Van Dyk, J.

Conflict and Toleration in the Early Church



IV. Conflict and Toleration in the Early Church


Conflict within the church of Jesus Christ is not a recent phenomenon. Already in the earliest of apostolic times internal strife was a common occurrence. Paul’s letter to the Christians in Corinth stands like a monument testifying to the divisions and contradictions raging within the church of that ancient Greek city. And when we recall the squabbles among the disciples as well as the plotting of Judas Iscariot, we realize that conflict was present already within the earliest circle of Jesus’ followers.

In this chapter we shall examine the early apostolic church and consider some of the ways in which it approached the problem of internal conflict and discord. We shall ask: How did the early church confront the divisions that beset her, and how did she draw the line between discipline and toleration? These questions are important because they are perennial. When we ask these questions of the early church, we ask them also of the church today, for the church, though increasingly diverse both in time and in place, nevertheless remains, as we confess, one holy universal church, a church of all ages.


The ecclesia

In order to understand the New Testament attitudes towards conflict and disagreement, we must review the nature of the early Christian community. What was the apostolic church? A group of Christians who interacted with each other only on Sunday mornings as they attended a service in a comfortable building? Indeed not. The Greek word for church, ecclesia, is derived from an expression which literally means „those who have been called out.” The early Christians were to constitute an ecclesia, a community of people called out of the pagan darkness into God's marvelous light, a society of brothers and sisters who were to be a


light on a hilltop at all times and in every situation. Three aspects of this early ecclesia require further attention.

First, it is important to observe that the early church was not an institution among other institutions, as our denominational churches tend to be today. That is, the ecclesia was not distinguishable from the state, the family, and the school in the way the state, family, and school are now distinguishable from one another. Rather, the ecclesia was a new society within the larger, pagan, Graeco-Roman society, and thus exhibited itself in a multi-dimensional way. For example, the ecclesia was, to be sure, a worshiping community. But in rejecting Caesar as Lord the ecclesia took a political stance and thus became a political community as well. It was, in fact, precisely this political character of the early church that worried the Roman authorities and led to severe persecutions. A clear reference to this is found in Luke’s account of Paul’s visit in Thessalonica. The Jews there raised a tumult by declaring: „They [Paul and his friends] are all defying Caesar’s decrees, saying that there is another king, one called Jesus” (Acts 17: 7).

The ecclesia, moreover, was also an economic society in that its members shared their belongings and supported one another financially. Pagan and Jewish persecutions often took the form of economic sanctions against the Christians, creating intense suffering and requiring an effective diaconate. It is in this light that we must read Revelation 13, where we learn that the days will come once again in which Christians will be unable to buy or sell unless they wear the mark of the beast. Again, when Paul, in I Corinthians 6 chides the Christians for resorting to a pagan judge to settle their internal disputes, it becomes clear that the ecclesia was to be a legal community as well. In every way, then, the ecclesia was to be a society, communally expressing the love of God in all aspects of life, whether that involved worship, politics, finances, the law, the family, education, or whatever.

Secondly, we note that the early ecclesia, though rooted in the Old Testament community, was to be a universal church. That the earliest New Testament ecclesia was regarded as a continuation of the Hebrew community is evident from, for example, Peter's speech recorded for us in Acts 4, as well as from his Old Testament


description of the ecclesia as „a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God” (I Pet 2: 9; cf. Ex 19: 6). Peter’s remarks at the home of Cornelius the centurion make it clear that the New Testament priesthood is to embrace all people of all nations (Acts 10).

In the third place, the ecclesia was to be one. It was to be a unified and integrated body of Christ, a body „joined and held together by every supporting ligament” (Eph 4: 16). There were to be no divisions; on the contrary, the ecclesia was to be perfectly united in mind and thought (I Cor 1: 10). This theme of unity reflects the prayer of Christ himself, when He looked up to heaven and asked that all of his disciples might be one (John 17).

This societal, universal, unified body of believers could fearlessly and aggressively confront a hostile world, for it had been entrusted with the gospel, the „faith once delivered to the saints” (Jude 3). This gospel, Paul affirms in I Corinthians 4: 20, is not just a matter of talk, but of power. It is the renewing, transforming power of God. With this gospel the ecclesia confidently declared: „We can do all things in Him who gives us strength” (cf. Phil 4: 13).

