Tolerance

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[This paper needs further development and revision in the light of What happened at Assembly 2003. It also needs to be acknowledged that tolerance is an inadequate concept for a theological understanding. It has some biblical basis in the teaching and example of Jesus, and useful precedents in Christian understandings of pastoral practice and what is good for civil society, but the requirements of love exceed those of tolerance. I have advocated its use in this context largely out of practical pastoral considerations in the absence of agreement on basic beliefs.]

As indicated on the UC Issues page Homosexuality and Ministry in the Uniting Church I have been thinking about writing something new - new for me and perhaps for others -- on the case for tolerance in the church, especially in regard to issues such as sexuality which are divisive. It may be time to review and develop some of the implications of the earlier paper Multiculturalism in Church and Society: Progressivism, tolerance and unity.

We need to go beyond the simplistic notion of loving the sinner and hating the sin as a response to that kind of inclusiveness which denies the truth. Jesus was in no way libertarian in his teaching or in the way he lived, but he was remarkably tolerant of sinners. It ought to be possible to develop a Christian doctrine of tolerance that is biblically based and theologically sound without any dependance upon a contemporary left-liberal secular ideology which has influenced much of what has been put forward in the church in recent years. We need to do this because we are in danger of doing harm to members and to people in the wider community, and of doing harm to the church, if we reject or compromise essential elements of love and freedom in our traditions, elements of doctrine which are well based but have been falsely aligned with non-Christians beliefs in support of special interests.

When sharp lines are being drawn to preserve the truth we run the danger of dogmatic certainty where it is not justified. Similarly, any kind of hatred, even of sin, runs the danger in our humanity of spilling over into rejection of our neighbours in whose face we should be able to see Jesus. We have the beginnings of a case for tolerance in both the tradition of pastoral care and the example of Jesus in love and humility.

Where do we go from here? It may be helpful to begin by accepting the good faith of many who say that sex with people of their own gender is morally right for them in that it is consistent with their understanding of their own nature. They might go further and claim that because it comes from how they are made it is the will of God the Creator for them and should be recognized as such by others. In their own understanding they are not consciously sinning in the traditional sense of rebelling against God's will. In the general introduction on homosexuality and ministry, I pointed to the non-judgmental attitude of Jesus to people who were publically guilty of adultery, while he probably held a similar attitude to those who were divorced although he himself spoke against the accepted practice, but I also admitted to a need for more work in this area for the parallel with divorce and adultery, for while it has some biblical precedence, it leaves unexamined the genuine belief of many homosexual people have that what they do is morally right for them. I will leave aside for now the postmodern aspect of the notion of something being right "for them", but there is a more straight forward point about differences in belief. Sometimes advocates of the homosexual cause adopt a genuinely libertarian view that there are no relevant moral laws and that we are all free to do what seems right to us individually; but more often a claim is made that does not reject the old principles of faithfulness in relationships. Although in practice homosexual partnerships are less stable than traditional marriages in a wide range of different cultures, may be a strongly held belief on the part of some in homosexual partnerships that they should be faithful to each other in just the same way as legally married partners are expected to be. They would then be happy to apply the same moral laws to themselves except to say that for them the right kind of partner to whom one must be faithful is a person of the same gender. There are many complexities in related attitudes, beliefs and behaviour including bisexuality and varying degrees of attraction to men and women and inconsistencies in behaviour; but some notion of a given or fixed identity in terms of one's sexual preference is widely believed to justify homosexual partnerships for some people. That is different from an outright rebellion against the moral law as it has normally been understood by Christians in that it upholds the value of faithfulness on the part of people who seek to act with integrity. And that does not deny the fact that we have seen a good deal of self interest in positions promoted by homosexual people in positions of influence in the church: they might not have acted openly and in good faith, but many have.

