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Persecution and Tolerance

An article in
The Present Truth, Vol. 11, pp. 228.4-229.7, April 11, 1895,
by E. J. Waggoner

      This book is not an apology for the persecutions which blacken the record of the professed church since the days when earthly power was accepted by it. It rather shows how utterly contrary to the spirit and teaching of the Master was the desire for such power, and consequently how antichristian was the exercise of it.
      In the first place, it must be remembered that the idea of enforcing uniformity of worship for the supposed good of society and the State comes from Paganism.
      It was a matter of political expediency that men should at least profess to hold the same religious opinions. The language of Plato did not materially differ from that of the Inquisitor: “Let this then be the law: No one shall possess shrines of the gods in private houses, and he who is bound to possess them, and perform any sacred rites not publicly authorized, shall be informed against to the guardians of the law; and let them issue orders that he shall carry his private rites to the public temples, and if he do not obey, let them inflict a penalty until he complies. And if a person be proven guilty of impiety, not merely from childish levity, but such as grown-up men may be guilty of, let him be punished with death.”
      Similar principles were put in operation in the Roman Empire, and as the teachers of the Gospel went out into the empire preaching the doctrine of the Cross, they were persecuted as disturbers of the social order.
      The Gospel, teaching that every man must give account of themselves before God, denied the pagan principle that the individual must allow the authorities of the State to be conscience for him. Soon after apostolic days came the “falling away” from the principles of the Gospel in the church, and when the rulers of the church compromised with an assimilated Paganism, they succeeded to the evil principle of enforced uniformity.