What was this empowering gospel, this faith once delivered? In simplest terms: Jesus is the resurrected Lord (Rom 10: 9). This was the fundamental confession which incorporated the believer into the ecclesia. Making this confession with one’s mouth and believing it in one’s heart, moreover, assured the presence of the Holy Spirit (I Cor 12: 3). And well did the early Christians need the sustaining strength of the Spirit when before the Roman magistrates they were to decide publicly between the lordship of Caesar or the lordship of Jesus.

One would think that a confession, a creed as simple as this, could have easily prevented divisions. After all, how can a true believer disagree with the claim that Jesus is the resurrected Lord? Judging by the historical record, however, the introduction of disagreement and division into the ecclesia was not at all a difficult task. In no time at all the early churches were alive with conflict. Some of the differences emerged from a faulty understanding of what it means to say that Jesus is Lord (cf. I John 4: 2, 3; II John 7).


At other times the disagreements involved ways in which the Christian is to live in the world (I Cor 7 and 8). At still other times the disputes, such as the disagreement between Paul and Barnabas (Acts 15: 39), though serious, would seem almost inconsequential to our way of thinking.

The New Testament scriptures abound with pictures of the conflicts, divisions, and polarizations that quickly beset the early ecclesia. Not only are they identified in specific terms, as when Paul writes about the divisions in the Corinthian church, but they can frequently be inferred from the apostles’ passionate pleas for unity, forbearance, and love. The references to discord, strife, quarrels, disagreements, polarizations, and every sort of conflict are legion. Clearly those who longingly believe in the reality of an idyllic apostolic church have not carefully read the New Testament for some time. Subsequent church history, meanwhile, tells us that in post-apostolic times the situation hardly improved. Much of the history of the church is a tragic tale of schism and division, of rending the body of Christ over and over again, of once and again grieving the Spirit.


The New Testament attitude

How did the apostles and the early ecclesia approach the problem of internal conflict? The New Testament itself presents us with a two-fold attitude. On the one hand Christians are to exhibit a spirit of loving forbearance, a willingness to forgive and to overlook, to turn the other cheek, to go the extra mile. „Walk in all lowliness and meekness,” says Paul in Ephesians 4: 2, „with longsuffering, forbearing one another in love.” In the letter to the Colossians he puts it succinctly and unambiguously: „Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience. Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity” (Col 3: 12-14). Clearly this approach reflects an attitude of toleration. Christians must tolerate each other’s weaknesses and treat one another in love and gentleness (cf. also Rom 14, 1 Cor 8, etc.).


The New Testament counterbalances the spirit of toleration with a disciplinary approach. In strong language the ecclesia is told to watch out for the deceivers, the false prophets, the wolves in sheep's clothing, and the evildoers. „Purge the old yeast,” says Paul in I Corinthians 5: 7, „that you may be a new lump, a new batch of dough.” In even stronger language he goes on to say: „you must not associate with anyone who calls himself a brother but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or a slanderer, a drunkard or a swindler. With such a man do not even eat!” (v11). And he concludes: „Expel the wicked man from among you” (v13).

How do we reconcile these two seemingly diametrically opposed attitudes? How do we harmonize a spirit of tolerant forbearance with a spirit of discipline and excommunication? At first sight, the possibility for harmonization appears to be almost self-evident. From the passages quoted above, would it not seem that toleration is required in cases where our brothers or sisters are weak, whereas strong disciplinary action must be taken in the case of sin? A closer look, however, reveals that the situation is not so simple. In the first place, what counts as weakness or sin is not so easily determined. What represents mere weakness to some may well look like gross immorality to others. Already in Corinth this problem imposed itself on the church. Was marrying a virgin to whom one is engaged a weakness or a sin (cf. I Cor 7: 36-38)? Should the eating of food sacrified to idols be tolerated or prohibited (cf. I Cor 8)? The question increases in complexity, moreover, when we note that Paul does not seem to be adverse to recommending that we tolerate sin perpetrated by our brothers (I Cor 6: 7; cf. Matt 5: 39ff).

Still, the line of demarcation between toleration and discipline appears to coincide with the distinction between good and evil. Sin cannot and may not be tolerated within the ecclesia. But did we a moment ago not remark that Paul himself tolerated sin perpetrated by one’s brother? This question brings us to the crux of the matter. We can sum it up in this way: Within the genuine ecclesia, that is, among those who confess with their mouths and believe in their hearts that Jesus indeed is Lord, the spirit of toleration and loving forbearance must prevail. At the same time, stern discipline, even expulsion, is to be practiced in cases in


which the presumed believer exhibits the sin and the evil which originates from and characterizes alternate religions, lifestyles, and worldviews. Let us examine this situation more closely.


