuitert with his notorious book Het Algemeen Betwijfeld Christelijk Geloof (The Catholic Doubted Christian Faith, translated into English by the characteristic title I Doubt.) Kuitert breaks with the traditional doctrine of inspiration of the Scriptures vigorously exclaiming: away with it and he breaks with the whole substance of Christian and Reformed belief. But tolerance remains the key word even in the case of these denials! A line can be drawn from the doubt, uttered by Erasmus, towards speaking from the certainty of Christian belief by Luther to this skepticism, with which Christian belief had developed into no more than a design for a search for God.
2.2. How the humanist idea of tolerance gives a completely different course to ecclesiastical life, appears very clearly from the fact that names and ideas which have always been used are put aside as being aged and having too intolerant a sound. Thus there is more and more objection against the contents and also the name of mission being the preaching by and from the church of Christ to the heathens, and to the followers of Islam as well. For a long time now the preaching of the Gospel among the Jews has had to make room for discussion with Israel in which openness and tolerance are the key words. And the rest of mission changes into a dialogue with the world religions. There is no room left for preaching the invitation to salvation, revealed in Christ, with the authority of the gospel. That would discredit tolerance, belonging to a society in an ideological pluralism.
3. It appears to be self-evident, that we have to opt for intolerance if we reject the humanist idea of tolerance! And we need not avoid these words, intolerance and inforbearance, although we do have to choose our words with carefulness and wisdom, because they may have a different shade of meaning especially for English speaking people.
3.1. In the first place, we need not avoid the word: intolerance. It cannot be helped that the contrasts are sharp, since the light shines in the darkness. Here we give the floor to the Scriptures themselves.
3.1.1. The LORD calls himself the one God (Deut 6:4, also compare Zech. 9:14). he is supposed to be confessed and lauded as the only living God as opposed to all dead idols (compare Ps. 115). Idolatry warrants intolerance! A radical choice is also required without compromise. If the Lord is God, follow him, but if the Baal is God, follow him (1 Kings 18:21). The New Testament is equally antithetical and without compromise, and if you like, intolerant. The triune God is preached as the only, true, living One: For even if there are so-called gods whether in heaven or on earth as indeed there are many gods and many lords yet for us there is but one God, the Father from whom all things came and for whom we live, and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and from whom we live (1 Corinthians 8:5,6). This is also relevant for a God-fearing life: No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other; you cannot serve both God and Money (Matthew 6:24).
3.1.2. As there is in the confession of the living God not any tolerance for the denial of his name, thus it is also the case in the confession of Jesus Christ, his Son who has come in the flesh: God appeared in the flesh. John draws intolerant lines: Who is the liar? It is the man who denies that Jesus is the Christ! Such a man is the antichrist; he denies the Father and the Son, (1 John 2:22). And John learned this from the Master himself: Whoever acknowledges me before men, I will also acknowledge him before my Father in heaven. But whoever disowns me before men, I also will disown him before my Father, in heaven (Matthew 10:32,33). That is why the disciple also summarizes the gospel of his Lord and his God in the powerful message as to Jesus of Nazareth: he is the true God and eternal life (1 John 5:20). And again there is the sharpest antithesis possible with all idolatry: Dear children, keep yourselves from idols (verse 21).
3.1.3. That is why the congregation of the living God and especially the office-bearers in the congregation are called to follow the pattern of the sound words as opposed to all errors (2 Tim. 1:13, 4:3; Tit. 1:9, 13; 2:1) and that in view of the times of stress that will come in the last days (2 Tim. 3:1 compare 1 John 2:18 and following). Thus the apostle Paul warns the elders of Ephesus—with the congregation of God in view—of savage wolves, who will not spare the flock (Acts 20:29) and he calls to the congregation of Rome: watch out for those, who cause divisions and put obstacles in your way that are contrary to the teaching you have learned (Rom 16:17). Therefore doctrine and life are under the discipline of God’s holiness (Deut. 19:19, 1 Cor. 5:7). That is why the congregation is praised if she (in spite of a lot of shortcomings that are found in her) cannot tolerate wicked men, (Rev. 2:2). ‘Not tolerate’—with as many words intolerance is mentioned here which was approved by Christ himself! He even speaks about hating the works of the heretics (Nicolaitans). He hates those works himself and the congregation is with him, her Lord, in agreement! (Rev. 2:6). And how radically do the apostle Peter in his second letter and Jude contrast the doctrine of truth and the life from it with the destructive heresies of false teachers, who have their fore-runners in the false prophets of the Old Covenant (2 Peter 2:1 and following, Jude 3 and following). There is the penetrating admonition to contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints, (Jude 3). No doubt is permitted here, as if there might be place for it in the church. Even if so-called reformed theologians publish books with the challenging title Het Algemeen Betwijfeld Christelijk Geloof (The Catholic Doubted Christian Faith), the Christian church continues to say this received faith is without a doubt and undoubted among us, no matter how much it may be challenged and doubted in our time. And in doing so the church has not become narrow minded, limited, careless or ignorant as to the realities of all those challenges, but through faith speaks the firm language of ‘we know,’ making it sound as the refrain (1 John 5:18, 19, 20) with which John concludes his first letter.
