Charity VS Tolerance And Our Limited Experience In France So Far
What most people picture when thinking about French churches are huge, ornate cathedrals that are older than the picturesque medieval village they're situated in. And while that may be true to some extent as it concerns the Roman Catholic churches, as empty as they are ancient, the scene for the Protestants in France is very different.
If there is a protestant church of any kind, it only has come after years of hard-fought battles for the right to rent or build a meeting place. To those unfamiliar with French history this may seem odd, but Protestantism of any variety is still viewed as a "sect" or "cult" in the eyes of the traditionally Roman Catholic French. In fact, Mormonism, Scientology, Jehovah's Witnesses, and other offshoots of orthodox Christianity are all lumped together with Protestant Christian denominations. Ironic as it may seem coming from the land that birthed some of the world's most revolutionary thinkers and, well revolutionaries, the French have little patience for "new" religious ideas that challenge their place as one the most secular modern societies (1).
Protestant assemblies are most likely to be found renting a small space similar to a strip-mall in the States or even purchasing time in a café for an hour on Sunday mornings. The church that we currently attend has a deal to use a former Catholic seminary's chapel on Sunday mornings. The space sits below dormitories that were once used for students of the seminary but are now offered to students of the surrounding area schools. I believe that this church is one of the more fortunate ones to have a regular meeting place that they are under no threat of losing; most small congregations are not in the same position.
It is no surprise that this relatively small community of non-Catholic Christians have a strong bond with one another. There is definitely a sense of "We're all in this together" because of the pressure from the government and rejection from family members among other hardships. There has even risen an organization known as the CNEF (the National Council of Evangelicals in France) that has made great strides in protecting Protestants from discrimination by government officials and even representing the Protestant churches at the highest levels in the republic. The CNEF has done incredible work in aiding pastors and church-planters, and their goal is to see at least one Evangelical church per 10,000 inhabitants in France. It's a good ambition and a worthy work, and I am grateful for the resources that I will get to benefit from due to the CNEF's labors.
But I've found there to be a bit of a problem.
The CNEF represents the majority of Protestant unions and associations in France (2), and many of the people in member churches have adopted their loose guidelines for Evangelicalism and spirit of ecumenicalism. Let me be clear, the CNEF holds no authority over any of the local churches, but since they are the de facto umbrella under which most churches are gathered, their ideologies inevitably trickle down to the average congregant. In our (very limited) experience with Protestant Christians in France, many have taken to eschewing doctrinal distinctives in favor of an open unity with anyone who says they are Evangelical. Each of the Protestant unions that are a part of the CNEF all have their own statement of faith or even historic confession that guides them, but in practice, and probably with a bit of a survivor's mentality, the churches might feel like they can't afford to be too exclusive.
This obviously presents a bit of a conundrum when it comes to what distinguishes denominations from one another. Issues like believer's baptism, open vs closed communion, theology of the covenants, complementarianism vs egalitarianism, etc. are considered important enough to divide over in normal circumstances, but what are you supposed to do when there's only three Baptists in a town? We have been encouraged to approach other Christians here with a spirit of patience and tolerance, but I'd like to (quickly) touch on why that's only partially good advice.
As the title admits, we have an incredibly limited experience with Christianity in France, let alone French culture in general, but no one would describe French culture as typically "tolerant." "Tolerance" implies that one indulges the beliefs and practices of another. In my estimation, it's less of a pat on the head and a "That's nice, dear", and more of a "Tell me more about what you believe so that I can add it to the long list of possibilities." When it comes to religious beliefs "tolerance" is especially dangerous. God Himself is not tolerant: He does not indulge false teaching or sinful practices. As a matter of fact, God is so intolerant of deviation from the truth that He pronounces severe consequences for those who would mislead others or attribute His works to the enemy (3).
Charity, on the other hand, is a Godly characteristic and assures that we are patient with people. God is infinitely charitable with us, even offering salvation from our sin until our dying breath (4). Charity ensures that while you may disagree with another Christian's errant theological positions, as long as they are not damning, you can recognize your common ground as brothers and sisters in the Kingdom of God. One does not need to affirm beliefs to love individuals.
I have strong doctrinal convictions, and as fellow BMA Baptists you do too (5), and those doctrinal convictions reflect what we believe God has revealed to all people through his Word. The Bible that we base all of our convictions on is clear that there is a particular way that we must follow Him, and documents like the BMA Doctrinal Statement and other historic confessions succinctly summarize what we believe that particular way is. My prayer for our life of ministry in France, and I hope your prayer too, is that while holding tightly to good doctrine and the perfect Word we can minister effectively in this world. My family and I seek to be charitable to French believers and unbelievers alike while giving no ground to false teaching and unity under false pretenses. Please pray for our ministry in France, and most of all please pray that the hearts of French people will be softened and ready for the gospel of our Lord.
1. Laïcité (Secularism) in France: https://www.thelocal.fr/20201123/explained-what-does-lacite-secularism-really-mean-in-france/).
3. Matthew 18:6, Mark 3:22-30, Jude 3-4
4. Romans 10:8-13