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The Trend Toward Tolerance


In this rather long article I will

(1) summarise a shift in emphasis which has been happening in our community for several years now;

(2) discuss further implications with regard to how this shift may affect us in the years ahead; and

(3) deal with possible contradictions that may be associated with the shift.

1. A Shift in Emphasis

We have gradually been moving toward an understanding of the grace of God which allows for people to differ quite radically from ourselves and still be accepted as spiritual brothers and sisters. Because we are only now becoming conscious of how much we have changed, it is helpful to look back and understand something about the history and background of this trend, which we will do by reference to various articles that have been written on the subject over the past few years.

One of the earliest articles on the topic of God accepting people who do not endorse our position with regard to the teachings of Jesus, was Another Cornerstone (1989). In that article, we showed how it is consistent with the teachings of Jesus to accept people on the basis of their sincerity, and not just on the basis of their outward adherence to specific teachings of Jesus, or on the basis of their theology. However, in those days we tended to apply this 'soft line' almost exclusively to people who had very limited knowledge of Christianity or Christian teachings. Our attitude toward professing Christians and toward community members was that they knew better, and that they were thus accountable for their disobedience to Jesus.

Around 1996, we started to make more effort to apply a 'soft line' toward fellow members, toward Christian friends, and even toward some who were not so inclined to see themselves as our friends. An official apology to the churches was written at that time, although it was never published. (See part 3, Contradictions, below.)

We also worked on the idea of allowing greater freedom for teams of Jesus Christians in one country to function independently of teams in other countries. The word we used most often to describe this concept at that time was 'autonomy'. The article Corporate Adolescence summed up that approach, and it hinted at problems which were to later become reality, as we endeavoured to give greater room for diversity within our ranks.

The series of articles that we wrote comparing ourselves with The Family (Simple Salvation, Eternal Salvation, Living by Faith, The Bible, and Jesus Christ) was an attempt to consider (a little more graciously than we had previously) the differences between ourselves and other professing Christians (since most of the things that separated us from The Family also separated us from the institutional church as a whole). The change in our attitude at that time led to greater dialogue between us and The Family, but it had no significant effect on our relationship with the rest of the church world (except to further alienate some on the basis of our friendship with The Family!)

A split in our own community in 1998 was precipitated by what we would regard as a misapplication of the 'autonomy' teaching mentioned above. However, it led to further attempts by ourselves to develop a theology which would deal kindly with people who had left our ranks, even if they were quite bitterly opposed to us when they left. Three articles which were written about this time were Divine Love, The Body of Christ, and Divisions: Part of God's Plan? These articles did not, however, relate exclusively to ex-members. We also tried to take a more tolerant attitude toward our own members and toward people who have never been a part of us.

In 1999, a further teaching developed within our community, which we refer to as Empowerment. An article by that name deals more with resistance from members to actually believing that they had the freedom to differ and still remain part of the community. Nevertheless, 'empowerment' has now become a catch phrase throughout the Jesus Christians, to describe the softer line that our leadership is trying to take, in the belief that members will grow stronger spiritually when they are allowed to grow more at their own pace.

A couple of articles attempted to summarise what was happening during this period. They both sought to explain how the soft line worked in harmony with the harder line that we had previously emphasised. They were In Spirit and in Truth, and Pastors and Teachers (originally called Harvesting). A study of all of the articles listed in this section should surprise people who have previously seen only our hard side.

2. Further Implications

If we continue to go in the direction in which we are now moving, there could be some exciting, albeit tricky, developments in the years ahead, particularly with regard to our long-standing relationship with the institutional church. And this is the most significant part of this article.

What we have been saying in the articles referred to in the previous section is that the grace and patience of God allows for people not only to differ on matters of personal opinion, but also it can allow for them to actually sin, and still be covered by the grace of God. Surely this is a significant leap in our theology.