3.2. However obvious it seems to be to opt for intolerance as a term that might represent the struggle of Christ’s church very well, as opposed to a humanist concept of tolerance, yet great caution is required here! I mention some reasons for it, which mutually correlate.
3.2.1. We must always take care not to live from reaction, having the other, the opponent, label us. If we are blamed for being intolerant we need not avoid that term out of fear, but we must not have ourselves labeled either. For our opponents do this being inspired by their own background and convictions which we fundamentally reject, (do we not?). That is why it is a good thing to realize that in contrast with the humanist concept of tolerance it is not a matter of tolerance opposed to intolerance, but of true tolerance opposed to false tolerance, of Reformed, scriptural tolerance opposed to humanist tolerance.
3.2.2. Add to this that we have to be as understanding as possible both inside and outside the church. There is indeed an intolerance that originates from narrow-mindedness and ecclesiastical insularity. In the Netherlands we know how truly Reformed people were suspended from the exercise of their offices by a synod which wanted to oblige everybody to subscribe to a private (and always controversial view) of the covenant of grace, namely that of Dr. A. Kuyper. The Liberation of 1944 and following years became necessary because of that! Only in this way could we keep the room that is really characteristic of Reformed churches!
We find essentially the same problem with The Reformed Congregations in the Netherlands and in North America with their Doctrinal decision of 1931 and also with the Protestant Reformed Churches in the USA with their Declaration of Principles of 1951. (Compare W. W. J. Van Oene, Inheritance Preserved: The Canadian Reformed Churches in Historical Perspective, 1975, pp. 64-67). It is notable that in these cases we are confronted with a theological opinion, namely, the identification basically of the eternal election with the covenant of grace. This seems to be a logical solution of a theological difficulty. The logical system probably has a great attraction in theology and the church. Nevertheless, there are decisive arguments from the Holy Scripture against this solution, especially against the thesis that the promise of the Gospel is unconditional only for the elect. This runs up against important Biblical and pastoral objections. But in all these cases the logical system is imposed on the church as if it is Scriptural truth. And then the really catholic room in the church disappears.
3.2.3. Narrow-mindedness does not suit the church of God, does it? The Lord himself is not like that: as a father has compassion on his children, so the LORD has compassion on those who fear him. For he knows how we are formed, he remembers that we are dust, (Ps. 103:13, 14). Neither is the Savior narrow-minded: he had compassion with the hosts in Israel, who were like sheep without a shepherd. Then he patiently took his time to teach them many things (Mark 6:34). And the apostles did not lead us in such a way either: According to his own testimony Paul had a wide heart for the difficult congregation of Corinth (2 Cor. 6:11) and that is why the congregation and the strong within the congregation are also urged by him to be tolerant and to bear each other’s failings in the community of saints (Rom. 15:1, Gal. 6:2) to fulfill the law of Christ in this way. That is something different from making quick work of each other!