      The origin of the spirit of persecution is well stated in these words: —
      It comes from the universal sense of inconvenience, when we do not at once get our own way. Then follows impatience, irritation, and resentment. Then reason is called in to help passion, and clothe the feelings with the semblance of deliberate action founded on policy and expediency. The love of power comes next, suggesting the future good to be obtained from a prompt display of resoluteness. Power supplies its own justification; for would it be there if it were not meant to be used? And who can blame it when it has succeeded? Then comes “that last infirmity of noble minds,” the hope for fame, the gratification that attends success, the proud consciousness of having cleared a difficulty out of the way. All this is so natural, and yet so wrong.
      It is wrong, of course, for it is the devil’s own way of working. It is the spirit that exists in every heart were self exists. The life of Jesus Christ working within is the only power that can keep the natural man down, and so it is a fact that the spirit of persecution is in the hearts of all men who are not in Christ, and only awaits an occasion to break forth. As the Papacy was founded on the principle of self-exaltation, it was prepared to manifest the Spirit of intolerance to the highest degree. Yet it was not without protest that some church leaders saw the principle carried out to its logical extremes at first, and then, also, not without the argument that always comes in to excuse religious persecution, the plea that the good of society demands it. Dr. Creighton says: —
      Uniformity of religious belief was ruled by the State to be necessary, and was enforced accordingly. This was contradictory to the spirit of the church, and was long felt to be so. Yet the church gave way to the supposed necessities of its new position. Paganism was forbidden; heretics were reduced to obedience by the strong arm of the law. When the penalty of death was first inflicted for erroneous opinions, the Christian conscience was profoundly shocked.
      But when a wrong principle is espoused the natural man soon gets accustomed to its most rigorous application.
      The protest was soon forgotten by those who lived near the time; by the middle of the next century, Leo the Great accepted as a duty the suppression of heresy, and raised no objection to legislation which treated heresy as a crime against civil society, and declared it punishable with death. Thus, the Divine law and the human law were put on the same footing, and the truth of God was no longer to be borne in upon the consciences of man by gentle pleading, but to be enforced as part of the necessary framework of social order.
      With the history that followed all are more or less familiar. The church and the world were hand in hand. It was not called religious persecution. The church delivered the heretic to the civil power and he was punished as a destroyer of order. Or the church succeeded in getting her ecclesiastical institutions adopted as part of the common law, and then the State was bound to maintain the institutions of the church in order to maintain its laws. When the civil power for political or social reasons wished to engage in the suppression of the rights of a people, the church lent her sanction to the secular policy, and pronounced the crusade justifiable on religious grounds as well.
      When the Scriptures began to be opened in the beginning of Reformation days, the light of the Gospel of liberty began again to be seen. Yet, as we have seen, the spirit of Rome is but the spirit of human nature and the devil, and so the evolution of the work of reformation has presented strange inconsistencies; and yet perhaps not strange when we remember the gross darkness which the long rule of the Papacy had cast over the earth. Luther denounced the use of force in matters of conscience, and declared that the Word of God alone must contend. But in later years he forgot the principle. “Luther had his reward; his movement fell into the hands of secular princes, who were authorized by theologians to decide controversies among preachers, and put down dissensions by the secular arm.” And thus, the Reformation in Germany has stood still where Luther left it, and Rome has long been winning back its hold upon the Fatherland. Calvin delivered Servetus to the death, and the once gentle and mild Melanchthon congratulated him on getting the “blasphemer” put to death. The Reformers were not able all at once to throw off the blindness with which the Papacy had smitten in the eyes of all peoples.
      Dr. Creighton shows that the modern idea of toleration rests not so much upon the recognition of the principles of the Gospel, as upon the demands of political and social expediency. Such a basis cannot secure lasting results. It is often said that in this enlightened age the intolerance of past ages could never manifest itself. All history shows that this is a delusion. The Bishop says of tolerance: —
      It was not won by enlightenment, and it cannot be maintained merely by a trust in enlightenment. Christianity was converted into the basis for social order, and men were bidden to accept it for the maintenance of that order. Opinions which are judged necessary for social organization tend to be exacting in their demands for entire allegiance. They advance at first by persuasion; then their upholders chafe at the slowness of progress. Why not quicken advance by compulsion? Why not reduce obstinacy by force? The temptation is always present; the spirit of persecution is ever ready to reassert itself unless it be checked by some controlling sense of duty.
      But when men throw off the restraints of the Lord and are fighting against His Word and truth the sense of duty is thrown utterly to the winds. Dr. Creighton closes the volume with a warning which is doubly significant in these times when signs are abounding showing that the old methods of securing uniformity are to be revived on the same old plea of maintaining social order.
      Meanwhile I do not know that the tolerance which is now praised by the world is very firmly established. It rests at present mainly on an equilibrium of forces which might easily be upset. There is always a temptation to the possessors of power —be they individual, or an institution, or a class— to use it selfishly or harshly. Liberty is a tender plant and needs jealous watching. It is always unsafe in the world, and is only secure under the guardianship of the Church; for the Church possesses the knowledge of man’s eternal destiny —which alone can justify his claim to freedom.
      But all the history of intolerance since the apostasy in the early centuries shows that it has been “the church” that has led in persecution. Not indeed the church of Jesus Christ, which is composed of all who have the life of Jesus manifested in the flesh, but those ecclesiastical organizations which have sought the favor and power of the world, and have made a virtue of “tolerance,” —these have always been led into using their power to cast down the truth and to silence dissent.
      The very use of the term “tolerance” in this interesting volume shows the frailty of the foundation on which the popular idea of religious liberty rests. The wickedness of intolerance is shown, but it is assumed that tolerance is a virtue. The word tolerance may often be incorrectly used by those who would repudiate that which their language signifies. But the idea that tolerance is a virtue must of necessity rest on the assumption that the person who dissents from another’s use has committed an offence against him, requiring the exercise of tolerance. Thus, in matters of religion the one who “tolerates” assumes a lordship over the other’s mind and conscience. In other words, he puts himself in the place of God, the very species of self-exaltation which characterizes the Papacy. Tolerance and persecution are very closely allied. Tolerance is far from being a recognition of that perfect liberty of conscience which God grants to every man during earthly probation, and which He Himself will not invade. John 12:47, 48.

(PERSECUTION AND TOLERANCE, Being the Hulsean Lectures preached before the University of Cambridge in 1893-4, by the Bishop of Peterborough, Dr. Creighton. Longmans, Green, & Co.)

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