What is a Tolerant Church?

August 12, 2019

I have spent my whole life connected to Lutheran churches in the South. I grew up in one, and then I continued growing up in two others, and in that time I saw people from still others at almost every Southeastern Synod Assembly held since my birth. Something I have heard a lot recently in ELCA spaces is that there is division, and that this division requires people on both sides reaching out and leaving their respective bubbles or echo chambers (the terminology varies). This is often accompanied by the fear of people leaving the church.

​It’s true that there is division, of course, but something about the sides and bubbles idea isn’t quite right. It implies that, however the two sides are defined in a given conversation, the task on each is the same. But this is not true. Say, for example, that one “side” is represented by a church member who isn’t comfortable around queer people and that the other side is represented by a trans person interested in visiting our church. Or that one side is a white church member who prefers only white church leaders, and the other is a black woman graduating from seminary.

These are not equal positions for two reasons. One, a threat to comfort, dominance, or pride (faced by the first side) is not the same as a threat to physical and mental safety (faced by the second). Two, believing that some people are less human or less holy because of their race, gender, sexuality, or ability is simply not a valid belief worth respecting, in the ELCA or anywhere. In sum, when there is a power imbalance or a history of injustice, questions of division cannot be answered as simply as reaching from both sides.

There is a philosophical concept called the paradox of tolerance which states that, in order to be tolerant, a society must be intolerant of intolerance. I think Lutherans need to be more intolerant of intolerance. It is not enough to say “all are welcome” if we don’t make it that way. The lack of a rule preventing a woman of color from being elected synod bishop or a same-sex couple from marrying in our church is not the same as, for instance, loudly and enthusiastically becoming anti-racist and Reconciling in Christ congregations that oppose bigotry even when we find it within our own walls.

Some people won’t like this. Some people might want to leave. It may be difficult to hear, but we should probably let them. At least, this should not be the scariest prospect to us. The scariest prospect should be that we might cling so desperately to the people or ideas already present in our church that we turn our church into a hostile environment for entire groups of people. The scariest prospect should be that we might choose tolerating intolerance over making our church a safe, loving, and just space for the marginalized among God’s people.

My favorite part of the Lutheran churches I’ve been lucky to belong to has never been a congregation’s size, an avoidance of difficult questions and conversations, or any sort of homogeneity. It has been music, communities, and stories, things which I promise will not be lost by opening ourselves up to a more active form of welcome. And that sort of welcome necessarily involves being unwelcoming to unwelcome.