3.2.4. Now we must ask ourselves: what might be the cause of the fact that the God who takes such an intolerant position towards idols and all idolatry, and also teaches his people to do so, is at the same time full of patience and steadfast love and teaches us regarding our attitude in the community of saints: bearing with one another in love (Eph. 4:2 compare Col. 3:15)? There is only one answer here. Our God is the God of history. In the history of salvation he goes a way with his people. How full is the Bible of it! God’s way is perfect (Ps. 18:30) in saving holiness for his people (Ps. 77:14). In the New Testament the Savior calls himself the way and the truth and the life, (John 14:6). Therefore the congregation is called the meeting of men and women, who belong to the way, (Acts 9:2). God came to a world which had sinned: Adam, where are you? he has given his promises and has gone the way of the fulfillment of those promises. he is still going that way! At the beginning of his dealing with us he did not proclaim a philosophical world view, a religious system, but revealed himself as the Living God and the God who works salvation. If he had been the God of a system, then he would have been as intolerant as everybody who builds a philosophical and world view system and then asks submission to it. But he makes himself known in the way of grace and justice. On that way he shows quite a lot of patience and lenience in enduring the conduct of a troublesome and obstinate people (Acts 13:18), although he undoubtedly maintains himself also in the way of his judgments of them who take counsel against him and his anointed (Psalm 2). he is the truth in the fullness of his virtues and of his actions. he is so in his Son, the Beloved. And on the way of salvation he has made his name known to Moses: the LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sins of the fathers to the third and fourth generation (Ex. 34:6,7). That name reverberates throughout the history of the Covenant (compare Num. 14:18, 2 Chron. 30:9, Neh. 9:17, 31, Jonah 4:2, Joel 2:13, Nahum 1:3). In the course of the times Israel praises this name on his way with this God (Ps. 86:15, 103: 8, 145: 8).
Early and late in the history of the Old Covenant the Lord sent prophets and taught the people in his ways. This is not patience because of weakness or indifference! For there is a limit! History knows his just judgments and it knows the exile of his people; for 70 years. And from heaven the glorified Christ threatens congregations which leave his service and his way with the revenge of the Covenant. he made known to the congregations of Sardis and Laodicea, setting an example to us, that we may not despise the richness of the kindness of God’s tolerance and patience (compare Rom. 2:4). On the way that he goes with his people of the Covenant in the Old and in the New Testament he makes himself more and more known. The history of salvation is at the same time the history of revelation. The name of the LORD has opened gloriously for us in the name of the triune God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, into which the congregation is baptized. Thus the doctrine of the truth has been made known to us, not as an abstract and timeless system, but as the revealed mystery of godliness, (1 Tim. 3:16). That is why there is an inseparable coherence between doctrine and life in the congregation, a deep unity. That is why in view of the reconciliation by Christ in the fullness of times in the preceding centuries God was slow to anger both with his people and with the heathen, who were then not called yet.
For the sake of hardness of hearts he admitted practices of marriage in the Old Covenant as it had not been from the beginning, and therefore our Savior does not teach his disciples in this way (Matthew 19:3 and following) and he passed over the sins done in his forbearance, because the bloodshed of Calvary and the revelation of his righteousness still had to come (Rom 3:25). That is why in his preaching at the Areopagus, in Athens, Paul says that God overlooked the times of ignorance but now commands all people to repent and receive forgiveness of sins (Acts 17:30). Since God is the God of history in the lives of his people and of his children he weighs sins in equity and one is blamed heavier because of ignorance than the other. We are judged according to the light we receive. We are not examined in theology by him at a certain moment, or alternatively in philosophy with a positive or a negative result, but he asks us to know him and to live God-fearing before him according to the old rule which he impresses already on Abraham in the Covenant and in the way of the Covenant: walk before me and be blameless (Gen. 17:1).
4. From the above it may become clear to us now what Christian and Reformed tolerance means. It is essential for the church! But it is also essentially distinguished from humanist tolerance! It is opposed to it! The humanist thought of tolerance aims at a free margin for man, for his ideas and behavior. Consequently, the doctrine of the Scriptures confessed by the church is in fact always a heavy yoke. But the starting point of Reformed tolerance is the fact that Christian doctrine is not a yoke of compulsion, limiting human freedom, but it is the condition for human freedom!
True tolerance does not aim at making human margins as wide as possible, but it aims at the good progress of the Word of God and of Christian doctrine, both in life of the church as a community and in the life of the individual believers. And here is the blessed work of the Holy Spirit. Christian tolerance is only possible through confidence in the progress of this work!
In a fair study about The doctrinal discipline in the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands between 1570 and 1620, published at the beginning of this century (by H. Schokking, as a theological dissertation at the University of Amsterdam) it is made clear that the Reformed church of that time also took a firm stand against the humanist idea of tolerance, which the Remonstrants wanted to see practiced, but that at the same time Reformed tolerance was not forgotten! At that time tolerance among the Reformed meant the possibility that in good faith and by lack of insight and temporary prejudice, objections were felt against dogmas which were, as a matter of fact, generally recognized in the church; they accurately described these cases (H. Schokking, 253).
