Community Christian Church of Springfield

4806 E. Cherry
Springfield, MO 65809
(417) 877-7821 


About Tolerance and Transcending Opinion

Proper 19    Sept 14, 2014
Community Christian Church of Springfield, MO
Dr. Roger Ray, pastor

Romans 14:1-10a
Welcome those who are weak in faith, but not for the purpose of quarreling over opinions. 2Some believe in eating anything, while the weak eat only vegetables. 3Those who eat must not despise those who abstain, and those who abstain must not pass judgment on those who eat; for God has welcomed them. 4Who are you to pass judgment on servants of another? It is before their own lord that they stand or fall. And they will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make them stand. 5Some judge one day to be better than another, while others judge all days to be alike. Let all be fully convinced in their own minds. 6Those who observe the day, observe it in honor of the Lord. Also those who eat, eat in honor of the Lord, since they give thanks to God; while those who abstain, abstain in honor of the Lord and give thanks to God. 7We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. 8If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord's. 9For to this end Christ died and lived again, so that he might be Lord of both the dead and the living. 10Why do you pass judgment on your brother or sister? Or you, why do you despise your brother or sister?
Alexander Campbell, the Irish Presbyterian evangelist credited with being the brains of the Restoration movement in the 19th century.  Campbell's writing and preaching career gave birth to the Disciples of Christ, the Independent Christian Church and the Church of Christ.  He proclaimed an idealistic vision of Christian unity.  He said, "In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity."

Campbell believed that if only everyone would dispense with creeds, church doctrines and denominational affiliations, Christianity could be reunited..... Specifically, he thought that Christianity could be united once every rationally just agreed with his particular vision of what Christianity should be.  Predictably, he not only failed to unite the disparate sectarian divisions within Christianity, his movement managed to add three new deeply divided sects to the American religious landscape.

Still, his guiding principle is not a bad one:  In essential things, let's work towards agreement - In matters of personal opinion, let's be generous in allowing people the freedom to believe as they wish - and on both sides of that divide, let's be sure that nothing is more important that our decision to love one another.

It is a good principle, it is just that church folk had difficulty in agreeing on what was essential and what was a matter of opinion.  Before the movement had time to congeal into an easily recognized institution, the nation was divided by the cataclysmic Civil War, during which the Christian Church held their annual conferences just north of the Mason Dixon line in Cincinnati, OH.  At each of the war years' conferences, resolutions were passed asking God to damn the south.  At the meeting immediately following the end of the war, they passed a final resolution thanking God for having damned the south.

Religious history has some very embarrassing moments.....

In much more recent history, in the early 1990's, the Springfield Chamber of Commerce launched the fairly audacious project of enumerating community values to encourage churches and schools to teach to our citizens.  I was stunned that a club of local business owners could be so filled with self-importance that they would appoint themselves to assign sermon and lesson plan topics to both churches and schools but more than 20 years later, I have come to see such malignant narcissism as being rather more the status quo than shocking.

But, in the disheartening anthropology of ideas, a number of local churches managed to lower the moral bar by objecting to one of the values advocated by the Chamber of Commerce.... The word that tripped them up was:  tolerance.

Several local church leaders were afraid that "tolerance" was a code word for "no longer discriminating against homosexuals." Sadly, Chamber officials reassured them that they had no intentions of limiting their irrational prejudice against gay people but they were actually concerned about religious pluralism and racial prejudice..... which didn't really help matters.

I received a copy of a letter from the pastor of one of our large local Baptist Churches that informed me that if this list of words was accepted by our City Council that churches would then be forced to hire pedophiles to work in our church nurseries.  I was at a loss as to how to respond to such non-sense.... In the end, I corrected his spelling and grammar and just sent the letter back to him.  Surprisingly, I have not heard from him again.

Paul wrote to the church in Rome that they should all get along with one another and not try to force everyone else to agree with their personal opinions.  Evidently, Paul was not conscious of any possible hypocrisy involved in giving that advice.

