Why Are Christians SO Intolerant?
From the new book by David Faust
Natalie started attending the church I led in New York. A quiet, pleasant person, she seemed to appreciate the biblical teaching and friendly atmosphere she found in our church. After some time, she dropped by my office one day.
She said, “I like this church very much, but from listening to the messages each week, I get the impression that you think it’s necessary to believe in Jesus Christ in order to go to Heaven. That sounds awfully intolerant to me.”
“We do believe it’s necessary to trust and obey Jesus,” I replied, “but not because we’re intolerant or trying to exclude anyone. It’s just that we want to be faithful to Jesus’ own words when he said, ‘I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me’” (John 14:6).1
She thanked me for my honesty and then informed me, “If that’s the case, this isn’t the church for me.”
Our conversation had been sincere and respectful, and I attempted to pursue it further; but she politely said good-bye and left. I saw her a few weeks later in a grocery store and we exchanged friendly greetings, but she was true to her word. She never came to our church again.
I feel sad when I recall my encounter with Natalie, but I know that her discomfort with Jesus’ truth claims is not unusual. According to a 2011 Barna Research poll, 43 percent of Americans think “it doesn’t matter what religious faith you follow because they all teach the same lessons,” and 50 percent believe that “all people are eventually saved or accepted by God no matter what they do.”2
A woman once said to me, “If you think of God as a room, Christians believe there is only one door into the room and Christianity is it,” and then she added, “To me, this invalidates genuine revelatory experiences that others have encountered in other belief systems.” She was willing to agree that Christianity is one “door,” but not the only one.
Three Troublesome Trends
Many people like these two struggle with the issue of tolerance because, whether they realize it or not, they have been deeply affected by postmodern philosophies widespread in our culture. Ravi Zacharias summarizes the situation as follows:
1. Philosophy has moved to the existential.
2. Art has moved to the sensual.
3. Religion has moved to the mystical.
4. Education has moved to the skeptical.
5. The individual has moved to the transcendental (“that is, he is his own divine being”).3
Here are three current trends that are particularly troublesome: relativism, pluralism, and universalism.
Our culture suffers from a serious case of truth decay. Most Americans do not believe in absolute truth. Surveys conducted by Barna Research found that by a three-to-one margin, adult Americans said, “Truth is always relative to the person and their situation.” Among teenagers, 83 percent said, “Moral truth depends on the circumstances,” and only 6 percent believe that moral truth is absolute.4
From the relativist’s point of view, spiritual journeys and moral choices depend completely on each individual’s situation and perspective. Our postmodern neighbors are suspicious of religious truth claims and reluctant to receive any message that sounds preachy, narrow, or intolerant. The one Bible verse most people can quote? “Do not judge, or you too will be judged” (Matthew 7:1).
Culture analyst David Kinnaman cites surveys indicating that “nearly nine out of ten [non-Christians] . . . said that the term judgmental accurately describes present-day Christianity.”5 According to Kinnaman, there are two reasons today’s young adults find it particularly difficult to swallow judgmental attitudes:
First, they are insightful about people’s motives. They have been the target of endless lectures, sermons, marketing, and advertisement. If you bring up unsolicited advice, they mistrust your motives. They wonder what’s in it for you when you offer your opinion. Second, the new generations are increasingly resistant to simplistic, black-and-white views of the world. . . . They esteem context, ambiguity, and tension. Often judgmental attitudes come across as overly simplified, old-fashioned, and out of step with their diverse world.6
Pluralism is defined as “a situation in which people of different social classes, religions, races, etc., are together in a society but continue to have their different traditions and interests.”7 Our Western culture sees a growing diversity and values toleration of this diversity. It’s even engraved on our coins and bills: e pluribus unum—“out of the many, one.” Christians gladly embrace pluralism in this sense, for Christianity and other faiths have flourished in America where various ethnic groups find freedom to live and worship as they choose.
