Tolerance versus Hospitality

Written by Mark Van Steenwyk : January 22, 2007

I intend to continue my mini-series on Christian anarchism, but probably won’t get to that until later this week (too much on my plate right now to give it the thought it deserves).  In the meantime, I want to share part of a conversation I had recently with a Mennonite Pastor (Mathew Swora).

Missio Dei is pursuing a dual affiliation with the Mennonite Church USA.  Part of this process is getting to know the other Mennonite congregations in town (and their pastors).  I’ve enjoyed every conversation I’ve had with Mathew Swora…he is not only a great encourager, he also is wise.  He been helpful in my journey to understand what makes Mennonites unique.

Modern Mennonites are often called “liberal” by mainstream evangelicals (and “conservative” by mainline Protestants).  My conversation with Mathew touched on the big differences between Mennonites and conventional liberal Protestants.  One of the big differences is that liberals are phobic about fundamentalism.  They refuse to be dogmatic about almost everything.  With one exception: most liberals are dogmatic about tolerance.  Tolerance, as is often pointed out by conservatives, is one of the defining characteristics about liberal Christians.

While many Mennonites have embraced this mindset, others have no problem being dogmatic (me included).  On the one hand, they resist being fundamentalist jerks about their dogmatic beliefs (unlike many conservatives).  On the other, they have many hills they’re willing to die upon (unlike many liberals).  They don’t achieve this balance by being “moderate” (which, in my mind, is often another word for “non-committal”); instead, they chart their own course by being hospitable.

Hospitality means opening your home (and your life) to the stranger.  But more than this, it can often mean opening one’s home (and one’s life) to one’s enemy.  Anabaptists embrace folks without minimizing their sins.  Following the example of Jesus, they believe that one must humbly serve the enemy…without feeling the need to say “that’s ok that you do evil.”  Tolerance says: “we’re all the same, and so you’re ok.” Hospitality says: “I welcome you in the name of Christ, though you are different and sinful.”

This seems to explain why so many Anabaptists I know are unwilling to negotiate some of their core beliefs–being almost fundamentalist about it–without being asses.  Hopefully, by being more hospitable, I can be less of an ass too! :)

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9 Responses to “Tolerance versus Hospitality”

  1. Cullen on January 22nd, 2007 8:17 pm

    Part of the problem is that the word ‘tolerance’ has been stolen by activists. A less politically-charged use of this word might be: “The food was too spicy for Cullen’s tolerance.” In this context, the actual meaning of the word, the ability to withstand something that is difficult, comes through more clearly. A Christian community that embraces a biblical understanding of sin, yet welcomes and cares for the sinners in its midst, is actually the displaying tolerance more so than the one who simply rides the prevailing winds.

    At the same time, it’s true that the global Christian community has a lot of apologizing to do for its history of intolerance.

  2. Kyle on January 23rd, 2007 5:28 am

    Like Mr. Garrison of South Park said, tolerance doesn’t mean that you think it’s a good thing or that you have to like it, it means you put up with it. You can still think it’s stupid.


  3. dlw on January 23rd, 2007 1:07 pm

    I think we have somewhat different hills to die on, though we are more than capable of being hospitable…


  4. markvans on January 23rd, 2007 1:11 pm


    I gather from your response that you would think of yourself as a “liberal?” If that is the case, you are hearing me use the word in a way different than I am using it. I am talking about theological liberals (folks like Marcus Borg or John Shelby Spong etc.)

  5. dlw on January 23rd, 2007 2:47 pm

    No, I don’t think of myself as liberal. I am a Pietist which historically influenced both theological liberals and conservatives and learned from many different traditions of Christianity, while being rooted in Lutheran version of Puritanism.

    I was just saying we got somewhat different hills that we are willing to die on and yet can still be hospitable with each other. Though, it would be nice if you recognized a little more that my background on some subjects is a bit more extensive…


  6. markvans on January 23rd, 2007 2:50 pm

    Ahh, I get your point now. And I agree.

    I’m not sure in what ways I’ve ignored your background. I try not to put folks in boxes. If I’ve done that–even unintentionally–I apologize. Sometimes I don’t have the time I want to blog or respond to things, and as a result I can write hurriedly or sloppy. That may be a contributing factor.

  7. graham on January 24th, 2007 1:37 am

    Great post, Mark. This is a great way of framing things.

  8. dlw on January 24th, 2007 10:21 am

    ;) I think I was more just referring to your need to heed my “wisdom” as a Christian Political-Economy stud and help me get some more attention to some of my ideas…. :-)

  9. Anaradicalists? « Emerging Menno on January 9th, 2008 12:01 am

    [...] Nope. Mark’s a Mennonite pastor, and this radical little church is seeking affiliation with MCUSA. [...]

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