For as long as our community has existed, we have allowed (at least in theory) for people to differ on opinion matters. However, in practice, it often happened that followers had to submit to leaders on opinion matters, and failure to do so was regarded as rebellion. It seemed a reasonable rule, considering that anarchy could soon develop if everyone were to start doing their own thing.

However, we are beginning to see that diversity can be tolerated (at least to a greater extent than was previously allowed) if leaders are willing to sacrifice control and (at times) productivity. In fact, if spiritual productivity is measured in terms of overall improvement in attitude, and not just in how many tracts get out, then extending greater personal freedom to people could result in growth in the quality of commitment as well as growth in the number of people who will join our community. (See also A Letter Upon Release, written after this article.)

The idea is to make our lifestyle more attractive and our personal commitment more genuine, by allowing for more individuality. If leaders can wait until people have genuinely internalised concepts before expecting them to put them into practice, and if they can wait until followers have come to understand why various disciplines are encouraged before they expect them to be enforced, then the result should be more self-discipline, greater enthusiasm, more new members, and more long-term commitment from existing members (i.e. less backsliding).

The idea is that leadership could exercise less and less control, until it may be difficult at times to work out whether a person or a local team is actually a part of the Jesus Christians movement, or not. Boundaries will become blurred, but the kingdom of heaven may flourish.

Because we are talking about actually turning a blind eye to error, and waiting until God himself prompts people to change, it does not take too much imagination to consider that we could do this with almost anyone. Obviously, the more we tolerate, the more people will be drawn to us. We do not want to cheat on the truth, but providing we know personally where we stand on issues, we could exercise a great deal more grace (i.e. patience) with others... especially if they are not full-time members of our community.

Where this shift could be most significant would be with our relationship to the institutional church. Instead of focusing on their disobedience to Jesus and what he taught, we could work at appreciating some of the good things that they have done. There is so much that is good in the world that has grown out of Christian tradition. There are Christian missions and charities throughout the world. There are many Christian values which have greatly influenced governments, businesses, literature, the arts, etc. Could we not give more credit to the institutional church for the good that they have done without necessarily compromising with what we feel is still wrong?

When we started thinking like this, it made us realise that there are huge possibilities for building the kingdom of heaven, just by 'turning a blind eye' to sins in the church (or at least being a lot quieter about our disagreements with them). How exciting to think that we could become some kind of a leaven in the huge lump that is institutional Christianity!

It is too early to say how far we could go in this direction, but the possibilities are out there waiting for us.

3. Contradictions?

With each move we have made toward greater tolerance, there has been an attempt to define the limits of how far we could go with such teachings. For some people, our recognition of the limits has represented a contradiction, making our claims about tolerance invalid and insincere. We cannot agree. However, it is fair to question whether there really has been a substantial change in our position, and whether it represents a contradiction of our earlier teachings. We will discuss those questions in this section.

In the article Bottom Squeezers we taught that failure to comply with what appear to be trivial rules often indicates deeper spiritual problems. This hard line interpretation of diversity is, in our opinion, still valid on occasions. There should be a willingness for each member to submit to virtually any discipline that does not contradict their own conscience. That seemed to be what Jesus was teaching. And a stubborn refusal to submit to a particular discipline is likely to be an indication of a problem with pride.

However, the concepts of empowerment and autonomy allow for people to put such a problem on 'hold' if they choose. It would be good if everyone dealt with every spiritual problem that they have, but it may also be hypocritical of us leaders to demand total and instant submission from followers if we are not totally submitted to God ourselves. We strive toward sinless perfection, but we have not as yet arrived at it. And so we should show the same patience with others as what God has shown toward us.

So, with regard to the Bottom Squeezers article, the new approach does not invalidate it, but it does significantly reduce its scope for application. This difference is important, and it is vital to the whole concept of grace. Grace does not rule out truth. The truth must be the truth, whether or not any of us perfectly measures up to it.