But in a postmodern world, pluralism has a new wrinkle. Now, many understand pluralism to mean that no belief system can claim to be superior. While there have always been many religions to choose from, our neighbors now find themselves at a spiritual smorgasbord where all “soul food” is considered equally satisfying. John Lennon reflected this attitude when he said, “I believe that what people call God is something in all of us. I believe that what Jesus and Mohammed and Buddha and all the rest said was right. It’s just that the translations have gone wrong.”8
Hamish Taylor leads a ministry called Rechurch in New Zealand.9 He says:
I’m talking with a young man who has been dancing around the idea of faith for years. His girlfriend is a Hindu. He respects her morals and her stable life. She has been open to talking about Christianity, but her attitude is, “Any faith is good faith.”
I have another friend—a refugee from Afghanistan—who has seen all sorts of terrible things done in the name of religion. He has a Muslim family but describes himself as “a free man” with no religion. He says that all religions are the same.
Another lady had all sorts of questions that acted as barriers to her becoming a Christian, such as, “If Jesus is the only way to God, what happens to those remote tribes that never heard of him?”
This skewed form of pluralism views all religious beliefs as equally valid (or invalid)—but in the process it does a disservice to all faiths. Anyone who examines different religions closely will discover profound differences in their teachings about God and the way to salvation. They’re not all the same.
The philosophy of universalism has become deeply embedded in the psyche of our generation. The idea that one must believe in Jesus Christ to be saved sounds, to postmodern ears, antiquated and narrow beyond belief. According to Jesus, the broad road leads to destruction and the narrow road leads to life (Matthew 7:13, 14), but universalists say the wide road is the right road and all people, no matter how unfaithful and disobedient, eventually will be saved. They emphasize God’s love and mercy but minimize his wrath and righteousness. They ignore the concept of Hell and assume that all who die will go to Heaven regardless of their beliefs. Some universalists reject the Bible entirely as an authoritative standard, while others use Scripture to support their position, citing passages like 1 Timothy 2:3, 4 (“God . . . wants all men to be saved”).
Universalism’s popularity comes as no surprise. If believers and unbelievers alike will experience salvation, why be concerned about new birth, holy living, or sound doctrine? Why risk offending anyone by speaking about Jesus Christ? Why draw any religious lines in the sand? Universalism is a live-and-let-live philosophy, a religion of few demands.
Many who don’t call themselves universalists adopt the philosophy nonetheless and express it with statements like these:
• “Oh well, we’re all headed to the same place.”
• “Don’t be so narrow-minded. Christianity is no better than any other faith.”
• “A loving God would never condemn anyone.”
• “Sincerity is all that matters.”
• “There may be a main road to Heaven, but a lot of service roads connect to it.”
If we have concluded that the Bible is true, we need to let the Bible itself have the last word; and biblically speaking, there are many problems with universalism:
• It dampens our appreciation for God’s grace. If everyone is going to be saved anyway, what’s the big deal about being rescued from sin?
• It steals our zeal for evangelism. In the book of Acts, the church grew because Spirit-led believers preached passionately and lived sacrificially. They believed eternal life hung in the balance and salvation could be found in Christ alone.
• It weakens our understanding of the church’s purpose. Jesus not only said, “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved”; he also said, “Whoever does not believe will be condemned” (Mark 16:16). Ambiguity about our message produces apathy toward our mission. Universalism attacks the nerve center of the body of Christ, paralyzing outreach efforts and lulling believers into selfishness, indifference, and inactivity.
• It contradicts the direct teaching of Jesus. He was asked, “Lord, are only a few people going to be saved?” He responded, “Make every effort to enter through the narrow door, because many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able to” (Luke 13:23, 24).
Ultimate judgment is God’s prerogative, not ours. Our job isn’t to consign others to Hell, but neither do we have the right to pronounce someone “saved” simply because he “seems saved” to us. Nor is it our job to insist on man-made rules and opinions that make that “narrow door” narrower. Instead, we need to focus on and proclaim what God has plainly revealed—even when it’s unpopular—and trust him with what we don’t know.
