A Letter Concerning Toleration written by John Locke, edited and introduced by James H. Tully
The late 17th century was a time of great religious turmoil. The various Protestant sects were divided and subdivided. Many countries, like England, had an official state church, which meant any other Christian denomination was likely to be persecuted. In a cry for sanity, John Locke wrote A Letter Concerning Toleration.
He starts off the letter by saying, “I esteem that Toleration to be the chief Characteristical Mark of the True Church.” [p. 23--I've retained the spelling and capitalization in the text I read] Churches are distinguished diverse liturgies, more or less ancient foundational claims, and more or less recent reforms. Some have the sanction of local or national authorities. Locke writes passionately about the corruption of many churches--they allow the persecution of other sects or force conversion of citizens. These actions do not lead those persecuted to true faith. Locke considers these actions not to be motivated by true religion. True religion is meant to foster virtue and piety in mankind, not to exercise power over others.
Locke then sets up a dichotomy between civil authority and a church. A civil government exists to protect what he calls civil interests: “Life, Liberty, Health, and Indolency of Body; and the Possession of outward things, such as Money, Lands, Houses, Furniture, and the like.” [p. 26] The government is interested only in things of this world and can exercise only outward force on its subjects.
According to Locke, a church is “a voluntary Society of Men, joining themselves together of their own accord, in order to the publick worshipping of God, in such a manner as they judge acceptable to him, and effectual to the Salvation of their Souls.” [p. 28] Since membership is voluntary, no one is naturally or hereditarily a member of a specific church. Each person chooses freely and may change from one church to another as it seems fit to that individual. Since each church is constituted by those freely choosing to be a part, the laws of that particular church can only be created by those agreeable individuals. And those laws apply only to those individuals. True religion has no coercive power but rather relies on persuasive power. The only authority for a Christian church can be found in Sacred Scriptures, but even there Locke finds is no establishment of one true church. He cites Matthew 18:20, “Where ever two or three are gathered in God’s name, He will be there in the midst of them.” Any group will have God's presence and thus His blessing. Furthermore, everyone presumes themselves to be orthodox, so how could one ever claim that their church is true and all others false?
Locke does limit his notion of a Christian church to what he thinks is expressly declared in the New Testament. The texts do not mention priests, bishops, or popes, so they are clearly not integral to a true church. True religion should use peaceful love and persuasive arguments rather than wrath and authoritarian statements. He seems blithely ignorant of scriptural realities like Christ cleansing the temple, accusing people of being "whitened sepulchers," or giving Peter and the apostles the authority to bind or loosen, or indeed any historical development outside of scriptural texts. Locke also limits the church's responsibility strictly to matters of spirituality and the afterlife, not the life here and now. But did Jesus just forgive sins? Didn't He heal physical aliments and provide wine for a wedding feast and food for the masses after the Sermon on the Mount? Locke’s limited scriptural references looks more like an attempt to bolster his argument rather than to engage authentically with Sacred Scripture on the nature of true Christian religion.
Locke’s fundamental error is to switch the Christian ideal from love (in the sense of the theological virtue of Charity) to tolerance. Love demands a lot more of people—honesty, discipline, care for others. Tolerance shies away from truth (don't be judgmental), doesn’t require much from anyone (do whatever you think is good), and ultimately leaves others alone (don't interfere with others). The Christian ideal demands that one serve their neighbor, not just trying to mildly persuade them to try to please God, but to meet their actual needs both spiritual and temporal. Of course Locke is right that such service should not be used as a cudgel to force people into one particular church or another. And a government has no business requiring its citizens to participate in one church or another. Such facts don't mean that churches have no role in public life at all.
Locke recognizes an authentic problem in his time (though frankly, false and flawed believers have been with us throughout history) but his solution is unconvincing and inaccurate.