THE ISSUE OF INTOLERANCE
By Solomon White
It’s been an amazing thing to see the word “tolerance” change over the years. I’m old enough to remember when it meant non-discrimination, or “not prejudice.” Now it’s come to mean not only non-discrimination but a positive affirmation of another person’s lifestyle or worldview.
First of all, let’s get racism off the table. Race should not even be a blip on the radar of intolerance. There is only one race, the human race. All human beings come from the same parents, Adam and Eve. And all people are created in the image of God, affording them a certain, equal, inherent dignity and worth. So when Christians talk about intolerance we’re talking only about an intolerance of worldviews. All people are created equal, all ideas are not.
In the past, in our culture, tolerance meant treating people with kindness and compassion regardless of their worldview. It meant to not be afraid to reach out and connect with people no matter their lifestyle or ideas. Now, tolerance has come to require an affirmation of differing worldviews. Tolerance has come to require an acceptance of everyone’s “personal truth.” The postmodern notion that an individual’s personal reality and experience creates a unique truth has led to the complete denial of an absolute truth that’s the same for everyone. This is what we mean by a “post-truth” world. While the term, “tolerance” specifically seems to be shifting, the world’s distaste of an exclusive truth is not new.
INTOLERANCE HAS A HISTORY
It’s always been one of the main objections to Christianity, “Christians are too intolerant” or “the Bible is too exclusive.” It’s important to know that this is not a new criticism of the faith. Christians in the second century faced this same complaint. Christian historian and scholar, Michael Kruger, who wrote Christianity at the Crossroads: How the Second Century Shaped the Future of the Church, explains why second century Christians were regarded as haters. Kruger writes, “Why were Christians viewed this way? Because of their refusal to worship the Roman gods. Christians were insistent that only Jesus was worthy of worship. And to not worship the Roman gods was to run the risk of invoking their displeasure. So, Christians were viewed as reckless and callous to the welfare of their fellow man. They were called ‘haters of humanity’ (Tacitus, Annals 15.44).” Today, if Christians do not also bow down to the idols of self-esteem or the overall new “tolerance” then they’re labeled as close-minded haters. Christianity is acceptable in our current culture as long as it’s not able to seep into our inter-personal worldview. It must be left at the doors of the church on Sunday before coming back out into the “real world.”
The exclusivity of the Christian faith has always added to the world’s resistance to Christ. In John 14:6 Jesus says, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (ESV). This is a dividing statement that is unpalatable to the lost. 1 Corinthians 1:18 says, “For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (ESV). We better get used to it. The “intolerance” objection to Christianity is not merely a dislike of some our minor traditions or customs, but rather it’s an objection to the essential message of the Gospel. It’s not going anywhere.
So how do we engage with this critique of “intolerance?” First, we should always remember to make a distinction between being tolerant of all people but not of world views. 1 Peter 3:8,11 says, “Finally, all of you, have unity of mind, sympathy, brotherly love, a tender heart, and a humble mind…let him turn away from evil and do good; let him seek peace and pursue it.” Amos 3:3 says, “Do two walk together, unless they have agreed to meet?” Agree to meet with people. If we see a lost person spewing accusations against Christianity on social media, our comments and replies should be invitations to meet in person (if possible) so we can share truth in a meaningful way instead of shooting off stinging rebuttals into cyberspace. We’re trying to win the person, not the argument.
Second, in those face-to-face, meaningful discussions, it’s perfectly fair to point out the hypocrisy of the “intolerance” objection. An accusation against the exclusive claims of Christianity is an appeal to a way worldviews ought to be (inclusive). This contradicts the post-truth thinker’s stance of relative truth. Again, if we’re going to share the Gospel with logical argumentation it should be done with patience and love and as the Spirit provokes us to do so.
In the Bible we see Paul reasoning with the philosophers and the stoics at the Areopagus which was essentially a court room. Acts 17, “16 Now while Paul was waiting for them at Athens, his spirit was provoked within him as he saw that the city was full of idols. 17 So he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons, and in the marketplace every day with those who happened to be there…And they took him and brought him to the Areopagus, saying, “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting?” (ESV) So here we see Paul was first provoked by the Spirit to speak up and then he was brought into the discussion by the unbelievers to share the truth of the Gospel. If our interaction with people is always full of compassion and empathy while also maintaining a faithful intolerance of Godless worldviews, this pairing will stand out to people and they’ll want to speak with us. 1 Peter 3;15 says, “but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect” (ESV). Even if that defense is just our personal testimony, be ready to biblically explain that hope that other people will see in us.
The accusation of what intolerance has come to mean is something Christians will always have to deal with. It comes with declaring a definitive truth. We have to keep in mind that in part, the accusation is true, we are intolerant…of ideas and worldviews, but not people. If we compassionately care for the lost and stay faithful to the truth of the bible, we will be able to reach people and we should be prepared to do so. The Holy Spirit will guide us in these conversations and God’s word does not return void.