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D.A. Carson: In an era of ‘tolerance,’ biblical error still must be confronted

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (BP)–When the gospel is taught erroneously within the church, the most loving action Christians can take is to confront those in error, said New Testament scholar D.A. Carson.

The evangelical church has imbibed popular culture’s redefinition of love and tolerance to such a point it has lost a clear understanding of the gospel, said Carson, a renowned author and New Testament professor at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School who lectured at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., Sept. 4.

In many cases, Carson said, the church has swapped the gospel for a contrived unity based on a popular, sentimental definition of love. Whether the church is inclined to carry out discipline to ensure that a pure gospel is both taught and lived out comes down to its understanding of tolerance, he said.

“In the older version of tolerance, the idea was something like this: ‘I might disagree profoundly with your argument or point of view or perspective on some matter, but I would insist on your right to articulate and defend your point of view,'” said Carson, who is the author of such books as “The Gagging of God” and “Exegetical Fallacies.”

“If I do that, I am considered, in the older view of tolerance, a tolerant person. In the new view of tolerance, however, I have no strong views and you have no strong views. That makes us both tolerant persons. If I have strong views and articulate them, I am, by definition, intolerant.”

Speaking on Galatians 2:11-21, Carson pointed out that Paul, in rebuking Peter, a fellow apostle, did not see unity as being more important than the purity of the gospel. Here, Paul demonstrates the preeminence of the gospel and the care that must be taken in preserving it.

By publicly rebuking a fellow apostle for compromising the gospel of grace, Paul demonstrates the depth of his love for the churches at Galatia, Carson said.

“In a closed society, in a confessional society, the old definition of tolerance meant that in the church certain things should not be tolerated,” Carson said. “[U]nder the new definition, no place is allowed for a group to claim it is right. The church that takes this stance is no longer perceived as standing for something and thus in some sense heroic, but is merely bigoted, narrow, right-wing, antiquarian.”

To foster true unity in the church, Christians must understand that biblical truth is hierarchical; some truths strike closer to the heart of the gospel and are worth dying for, while others are not.

Realizing this would help most churches avoid splitting over fringe issues, he said.

“All that God says is true, but God might have to say some things several times for us to understand what he means because we are dumb and slow and morally thick and removed from the historical circumstances,” Carson said.

“Thus, historically, the church has been pretty careful, usually, not to lay down dogmatic insistence on belief in something that shows up only once or twice in Scripture, not because it’s not true, but because we may not be quite certain what it means.

“There are some things that are so bound up with the heart of the gospel that you will be prepared to sacrifice anything for them, including apostolic unity,” he said. “And there are other things where Paul says, ‘One person eats this food and another person doesn’t. One person regards one day above another, another person views all days the same. Let each be fully persuaded in his own mind.’

“You can’t imagine Paul saying, ‘One person sleeps around, another person doesn’t. Let each be fully persuaded in his own mind.’ There is a hierarchialization that you find in Scripture in the realm of ethics and the realm of that which is essential to the gospel.”

Regarding church discipline, Carson pointed out that Scripture addresses only three specific offenses which demand the excommunication of the offender: denial of the truth of the gospel, particularly by teachers; unrepentant moral failure such as that found in 1 Corinthians 5; and unrepentant schismatic behavior by a person or group of persons that creates division within the church.

“You are making judgment calls, whether you like it or not. But the fact that they are complex and difficult does not absolve [church leaders] of the responsibility,” Carson said. “It means that you cannot approach these matters with a sloganeering approach, but with a deep humility of mind that goes back to Scripture again and again and again.”
(BP) photo posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo title: TACKLING ‘TOLERANCE’.

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  • Jeff Robinson

    Jeff Robinson is director of news and information at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

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