It is no surprise that Christianity continues to receive criticism, from within the church as well as without, regarding its “intolerance.” So, is the Christian church intolerant? And if so, is that really such a dreadful thing?
We can better understand intolerance by first defining “tolerance” itself. One expression of tolerance is to listen patiently to different ideas, while postponing criticism or judgment.
A reasonable definition of intolerance, then, would be the opposite. Disagreeing without listening. Judging without understanding. Rejecting another’s view out of hand. Or to sum it up in a single word—condemning.
So, is that what the Christian church is? Condemning? Am I implying that it might be a positive thing for the church to behave that way toward people outside of it? Not in the least!
Of course, Christians, and everyone else, should be tolerant of other people. We are aware that many do not believe what we believe or know what we know about Jesus and the Bible. The most effective method of reaching someone with different beliefs or opinions is, as Stephen Covey put it, to “seek first to understand, then to be understood.” (Covey, Stephen R. The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Free Press, 1989.)
In other words, we must LISTEN, not just wait for our turn to talk.
Our primary motive should never be to tell people why they are wrong, but rather to listen to their story. This active, empathic listening demonstrates tolerance.
However, there is a second part to this principle. We seek first to understand, but THEN we also seek to be understood. That means telling our side of the story. If we have treated someone with tolerance by actively listening, should we not expect the same courtesy in return?
Yet this is the same courtesy that is NOT being returned to the church by antitheists and renegade theologians alike. They impetuously lump us into the political category of “the Christian Radical Right” and call us “demagogues” or much worse, because we defend our “interpretation of the Bible” as Truth.
Some of these have judged the Bible without reading it, or if they have read it, they have dismissed it out of hand without trying to understand it. Others have judged those who revere the Bible, regard it as authoritative, and follow its teachings.
In other words, by definition, our critics are the ones who are being intolerant. Because we Christians do not affirm their opinions or beliefs, they see us as ignorant at best and domestic terrorists at worst.
The irony is that they never look at themselves with the same lens in which they view the world. True tolerance requires humility. It is impossible to listen tolerantly to another’s point of view without first humbly acknowledging the necessity for the other to be heard.
To charge someone of intolerance by exhibiting the very intolerance you deplore is hypocrisy.
Good and Evil
There is a difference between being intolerant of people and being intolerant of evil itself. To understand the difference, one must have a clear appreciation of not only the characteristics of “evil,” but also of “good.”
From a Christian perspective, God is the quintessence of “good.” A few attributes of God’s “good” character would be that he is loving, faithful, forgiving, a provider and willing to sacrifice all for those He loves.
Romans 12:9-21 shows that Christian love is also good. We demonstrate this love by sincerity, hating what is evil, honoring others above ourselves, joy, patience, faithfulness, sharing, hospitality, blessing those who persecute us, showing compassion, living in harmony, being humble and not proud, not seeking revenge, doing all we can to live at peace with everyone, and giving our enemies food and drink when they are hungry and thirsty.
In doing these things, we will overcome evil with good. All these things sound a lot like our definition of tolerance.
All except one. . .
Hate what is evil.
Those on a mission to discredit Christianity will tend to skip over the other twelve verses and zero in on that one word—hate. They will say that is all the evidence they need that Christians are hateful and intolerant.
But what does the scripture say? It says to hate what is evil.
Evil is the opposite of good. If love, joy, faithfulness, patience, compassion, humility, gentleness, and tolerance, are good, then the opposite of these would be hatred, anger, insincerity, deceitfulness, rashness, harshness, indifference, pride and. . . intolerance.
The Bible is telling us to hate intolerance. Therefore, what our detractors are essentially saying is, “We will not tolerate your intolerance of our intolerance.”
In addition, it is critical to note that the scripture commands Christians to hate what is evil, not whom. By no means does the Bible suggest being intolerant toward people, only toward evil behavior (what we would call “sin”).
The key to making this distinction is in knowing what the Bible says about people in general:
God treats everyone alike. He accepts people only because they have faith in Jesus Christ. All of us have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory. (Romans 3:22-23 CEV).
In this, the Bible tells us that all people are evil by nature. We were all created in the image of God, but none of us measure up to the standard of God.
Therefore, if the Bible were commanding us to be intolerant of people, we would then be compelled to hate everyone, including ourselves!
For this reason, Christians are called to be tolerant of non-Christians, even as they are intolerant of evil behavior. This makes sense only because becoming a Christian in the first place requires a recognition of one’s own evil behavior. Or more importantly, of the sinful nature from which it springs.
It is common sense to recognize and throw away a bad apple. It would be foolish, however, to cut down the apple tree for the one bad apple.
Likewise, it is not only possible, but perfectly normal to judge individual acts of sinful behavior without judging the character of the person acting them out.
Since no one can measure up to God’s standard by his or her own efforts, it is senseless to expect anyone else to measure up to our own standards.
We are in no position to judge the nature, or character, of another, because we share the same sinful character. To attempt to judge someone in this way would make us guilty of self-righteous intolerance.
However, there is such a thing as righteous intolerance. This cannot come from any person’s will or way of thinking. As Solomon wrote,
Indeed, there is no one on earth who is righteous,
no one who does what is right and never sins. (Ecclesiastes 7:20 NIV)
The only possible source of righteous intolerance is the only person who never sinned…
One of the central tenets of Christianity is that Jesus is not just the only begotten Son of God, but is in very nature God Himself (see Philippians 2:6).
Being God in His nature, Jesus visibly displayed all the invisible attributes of God’s goodness. Being all good, He is diametrically opposed in His nature to all evil. Therefore, Jesus opposes intolerance, that is, the self-righteous intolerance toward people.
John 3:17 tells us that Jesus did not come into the world to condemn it, but to save it. This was not because we deserved saving, but because He is good. This is the essence of grace, which is the ultimate expression of tolerance.
Throughout the Gospels, Jesus shows his tolerance of people by showing mercy and grace toward sinners, even the ones who put him to death.
However, we must not disregard that while Jesus was a friend of sinners, He was never tolerant of sin. In the Sermon on the Mount, He uses over-the-top imagery to illustrate his intolerance for evil behavior:
“If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell.” (Matthew 5:29-30 NIV)
One of the most common Bible verses that non-Christians quote (usually in attempts to self-righteously justify sinful behavior) is John 8:7. The religious leaders are preparing to stone a woman caught in the act of adultery. In response, Jesus says,
“He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.” (KJV)
Although this passage does not appear in original manuscripts, and therefore may not have actually happened, the point of the story remains clear. Because we are all sinners, no other person is qualified to cast a stone at us.
Nevertheless, though none of us is righteous, we must remember that we will all be judged one day by the One who is.
This is why, after showing mercy to the woman caught in adultery, He admonishes her (and us) to “go, and sin no more (John 8:11b KJV).
(Come back tomorrow for the conclusion. If you click on “Free Newsletter” near the top of the page, you’ll be sure not to miss it!)