Loving forbearance

First, toleration and loving forbearance must prevail within the ecclesia. When someone within the Christian community fails or falls, even sins, then that person is not to be excised from the body. On the contrary, the rest of us are to forbear and forgive, as well as admonish and correct. When brothers and sisters honestly differ, all the while genuinely confessing that Christ is the resurrected Lord, they must continue to love one another, to submit to one another, and to strive to keep the unity. That this was Paul’s approach is abundantly clear from the passages already quoted. Recognition of this attitude, furthermore, helps us to understand Paul's broad toleration of variations in the doctrine and life of his fellow Christians. For example, it did not trouble him in the least to circumcise Timothy, even though shortly before the Synod of Jerusalem had clearly declared against the need for such a ritual (cf. Acts 16: 3 and Acts 15: 11). The central chapters of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, furthermore, disclose a wide-ranging Christian liberty. All things are lawful, Paul declares, although not all things are expedient (I Cor 10: 23).


Strict discipline

A stern and intolerant discipline is to be exercised, however, when within the ecclesia we find practices stemming from alternate gospels. Chapter 5 of I Corinthians is one place where this principle is clearly enunciated. Paul does not equivocate: have no fellowship with those who live scandalous lives. In the first verse of this chapter Paul refers to the sexual immorality present among the Corinthian Christians. Such immorality was precisely one of the characterizing features of pagan society. Such immorality represented the heart of a pagan and bankrupt gospel. Apparently the immorality practiced by the Corinthian Christians was even worse than that of the pagans (I Cor 5: 1)! Such behavior cannot be tolerated. In Old Testament language: those who practice such


things shall be cut off. Similarly, anyone who brings any other gospel, that is, a gospel incompatible with the confession that Christ is the resurrected Lord, cannot be tolerated. In ancient times these gospels were preached by paganism, Judaism, orientalism, docetism, gnosticism, and scores of philosophies and mystery religions. Each one of these gospels led to evil practices. Any one of these gospels, says Paul, or any gospel other than the one which the ecclesia has received, is accursed (Gal 1: 9)!

It is in this framework of forbearance and discipline that we must read Paul’s apparent toleration of sin perpetrated by one's brother, as reported in I Corinthians 6: 7. The context here is an already distorted situation. The Corinthian Christians had forgotten that the ecclesia was to be a society within a society, and therefore to practice its own law. When this basic rule is broken, as it was in the Corinthian ecclesia, justice becomes a farce, and we may as well allow ourselves to be defrauded.

The two-fold attitude of tolerance and discipline stands out in starker relief when we recall the three aspects of the ecclesia discussed earlier. The ecclesia, we noted, was to be a society within a society, and thus exhibited a multiplicity of dimensions and functions. Obviously a society comprising so much of life is wide open to conflict and disagreement, if not in one area of life, then in another. If such conflict cannot be absorbed in love and toleration, the chances of such a society's survival are slim. Consequently, in such a situation an indispensable spirit of loving forbearance and longsuffering must prevail. Similarly, the ecclesia was to be universal and to be one. „Universal” implies that many different peoples from many backgrounds with various customs will be incorporated into the one ecclesia. If the spirit of toleration does not prevail, the possibility of the church’s remaining both universal and one becomes exceedingly dim. If intolerance and lovelessness and lack of understanding were to creep in, the universal body would surely disintegrate into innumerable localized splinter groups.

Such splintering, of course, is nevertheless exactly the fate the communal, universal, united church has suffered throughout its long history. Why did this happen? The answers are legion. One merely needs to read the many books describing the countless


heresies and schisms that dot the pages of ecclesiastical history. One thing, however, is clear: the Pauline, New Testament spirit of loving forbearance that is to be practiced within the ecclesia too quickly and too often degenerated into an inflexible spirit of intolerance and negativism. Shortly after the apostles completed their work and were called home, this spirit of intolerance set in. At least three factors contributed significantly to the growth of this new, unbiblical spirit.1


Greek intellectualism

The first of these factors is the incursion of pagan Greek intellectualism. The ancient Greeks had been among the first to discover the power of logical, analytic thinking. They had become fascinated with the human mind and soon regarded it as a divine spark, to be esteemed far above any other dimension of human life. Thinking, knowing, reasoning are functions of the mind, to be sharply distinguished from and exalted above mere doing, mere practice, mere human conduct. Theory and thinking, the pagan Greeks further believed, provide us with the avenue to eternal, immutable truth. The mind, home of a natural light of reason, affords us absolute truths in a world of flux and change and uncertainty. This Greek and Hellenistic idea of a natural light of reason, capable of grasping unchanging truth, soon entered Christian circles. As a result, the belief began to grow that faith, itself a gift of God, is to be associated with knowing rather than with doing. Faith has to do with eternal principles, rather than with life in an ever-changing world. This intellectualistic approach soon led to the intellectualization of doctrine and of faith itself.

