Un-Locke the Church!

November 26, 2006

Reflecting on the blessings God has given us in the United States, freedom of religion is certainly chief among them.  And for them, we owe God thanks for one certain letter, which began:

"Honored Sir, Since you are pleased to inquire what are my thoughts about the mutual toleration of Christians in their different professions of religion, I must needs answer you freely that I esteem that toleration to be the chief characteristic mark of the true church. For whatsoever some people boast of the antiquity of places and names, or of the pomp of their outward worship; others, of the reformation of their discipline; all, of the orthodoxy of their faith—for everyone is orthodox to himself—these things, and all others of this nature, are much rather marks of men striving for power and empire over one another than of the church of Christ. Let anyone have never so true a claim to all these things, yet if he be destitute of charity, meekness, and goodwill in general toward all mankind, even to those that are not Christians, he is certainly yet short of being a true Christian himself.”

So John Locke writes in his Letter Concerning Toleration, (p.13). Locke’s theology is certainly confused, but he went on to argue in his letter that folks of various theological persuasions had sufficient morality in common to be able to have a common, shared society.  2 quick comments: 

1.  Whether or not Locke (and the American founders) were right in this supposition is still open to question.  When this letter was penned, abortion was assumed to be infanticide and homosexuality was considered immoral.  What happens when large parts of the population no longer share such moral conclusions?

2.  Locke’s toleration somehow slipped from society at large into the church itself.  As Robert Oliver has observed, “By the second decade of the eighteenth century it is clear that Locke’s Letter concerning Toleration was being used in a new way. Christians were moving beyond a readiness to tolerate heretics outside the church to a reluctance to discipline them within its bounds.”

I leave larger societal reflections to others more qualified than I.  About the church, however, surely Christ clearly taught that false teachers would arise, that wolves would imitate sheep, that discernment would be needed and that discipline should be practiced.  I just preached this morning on II Peter 2, a clear call for false teachers to be rejected.  The New Testament has many other echoes of Christ’s teaching in Matthew 24 (and elsewhere).

Confusing the world and the church is dangerous on just about any level, but cultivating a "toleration" about differing ways of salvation in the church is absolutely suicidal.  Intolerance of serious error in the church promotes the Gospel.  Particularly if you are a pastor reading this, join me in agreeing to work to un-Locke our churches!