Tolerance: Let’s Understand It
To tolerate means “to endure” or “to put up with” something; “to endure or resist the action of [something] without serious side effects or discomfort.”10 If you drink a lot of coffee, your body will build up a tolerance to caffeine. If you live in a tropical climate, you develop a tolerance to hot weather. Since the United States began, it has followed a policy of toleration by allowing citizens to express and follow a wide variety of religious and political beliefs without hindrance by the government. The First Amendment to the United States Constitution guarantees this right: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” (Thomas Jefferson famously referred to this amendment in an 1802 letter to the Danbury Baptist Association, mentioning what he called “a wall of separation between church and State.”)11 The concept of religious tolerance is deeply embedded in the American way of life. In practice, tolerance looks like this:
• disagreeing strongly with someone’s ideas but still treating him with respect
• understanding your own convictions and holding firmly to them, while allowing others to explain and defend their points of view and practice their faith without interference
• Democrats, Republicans, and independents working together in unity in the church despite their political differences
• a Jewish rabbi and a Christian minister talking amiably about their religious differences while they work on a community project together.
On the other hand, intolerance looks like this:
• NFL quarterback Tim Tebow being ridiculed for his open expression of his Christian faith
• a Christian being labeled homophobic because he believes the Bible’s teaching on homosexual behavior
• members of a church picketing the funerals of American military personnel with signs that say, “Thank God for dead soldiers”
• a Christian mocking a devout Muslim coworker by referring to him as a terrorist.
The problem is, many today seem to define tolerance as “accepting everyone’s viewpoints as equally valid.” While every person has the right to hold a personal opinion, that doesn’t mean every opinion actually corresponds to reality.
Give me $100 and send me to the local supermarket, and I’m free to purchase a wide variety of items. But not everything I can purchase possesses equal nutritional value. I could use my money to purchase ice cream or broccoli or canned soup. I’m free to purchase whatever I want, but some things are good for me to eat; others are not. (And it’s kind, not “intolerant,” for another customer in the soup aisle to care enough to say, “Excuse me, but did you know there are some really good soups here that don’t contain additives?”)
As an American citizen I enjoy great freedom to believe and practice whatever faith I choose, but that doesn’t mean every religious option is equally nourishing to my soul. (And it’s kind, not “intolerant,” for someone to care enough to caution me against going down a dangerous path.)
Christian writer Paul Copan explains, “Contrary to popular definitions, true tolerance means ‘putting
up with error’—not ‘being accepting of all views.’ We don’t tolerate what we enjoy or approve of. . . . By definition, what we tolerate is what we disapprove of or what we believe to be false and erroneous.”12 Copan continues, “If disagreement didn’t exist, then tolerance would be unnecessary.”13
Copan recommends that if someone accuses you of being intolerant, you should ask him to clarify what he means by using that term. “If by ‘tolerance’ the person means ‘accepting all views as true,’” Copan says, “then you can say, ‘You don’t accept my view as true. Are you being intolerant?’”14 John F. Kennedy put it this way: “Tolerance implies no lack of commitment to one’s own beliefs. Rather it condemns the oppression or persecution of others.”15
Excessive tolerance leads to permissiveness—allowing, endorsing, and encouraging any behavior at all, including destructive ones. At the other extreme, excessive intolerance leads to persecution—rejecting and punishing anyone who disagrees with our position, trying to force him to accept our views. Instead of either extreme (permissiveness or persecution), Christians ought to pursue the healthy middle ground of persuasion. We don’t try to force anyone to accept God’s standards, but we believe the truth has the power to change minds and hearts.16
Actually, it’s odd that Christians would be considered intolerant; for unlike many religious systems that are tied to a specific ethnic group, Christianity says God loves all people equally (John 3:16), invites everyone to come to him through Christ (Revelation 22:17), and wants to unite us in love regardless of our ethnic or cultural backgrounds (Colossians 3:11-14). Centuries before it was popular to be inclusive, Jesus started a church in which everyone has equal standing, where “there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:26-28). What’s intolerant about that?
Could it be that the current infatuation with tolerance in our society is really an expression of our longing for God’s grace? We long to be accepted (by God and by others) in spite of our imperfections.
