By Bruce B. Miller
Have you ever heard the standard advice not to discuss religion or politics at the dinner table? Conversations around both subjects can be tense, awkward and downright confrontational. This is especially true when someone tells you that their way of thinking is the only right way—particularly if you don’t agree with their beliefs! This kind of interaction can be annoying, frustrating and offensive.
In part, this is why we tend to put a premium on tolerance, inclusivity and acceptance. We lean heavily on sayings like, “Let’s agree to disagree,” “You do you,” and “To each their own.” Religious tolerance means you should not claim that your religion is the only correct one.
And yet, Christians declare that theirs is the only right way to God, the only true religion. Understandably, this bothers and offends innumerable people, including many Christians themselves. Catholic theologian Rosemary Radford Ruether stated that “the idea that Christianity, or even the biblical faiths, could have a monopoly on religious truth is an outrageous and absurd religious chauvinism.” Plenty of people would agree with Rosemary. No matter what a person believes, if he or she is sincere in that belief, who are you to say they’re wrong?
The concerns raised are valid and sensible. It’s OK to have these questions, doubts and concerns. It’s not comfortable or fun to tell someone they’re wrong, and it’s no picnic to be told you’re wrong, either. So why is this perceived narrowness part of Christianity to begin with?
On one hand, it’s true that Christianity could be labeled a “narrow” religion. Jesus himself said, “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.” That is, there is only one way to God, and that is through Jesus. But in this context, “narrow” doesn’t mean “exclusive.”
Jesus came to earth for everyone—not just the wealthy, not just the well-educated, not just those who look or speak or act a certain way. No one is excluded; no one is left out. Christianity is not an American religion or a Western religion. It is not a white religion or an upper-class religion. As a matter of fact, Christianity is thriving in more regions around the world than any other religion, making it the world’s most culturally diverse religion. God created each of us with love and Jesus came to save the entire human race.
The Apostle Paul expresses this inclusivity when he writes that living peaceful, godly, holy lives “is good, and pleases God our Savior, who wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. For there is one God and one mediator between God and mankind, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all people.” Though it seems paradoxical, the “narrow way” is wide open to the entire world. The gospel is not a restrictive command but a simple invitation from Jesus to all who are interested.
It’s important to distinguish between preferences and truth. For instance, I like mint chocolate chip ice cream. You might prefer strawberry. There’s no conflict there — other than the decision of which ice cream to buy. Ultimately, we’re both eating ice cream; to say we’re eating broccoli would be false. Truth is always intolerant of error. One plus one always equals two. You could call that intolerant or narrow, but it’s the nature of truth. We like our doctors and our pilots to operate within a narrow truth; we want them to do surgery on the correct knee and land the plane on the right runway. In so many areas of life, we rightly see intolerance, exclusivity and narrowness as good and necessary qualities.
No matter how wholeheartedly we embrace our beliefs, our sincerity cannot change reality; it never does. Most of us can identify with thinking we’re right about something only to realize later we were wrong. This happens to me all the time. I think I sent an e-mail, but when I check, I see it sitting in my draft folder because I forgot to hit send. I’ve thought I was driving in the right direction, but a quick GPS check reveals that I’m going the wrong way. It’s embarrassing but inconsequential.
You may be very sincere in your religious beliefs, but if they’re wrong, you’re driving your life in the wrong direction. God is who He is, independent of our beliefs about Him. Being wrong about God is serious. It matters—a lot. It is for this very reason that Christians are compelled to tell others about Jesus, whom they believe to be the only way to God and eternal life.
“But where’s their tolerance for other beliefs?” you may be thinking. Of course, everyone has the right to believe whatever they want to believe. You have a right to your own thoughts and beliefs, just as you have a right to your own deeds and actions. But that doesn’t make your beliefs true or your actions good. Religious tolerance doesn’t mean that we say everyone is right; rather, tolerance means coexisting peacefully alongside those with whom we disagree.
But Christianity teaches that tolerance isn’t enough. It’s not enough merely to tolerate someone else’s belief system, opinions or existence. We should aim higher. Jesus says we are to love and do good to others—all others, even “our enemies.” To Jesus’s original audience, “enemies” would have signified strangers or outsiders, meaning those of a race or religion not your own (closer to our modern use of the phrase “those different from you”). While tolerance is a passive endeavor, love requires action.
As Penn Jillette, an American entertainer and advocate for atheism, has explained, “How much do you have to hate somebody to not proselytize? How much do you have to hate somebody to believe that everlasting life is possible and not tell them that?” Christians believe we shouldn’t settle for tolerance; we should reach out in love. Imagine you discovered the cure for cancer. The cure you discovered works every time, on every person, regardless of the type, advancement or location of the cancer. Now imagine someone refusing the treatment, saying, “Wait, that’s too narrow. There are plenty of experimental treatments for cancer. Don’t insist on just one.” What sense would that make?
From the Christian perspective, Jesus Christ is the cure that works every single time for every single person—the way to God for everyone. Truth is narrow, but God’s grace is wide.
Based on an excerpt from Bruce B. Miller’s upcoming book, “The 7 Big Questions: Searching for God, Truth, and Purpose.” Available on Amazon October 4, 2022.
About Bruce B. Miller
Bruce B. Miller is passionate about helping people grow, developing leaders and empowering churches. Embodying an entrepreneurial spirit, in 1997, Miller helped found Christ Fellowship in McKinney, Texas, a church where he continues to serve as Senior Pastor. Miller’s passions inspire him to write books intended to foster personal growth and provide fresh insights into how people can live more productive, joy-filled lives that make an eternal difference. He has currently written 10 books, including “Leading a Church in a Time of Sexual Questioning.” His most recent book, “The 7 Big Questions: Searching for God, Truth, and Purpose,” is releasing on October 4, 2022.