An intolerant tolerance

In our postmodern age, there is confusion about what it means to be tolerant. Evidently, to disagree with somebody is to be intolerant of them. Some people think that all worldviews are equally legitimate. For them no perspective has the right to claim more authority than any other. Anyone who claims to have a superior belief is regarded as arrogant and intolerant. Although this is the language of intolerance itself, people who advocate uncritical tolerance feel completely justified in holding this position.

Exclusive claims

All religions, even accommodating religions such as Hinduism, make exclusive claims. The question is, ‘How can Buddhists, Hindus, Christians, Muslims, and people of various other persuasions live together without resorting to violence?’ It is important for Christians to reject racism, bigotry, and violence against those who hold a different worldview. We cannot deny people the right to believe what they want.

However, if we as Christians believe that God has revealed the truth about himself and us in Jesus Christ and His Word, the Bible, then taking the position of uncritical tolerance is unthinkable. If Jesus is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, as he claimed, and that no-one can come to God the Father except through him (John 14:6), then we must either believe him, or reject everything he ever said. That is such an uncompromising statement that our pluralistic society is not prepared to tolerate that kind of thinking. This is where tolerance in an uncritical sense, works against its own position. On many occasions those who advocate tolerance are among the most intolerant when it comes to Christians having a right to hold a biblical perspective on life.

Freedom to believe

True tolerance respects the views of others while being prepared to disagree with them. Christians should respect other human beings because everyone has been created in the image of God, even where that image has sometimes been badly spoiled. They should be tolerant of those who hold a different political or religious position. Everyone has the right to be protected by the law of the land; the right to believe or not believe; the right to worship and witness to their belief; the right to change their belief or religion; the right to join together with others in worship; and to express and share their belief without intimidation.

Christians cannot be “intellectually tolerant of opinions we know to be false or actions we know to be evil. What kind of unprincipled indulgence is this? God is not indifferent to questions of social justice, so how can the church be? To remain silent and inactive when error or evil is being canvassed has very serious consequences, for the Christian option has then gone by default. Is it not at least partly because Christians have failed to raise their voices for Jesus Christ that our country has slipped its Christian moorings and drifted away from them?”

Limits of tolerance

We must also identify the limits of tolerance. For example, if a person sees another person being beaten up, it is not tolerance to watch what is happening and do nothing about it. What is happening is either right or wrong, and if it is wrong, then one has the responsibility to do something about it within the parameters of the law. In the New Testament, believers had a passion for evangelism because they were persuaded that people without Christ were separated from God and heading for a Christless eternity. They were committed to sharing the Christian Gospel. They saw it as the Good News that could bring people freedom from the destructive influences in their lives. There was persuasion, but no coercion. If people were to be genuine converts, they had to embrace the belief wholeheartedly for themselves. This is where certain religions that force people into their fold fail to understand the nature of true conversion.

A passion for truth does not automatically make a person intolerant of others, although it should make him intolerant of falsehood. We need to respect the dignity of others in the way we communicate the Good News of the Gospel. Unfortunately, in seeking to be tolerant of others’ views, we have often lost the passion that should characterise true Christian living.

Superficiality of tolerance

Uncritical tolerance leads to superficial relationships with others. Don Posterski, a vice president of World Vision of Canada said that,

“rather than taking people seriously, tolerance treats people superficially. Instead of conveying [that] who you are and what you believe is to be valued, tolerance says I will endure you. I will tolerate you is just another way of saying I will put up with you. In doing so the [implied] message is I will not take you seriously.”

Seriousness of genuine belief

Genuine Christians, in contrast to nominal Christians, do not believe that all religions worship the same God. They believe that God wants us to know Him, and in helping us to discover Him, He sent His own divine Son Jesus Christ to reveal Him to us, and to show us the way back to Him. He knows we are incapable with our sinful natures to know where to look; and He knows that most of us do not even have a desire to know Him, lest in knowing Him we have to change our lifestyle.

If Islam claims that Allah cannot be known, only his will can be known through the Qu’ran which is Allah’s final revelation of that will, and the Christian Bible tells us that we can know God, because He has done everything possible for us to know Him through His ultimate revelation of himself through Jesus Christ, how can we continue to claim that we worship the same ‘god’?

Christians are called to persuade others, not to force them into a belief that they will not, or cannot embrace. This is where Christianity is so different to Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam and other religions that seem to think that by forcing people into their beliefs they have made them genuine worshippers of their ‘god(s)’? While we must respect the dignity of people of all religions and persuasions, we cannot be tolerant of systems of belief that are false and misleading. The basis on which we make our judgement of what is right and wrong is not a subjective one; it is based on what God has given us in Jesus Christ and His Word, the Bible.

Tolerance must never be confused with indifference or apathy. When we know the truth in Jesus Christ, and we have experienced the freedom God brings into our lives from self-centred living, we have the responsibility to point others towards this freedom. True freedom to be what God intended us to be as human beings can only be found in Jesus Christ.