The good news is, God does offer sufficient grace—unfathomable grace, grace greater than all our sins. But he does so in harmony with his truth, not at the expense of it. Jesus was criticized for being the friend of tax collectors and sinners. He’s amazingly merciful, loving, and compassionate. But Jesus doesn’t say, “Go, it isn’t sin anymore”; he says, “Go, and sin no more” (John 8:11, King James Version). He doesn’t just tolerate us; because he loves us, he tells us the truth about who we are and what we have done. Then if we’re willing to accept it, he forgives us, washes us, saves us, and fills us with hope.
All this is possible because Christ did far more than merely tolerate wrong; he endured the penalty of Hell for us when he died on the cross for our sins.
Christians don’t share our faith because of some arrogant desire to make others accept our point of view. We’re persuaded that God is real and his amazing grace is a gift available to all who will receive it. When this truth becomes a fire in our bones, a light in our eyes, a path for our feet, a treasure in our hearts, and a consistent message others hear from our lips and see in our lives, then our faith will be contagious.
The truth will set us free.
And who couldn’t tolerate a little more freedom?
1*All Scripture quotations are from the New International Version of the Bible, ©1984, unless otherwise indicated.
2“Top Trends of 2011: Changing Role of Christianity,” www.barna.org/faith-spirituality/543-top-trends-of-2011-changing-role-of-christianity.
3Ravi Zacharias, “An Ancient Message, Through Modern Means, to a Postmodern Mind,” Just Thinking, www.rzim.org/justthinkingfv/tabid/602/articleid/6589 /cbmoduleid/881/default.aspx.
4February 12, 2002, article at www.barna.org/barna-update/article /5-barna-update/67-americans-are-most-likely-to-base-truth-on-feelings.
5David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons, UnChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks About Christianity . . . and Why It Matters (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2007), 182.
8John Lennon, www.brainyquote.com.
9Information in this section is taken from author correspondence. Used with permission.
12Paul Copan, “True for You But Not for Me”: Deflating the Slogans That Leave Christians Speechless (Minneapolis: Bethany House Publishers, 1998), 35. Copan is actually quoting Maurice Cranston, “Toleration” in Encyclopedia of Philosophy, volume 8, Paul Edwards, editor (New York: Free Press/Macmillan, 1967), 143. Cranston maintains that toleration “implies the existence of something believed to be disagreeable”; it “has an element of condemnation built into its meaning.”
16These ideas about permissiveness, persecution, and persuasion are credited to U.S. Senator Dan Coats in “The Challenges College Students Face on Secular Campuses” by Steve Singleton, www.doesgodexist.org/MayJun98/The-ChallengesCollege StudentsFaceOnSecularCampuses.html.
David Faust is president of Cincinnati (Ohio) Christian University and a columnist for The Lookout. This article is excerpted from his new book, Honest Questions, Honest Answers, available from Standard Publishing (www.StandardPub.com).
How Tolerant Is the Bible?
Christians aren’t trying to make our faith unreasonably exclusive. We’re trying to be consistent with the teachings of Jesus, who claimed to be the only way to the Father (John 14:6; 1 Timothy 2:5). The Bible plainly indicates these six things:
1. There is one true God, and he alone is the author of salvation. “I, even I, am the Lord, and apart from me there is no savior” (Isaiah 43:11*).
2. Jesus Christ is God’s “one and only Son” (John 3:16). At the cross and the empty tomb, he accomplished what only he could do.
3. We can’t earn eternal life by good behavior. Salvation is a gift graciously bestowed by God, which we must receive by faith (Ephesians 2:8-10).
4. Judgment, Heaven, and Hell are real. Jesus said, “A time is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice and come out—those who have done good will rise to live, and those who have done evil will rise to be condemned” (John 5:28, 29).
5. Each of us has a personal responsibility to accept God’s gift of salvation. God forces himself on no one, but says, “Whoever is thirsty, let him come; and whoever wishes, let him take the free gift of the water of life” (Revelation 22:17).
6. We serve a caring God who “is patient . . . not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9)—a God who “so loved the world,” whose Son came to rescue us from condemnation (John 3:16, 17). We can share this message of hope without being condescending or holier-than-thou.
*All Scripture quotations are from the New International Version of the Bible, ©1984.
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