I don't read Greek as well as Tarzan speaks English but if the English translation of his letter is true to the original, Paul wasn't even able to slightly disguise his own prejudice in a passage telling others not to be so opinionated.
Look at vs 1 in this pericope from Romans 14:  Welcome those who are "weak" in the faith....
Imagine a church that had several adult Sunday School classes.... On one door the class name reads:  for those who are weak in the faith.  On another there is a sign that says: for those who are strong in the faith.  You can bet that the class members in the "weak" class didn't pick their own name.  My college class in my home church named itself:  Lost and Found.... Which was accurate enough but even inside that class there would have been considerable disagreement about who was lost and who wasn't.

For Paul, the division was easy.  If you agreed with him, you were strong.  If you disagreed with him, you were weak.  Even still, he was saying that we should be nice about our prejudices....just as he gave us a perfect example of failing on that front in the way that he worded the passage.

Isaac Asimov, as a scientist, science fiction writer, and enthusiast for science education, received a lot of criticism from the religious world in the 60's and 70's and he was not reticent about pushing back.  He said:  "Anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that 'my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.'"

With that Asimov gets to the big challenge of tolerance.  If people have a right to their own opinion then they also have a right to be wrong.  That doesn't mean that an informed opinion has the same value as an uninformed opinion.  And, realistically, we can't be tolerant of views, beliefs, ethics, that somehow protect things that hurt other people.

The NFL has had to come to terms with the basic right and wrong of domestic abuse around the Ray Rice elevator video in which he hit his fiancé so hard that she went unconscious.  The Ravens originally suspended him for just two games.  The attitude being, domestic violence does not directly affect football so they could be kind of indifferent about it.  On the other hand, a player found guilty of smoking marijuana might face a year's suspension but then the NFL makes a lot of its advertising money on beer and liquor commercials.

It can cut into NFL income if players are using substances that compete with their advertised commercial products but beating up your spouse doesn't affect the bottom line. There are times when tolerance comes at too high a price.  Still, we need some unity on essentials while preserving liberty in non-essentials but we cannot deny that there are things that are essential and it is coming up with that list that proves to be so difficult.

One of the few public meetings in which I publicly raised my voice was about a decade ago at our local state university.  It was not a matter of a debate between an informed view and an uninformed view.
My message was delivered through gritted teeth to none other than the then president of the university.... A very smart man who held very passionately to a traditional Roman Catholic faith.  The president was adamantly refusing to include homosexuals in the list of protected persons in the university's non-discrimination policy.

It was just one of those times when I could say that there is no more room for debate.  As the song that Barry and Sean are going to perform for us in a moment says:  "This is not an opinion, I am right and you are wrong." I assured him that history would convict him as having been guilty of protecting prejudice over freedom.  Eventually, he chose to retire rather than change and the next president quickly changed the university policy.

You might say, in that case, that the university president was "weak" in his faith but his weakness kept dozens, if not hundreds, of gay university employees from having the same pension and insurance benefits as the straight members of the university's staff.  Can you meaningfully maintain unity with those whose beliefs come at the expense of the health and welfare of others?

When this controversy about tolerance first arose in our city, I delivered an impassioned sermon arguing that, in fact, tolerance is a religious value.

A retired religion professor who was typically quite kind and complimentary of my sermons, waited around until the line at the door at the end of the service had dissipated.

He approached me privately and said, "I don't usually disagree with you but this time you are wrong.  Tolerance is not a Christian value.... That falls far short of our goal.... Love is a Christian value."  The uncomfortable truth is that you can be so right that you are wrong.  You can be right in a way that gives you a casualty count rather than transformed hearts and minds.

There are times that it is incumbent upon a prophetic faith community to announce that there are beliefs, values, laws, economic practices, and even military actions and federal budgets that are just wrong.... We just need to find a way to do it that doesn't lead to alienation... which means that we have to find a way to be even more loving than we are right.

Roger L. Ray, D.Min. 

Community Christian Church
4806 E. Cherry Springfield, MO 65809
(417) 877-7821

"I have the audacity to believe that peoples everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture for their minds, and dignity, equality and freedom for their spirits. I believe that what self-centered men have torn down men other-centered can build up." (Martin Luther King, Jr. - Nobel Speech)
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