In his letter to the Romans, Paul asks the new congregation, apparently divided by cultural and ethical differences between its pagan and Jewish members, “Who are you to judge another’s servant? It is before his master that he stands or falls, and the Lord will make him stand.” This is advice meant for members of a community of believers, people who accept servanthood as descriptive of their and their fellows’ relationship to God, and who see this relationship as personal in the sense that God loves where he loves and compensates for his servants’ failings by his grace. Ideally they have accepted a particular obedience, with origins in the laws of Moses, exemplified in the life and teachings of Christ. So much might the apostle see, or hope to see, in the early Church. But history tells us that no great effort has ever been required to narrow the circle of those who should be seen as God’s servants, whose errors would be made good by God’s grace and therefore should not be judged. We all know the enormities that have made themselves presentable to the Christian conscience, often enough campaigns of violence against other Christians. Sects and denominations still remember the injuries their ancestors suffered long centuries ago, and can still become indignant at the thought of them. They might also remember injuries they inflicted, if the comforts of identity were not diluted a little by such ventures into honesty.
Here is another thing Paul says in the letter to the Romans, still in the context of his thoughts on tolerance and the authority of conscience: “The faith you have, have as your own conviction before God.” That is, do not judge fellow believers and do not offend them. It may be fair to wonder whether this excellent advice has gone unheeded all these years because faith has tended to be a conviction shown to men, who, if we can trust Paul, are a good deal more fastidious than God.
This to me is a vital plank about how we approach ecclesiology, moving away from a doctrinal line in the sand (always moving and porous for insiders, always firm and impermeable to outsiders) toward a generous tolerance bound not to tolerance for tolerance sake but to God's ability to govern for himself his own people. More later on this.