To understand the effect of intellectualism on doctrine, we must recall that the New Testament idea of doctrine, of „teaching” (didaskalia) is rooted in a Hebrew tradition and not in Greek philosophy. In the Hebrew tradition, teaching means leading into the ways of the Lord. Greek philosophy, on the other hand, requires only an analytic true or false response to what is taught. The Hebrew tradition, moreover, does not separate knowing from doing. It does not disconnect a theoretic set of eternal principles from the humdrum and busyness of daily life. On the


contrary, in the Old Testament knowing and understanding are themselves forms of doing and are expressed in practice. Only then do we truly understand when we truly do (cf. Ps. 111: 10; Ps 119: 100; cf. Eph 5: 15-17; James 3: 13).

It is in this Old Testament context that we must understand the New Testament concept of doctrine. In the New Testament doctrine is the gospel, consisting of both the message of the lordship of the resurrected Christ and a new way of life in response. Doctrine is „The Way,” a single undivided, unbroken response to the gospel. Greek intellectualism, however, soon changed this rich, life-encompassing reality into an abstract set of theological statements, a set of logically articulated propositions, into „reason’s” formulation of faith.

The intellectualization of doctrine was readily followed by the intellectualization of faith itself. Faith, like doctrine, is a rich biblical concept, comprising components such as confidence, trust, commitment, an awareness of the Lord’s authoritative presence, and a willingness to respond in loving obedience. But within a few centuries of the earliest ecclesia, this beautiful biblical idea, like doctrine, was diluted and reduced to formal and abstract propositions. Faith came to be equated with a form of thinking. The church father Augustine, for example, defined faith as follows: „To believe is to think with assent” (Augustine, 5). Consequently, the demonstration of one’s faith is no longer one’s life (cf. James 3: 13), but merely the ability to state the absolute, unchanging content of doctrine.

The process of intellectualization of doctrine and faith effectively robbed the gospel of its peculiar New Testament double-sided character. The Scriptures make it very clear that the „faith once delivered” has two dimensions. On the one hand, it is complete in itself. The Apostle John, for example, tells us: „You have an anointing from the Holy Spirit, and you all have knowledge” (I John 3: 20). On the other hand, the New Testament affirms that the „faith once delivered” is not immutably fixed or static, but in need of growth and development. We read in John 16: 13: „The Spirit of truth has come, and he shall guide you into all truth.” In other words, the „faith once delivered” requires elaboration and application — not always an easy task. Witness, for example,


Paul’s struggles to answer the difficult questions, such as those about virgins, as recorded in I Corinthians 7. Regarding such difficulties, Paul tells us that he did not hear a direct word from the Lord. Solutions will have to be sought in the light of the Spirit. No doubt it was this second dimension of the „faith once delivered,” that is, the requirement that we grow and develop as our insight grows and develops, which prompted Paul to urge patience and toleration.

It is precisely this second dimension which was eliminated by Greek intellectualism. The ecclesia, admonished by the apostles to practice longsuffering and patience, lost sight of the New Testament promise that the Holy Spirit will lead us onwards into truth. Instead, the „faith once delivered,” now divorced from life and frozen into immutable propositions representing absolute truth, came to be regarded as the unchanging, static possession of the church. No deviation from these absolutes could be tolerated, hence any development of insight or theologically new understanding was viewed with suspicion. Thus the church grew increasingly inflexible and intolerant, and quickly developed a „heresy-hunting” mentality. This mentality permeates much of the writings of the church fathers. An example is the correspondence between Augustine and Jerome. In their debates Augustine would not hesitate to accuse Jerome of „dangerous heresy,” even „criminal madness,” when in fact Jerome merely proposed a variant reading of the biblical text (Augustine, 28). The heresy-hunting mentality, though perhaps reaching its climax in the hairsplitting disputations and heresy trials of the High Middle Ages, has never again left the church.