It would be easy to assume that we have fallen into teaching the Perverted Grace teaching which we have fought against for so long. There is no doubt that there is some overlap in this approach. In fact, we may find that people whom we had previously assumed were teaching perverted grace were actually doing what we are now trying to do, and that is trying to be patient with sins that they too find to be abhorrent.

We mentioned earlier that there was an apology to the churches that was never published. The reason for that was because we had doubts about (1) our motives in writing it; and (2) the message that it would communicate to the churches. While we want to do all that we can to communicate the love of God to everyone (including those in the churches), there are limits to how far we can go and still be true to our own conscience. If we are saying something that appears to be endorsing sin, whether in the church or out of it, then that is wrong. We felt that the apology could be taken in that way.

Similarly, there was an article, entitled Why People Leave which tried to take a softer, more sympathetic approach to people who have left our community. The article was published on our web site and in our official study book for some time; but it has since been deleted. We felt that it was motivated at least in part by an attempt to be accepted by former members. Although it would be nice to be accepted by them, by the churches, and by anyone else, we must not let that desire for acceptance cloud our understanding of the truth.

In our future dealings with a large number of people, we are going to have to become expert at saying two things at the same time, i.e. at combining the truth about what we personally believe (the 'hard line') with more grace toward people who do not feel that they can agree with us. It will, at times, put us into the complex world of doublespeak and doublethink. We will need a great deal of help from the Holy Spirit to walk the thin line that this will create for us.

A couple of other areas of possible contradiction need to be assessed as well.

We have long taught that it is the responsibility of leaders to love followers, and of followers to trust leaders, and not so much the reverse. That still holds true. However, the empowerment teaching encourages leaders to look at the areas of growth that act as indicators of sincerity on the part of followers, and to exercise trust in their fundamental sincerity. The trust will, of course, be misplaced at times. However, we are hopeful that the progress made by people who really are sincere will be sufficient compensation.

Another area where we run into some contradiction is with regard to living in community. The bigger the community, the greater is the need for unity in order for people to escape total chaos. The more that people are able and willing to sacrifice personal opinions, the more effective they will be as a community. Because of this, we will continue to press toward that ideal with those people who show some interest in being more effective members of such a community. But for those who lean more heavily toward personal freedom, there will be a need to give them that freedom at the expense of the larger community.

We have already found ourselves operating in smaller teams, which has helped us to reach more different areas of the world at the same time. However, most of the people in these smaller teams have already successfully submitted to the disciplines of living in a larger community. No doubt they are enjoying the freedom that comes from being less restricted, but they are also being accountable to the larger community, for which we are grateful. There will be others who will not wish to be so accountable. We will need to give them that freedom, at the same time that we continue to proclaim the benefits of greater accountability.

Finally, there is the contradiction which comes from our understanding of Bible prophecy. We understand that there is a great falling away which has taken place in the institutional church. We understand that as Christians we will eventually be persecuted on a grand scale because of our faith. And we understand that the source of this persecution will very likely be the institutional church.

However, it seems that the Holy Spirit is calling on us to continue (as God does) to love the church and to be willing to lay down our lives in love for the church, so that we may be able to win individuals to a greater personal faith in Jesus and his teachings. Past experience has suggested that paradoxically, the more we genuinely try to love the institutional church, the more enraged will become the forces of evil which exist within it. St. Paul said that he had learned how to be abased and how to abound. If we should be so lucky as to 'abound' in our relationship with the institutional church, the onus will be upon us to stay faithful to the truth as we understand it, and not to let any such popularity turn our heads.

4. Conclusion

In conclusion, we would restate our conviction that there is a significant shift which is taking place in our community, and which has suggested some possible changes in our relations with others outside our community. We will need great wisdom and courage in the years ahead, in order to follow where God is leading and not to let ourselves be coerced into any form of compromise which will hinder the moving of God's Spirit in our lives or in the lives of others. (See also Quakerism)

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