Many, indeed the majority, have different opinions contrary to those claims, on the validity of some of the arguments which are genuinely believed, but the good faith of many who put them forward cannot be denied. That casts a somewhat different light on the matter than would apply to simple self-justification in cases of divorce and adultery. I believe for both theological and scientific reasons that they are mistaken, not about how they feel, of course, but in their explanation and justification of their behaviour. Nevertheless any effective pastoral relationships must allow for the good faith of people who are honestly mistaken in matters of faith and morals, and that does not allow an exact parallel with divorce and adultery in the sense of knowingly rebelling against the moral law, a rebellion which is more easily discerned in those matters than in this although the temptation of see one's own needs as justifying an exemption from the law that applies generally is common enough. The positive parallel I would draw is that the moral law in those matters in one expression of the call of God to seek the goals of faithfulness and responsibility which all people should seek to achieve, while the purpose of sex in strengthening the committed relationship of a man and a woman in marriage, based on the male female difference, is what Jesus taught should be sought as the will of God. What we dealing with in the pastoral task is not the goal or standard which which is our high calling, but what we do about people who do not, for reasons we do not fully understand, live up their calling in these respects. We are not in these times before the consummation of all things in the business of making final or absolute judgments of other people's behaviour: we can leave that to God, while we continue to witness to what we believe to be true about the goals towards which we should be moving. There is more to said at this point, but I think it follows, especially in times of moral confusion and uncertain leadership, that we should seek to bear some joint responsibility for the suffering of people who disagree with those of us who uphold traditional teaching, and then it follows that we should make practical pastoral arrangements for their place in the church, while the teaching of the church is strengthened and renewed. As I have argued elsewhere, tolerance does not mean endorsement, and it must be a condition of whatever liberties the church allows for practical and pastoral purposes that all concerned accept the fact that the church still upholds the teaching of Jesus about the nature of marriage as a covenant between a man and a woman based on the fact that in creation they are made male and female.

Part of the practical context, which needs to be acknowledged in the church, is that the way we regard tolerance in general will affect such things as our willingness to stay in or leave a church (on which see the linked page To Stay or Leave), and whether we are prepared to work, say in a congregation or agency or the church, with people who represent an opposing point of view on a divisive question. If your are a minister who is opposed to the ordination of a candidate who is living in a homosexual partnership, and you believe it remains contrary to church law and doctrine while others disagree, will you accept, for example, an openly homosexual minister as a colleague in ministry in a particular place where you are called to minister? Can you do so without compromising your support of our received doctrines and discipline? This is the sort of thing on which we must make our own decisions. I would hope, however, that we can still take Wesley's advice and refrain from taking any new initiative in ministry without consulting our brothers (and now sisters) in ministry. Subject to such consultations, my inclination is to accept whomever the church gives me to work with, and to hope to make clear that my opposition to irregular teaching and practice is not personal but theological, and something to be pursued by constitutional means. I believe we should preserve what we can of church order that is under threat, by observing the discipline in both letter and spirit, and that will mean not trying to score a tactical point by refusing to work with someone who has been lawfully appointed. Even if our opponents misuse or abuse positions of power to pursue special interests, and sow dissent when it appears tactically advantageous, it would be inconsistent for those of us who maintain apostolic teaching to do the same.

We must maintain the same principles of tolerance and theological integrity in the present context as when different matters were in dispute. A few years ago, it fell to me because of my pastoral oversight responsibilities in a presbytery (regional council) to defend a candidate for ordination who thought that the church was wrong to ordain women, although I had always supported the ordination of women myself from my teenage years onwards, long before it became popular, and I had argued at length with him that he was wrong. My position, however, which with others I put to the Assembly Standing Committee, was that he could not be rejected on grounds of a conscientious opinion alone, while he must accept the discipline of the church and be prepared to work with those whom the church ordains, and he was prepared to do that and he was even prepared to take part in the laying on of hands at the ordination of a woman if asked to do so by the Presbytery; and I argued that he must also be prepared to accept the theological foundations of the church's decisions to the extent that the validity of those ordinations was not called into question. The candidate concerned accepted all of this and was prepared keep the peace by not campaigning for support, while still keeping his original private opinion that the church had a mistaken policy. Part of my defence of him was based on that section of the Basis of Union which allows liberty of conscience on matters which are not of the substance of the faith (on which see Unity, Diversity and Catholicity which was written during that controversy). I was roundly condemned by feminist groups for making it possible for him to be ordained, when they saw it as tactically advantageous to their cause for him to be excluded. I must admit that I also made a strategic judgment that the ordination of women was not under threat in the Uniting Church at that time, but that was not the basis on which I took the position of tolerance that I felt compelled to take even if it cost me dearly. While I reject entirely the attempt in the 1997 report of the Sexuality Task Group to draw a parallel between the ordination of women and the ordination of homosexuals, because it is based on false assumptions both theological and psychological, I would hope to maintain the same principles of church order which I defended at that time, which require ministers to submit to the discipline while we continue to allow liberty of conscience in regard to opinions about decisions made by the church in proper constitutional processes. DB. Revised November 2001.

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