The conclusion of the matter is this: Under the influence of pagan Greek intellectualism, the distinction between discipline and toleration faded away. As a result, more often than not the intolerance to be directed towards sin stemming from alternate gospels came to be exercised within the ecclesia against anyone who deviated from the accepted „doctrine,” now understood in its Greek intellectualistic sense.


Ecclesiastical Institutionalism

Besides the inroads of Greek intellectualism, two other factors


leading to a history of intolerance must be briefly considered: the institutionalization of the ecclesia and the loss of Kingdom vision.

When in the early Middle Ages the Christian community came to be identified with and reduced to the instituted church, heresy came to be equated with deviation from official church doctrine. Thus the history of schism and division became essentially a history of an intolerant disagreement about theological and doctrinal matters. Life style became less and less important. Consequently a curious mixture between intolerance of doctrinal deviation and an acceptance of wildly varying life styles, even those life styles stemming from alternate gospels, began to characterize the history of the church. Observe that in all of this the insight was lost that the way we understand theology and doctrine is often determined by the way we see life in its larger contexts.


Loss of Kingdom Vision

The loss of Kingdom vision is a third factor leading to the growing spirit of intolerance. Such intolerance emerged especially in the medieval church, at the time when the Christian life was no longer placed in the context of the coming of God’s Kingdom, but viewed as a struggle to reach another world. The belief that the only purpose of the Christian life was to attain to heaven and to escape hell produced an intolerable fear of heresy, of any deviation at all from accepted doctrine. A heretic was therefore regarded as a much greater menace than a murderer: murderers only kill the temporal body, but heretics kill the eternal soul! Consequently even the slightest variation from accepted orthodox doctrine was regarded as too dangerous to tolerate. This attitude casts light on the fanaticism with which heretics were persecuted in the Middle Ages.

Conflict and toleration in the early ecclesia: what does this mean for the church today? The question is not easy to answer. A look back at the history of the church does seem to suggest that the distinction between forbearance and discipline, as urged by the New Testament, has too frequently been blurred. Too frequently we have directed the intolerance which we were to exercise in the face of alternate gospels towards our own brothers and sisters.


Too often we have chastised when we should have forgiven, hated when we should have loved, and taken separated ways when we should have maintained unity.

A glance back at the New Testament days, moreover, suggests that we ought to reexamine the twofold nature of the faith once delivered, that is, its completeness on the one hand and its dynamic unfolding character on the other. The Christian church has too much preached a static rather than a dynamic gospel. Perhaps we do well to recapture a vision of the gospel message as placed within the larger context of creation and redemption. For the gospel message resembles the Kingdom of God, indeed all of creation itself. Like the creation and the Kingdom, the faith once delivered exhibits a tension between the „already” and the „not yet,” between the complete and the incomplete. The creation is finished, yet must be unfolded; the Kingdom of God is here, yet it is to come. So through the Gospel message, the faith once delivered, we know all that we need to know, and yet the Spirit will lead us into all the truth. Such sobering reexamination of the dynamic and unfolding character of the Gospel can only prompt us to cultivate the kind of gentle, forbearing toleration of those brothers and sisters in the Lord who think differently than we do or who practice their Christian religion in ways other than we do. Such reexamination may well teach us once again that the New Testament spirit of toleration for the saints is in reality nothing else than a fruit of the Spirit, along with love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Against such things there is no law (Gal 5: 22-23).

In our world of injustice, hatred, and discord, along with the unspeakable suffering these evils bring about, a reexamination of the theme of toleration, of Christian brothers and sisters forbearing Christian brothers and sisters, surely ought to rank high on the agenda of the Christian church. In fact, such a reexamination is long overdue!



1. For a more detailed account of these factors, see my essays „From Deformation to Reformation” in Will All the King’s Men . . . (Toronto: Wedge Publishing Foundation, 1972, pp. 63-91), and „The Relation Between Faith and


Action: an Introduction,” Pro Rege (Dordt College publication), Vol. X, no. 4, June, 1982.
2. Augustine, On the Predestination of the Saints, 5.
3. E.g., Augustine, Letters, 28. In this letter Augustine takes issue with Jerome’s rather innocuous interpretation of Galatians 2: 11-14.
4. For further consideration of systematic and practical themes, see my essay „Heresy and Toleration in the Christian Church” in Orthodoxy and Orthopraxis in the Reformed Community Today (Jordan Station: Paideia, 1986), pp. 59-75.