That is why practicing tolerance was never timeless or an abstract problem. Whether they dealt with just a member of the congregation or with a pastor, was a very important question. What could be tolerated by one, could not be permitted by the other. This is rather obvious: with the pastor the question of the good progress of truth is at stake! The pastor has to lead the flock in the right ways of the Lord and is not permitted to pervert them (compare Acts 13:10 and Hos. 14:10). It also depends on the circumstances, whether—and if so, how far—tolerance can be practiced: it is not permitted to cause confusion in the congregation, and neither may the way of God be evil spoken of (Acts 19:9). There has to be an openness for the Word of God in the life of him with whom tolerance is exercised; he must be willing to be taught and not be eager to propagate his private problem as a doctrine in the congregation. Then the limit has been reached for this tolerance; it lies in the Word of God and in the sound doctrine.
Neither is this tolerance left to one’s own discretion. It is the church that has to decide here, in obedience to the Word of God, being the pillar and foundation of the truth (1 Tim. 3:14). The office-bearers and the ecclesiastical meetings have a responsibility of their own here. That is why the Reformed churches in the Netherlands in the seventeenth century were both intolerant and tolerant in a scriptural sense when, with the help of the foreign churches, they definitely resisted the errors of Remonstrantism, and did not want to accept any compromise. But at the same time they were prepared to exercise patience with simple people who had been thrown into confusion and who were willing to be instructed. This intolerance and tolerance is set aglow with the respect for the Word of God and the love for the church of God. So far the reformed churches have desired to continue this way, even today when they have been obliged to resist errors which occur in the congregation and for which room of propaganda was asked and made both in book and magazine. I mean the schisms of 1926 (Dr. J. G. Geelkerken) and of 1967 and the following years (the Netherlands Reformed Churches). For that matter we witness with sadness in our hearts, how the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands (Synodical) as a confessing community sank into autonomous tolerance, and how this—also on world scale, on the level of the REC—destroyed the fraternity of believers and continues to destroy it! So if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall! (1 Corinthians 10:12 can also be applied here).
5. Practicing true tolerance and contending to one’s utmost for the belief that was once delivered to the saints, (Jude 3) are not opposed to each other. But the first is the consequence of the second and inseparably coheres with it. Within the context of the ICRC we as Christian churches can help and support and encourage each other in a rich sense, urging each other always to look for the good progress of the Word of grace. Contact with each other as churches from all over the world is of great importance in this! Although we are moving a little bit from our subject that deals with tolerance in a strict sense, yet there is a clear link. When we see that the Lord God goes a way with his people in the world—the way of his Word and Spirit—then we may also see that in all unity there is and there may be distinction as well. There is unity. For there is one God and one Lord Jesus Christ. There is one belief and there is one baptism (compare Eph. 4:4). We can speak about the one way of the Word in the world. We meet each other on that way.
At the same time we may see that God leads his church in every country on a way of her own. Rome knows a world-church with one center on earth and one and the same confession of faith. We, Reformed people, have our center in heaven, where Christ is at the right hand of his Father. Scattered all over the world we are united in the same Spirit of faith.
Reformed churches have in the past not been diligent to possess one communal confession, that would have to replace the existing confessions. The Harmonia Confessionum Evangelicarum of 1581 also was not a new communal confession but was only a demonstration of the harmony of the existing confessions. That the Lord goes different ways with his people has always been respected in the fact of pluralism of confessions within the unity of belief. Error has always been resisted unanimously. Again I think of the help received by the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands at the Dordrecht Synod of 1618-1619 from the sister churches abroad. The community was not broken because one confession was formulated different from the other. We are not always confronted with the same problems. Then we often choose our formulations according to the problems we are confronted with and also within the possibilities of the language we have at our disposal. That is why within a young community of churches, such as the ICRC, the question of critical importance for each of the participating churches is: how do we meet each other? How do we associate? In an atmosphere of mistrust— because we do not have the same confessions, and have a different historical background, and sometimes speak a somewhat different language than we are used to in our own environment? Or in gladness—because, in spite of all the variety of ways, we do see that God goes the one way of his pleasure and his grace? Then we can also learn the determination and the patience of belief from each other, and encourage and urge each other to Scriptural tolerance in not bearing error. For decisiveness in belief and decisiveness towards error go hand in hand with tolerance within the one community of belief—a patience that we want to exercise mutually in a spirit of gentleness.
Now that we see in our time so much belief destroyed and secularization making such quick progress, the ICRC can be a priceless means, a good instrument, a striking symbol of the community of saints, which does not bear error, but within which there is a communal life from Christ’s peace , that peace which passes all understanding and which can keep our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. If one word of the Savior can direct our community of churches, it is what Christ said to his disciples in the Sermon on the Mount: Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called the sons of God.