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The Intolerance of Tolerance

Is the Bible intolerant?  That was the question Nathan Hansen asked me to answer for hundreds of students and adults recently.  Three years ago, Nathan, Snohomish Community Church’s innovative youth pastor, created Jesus University, a five-day youth conference in the Seattle area.  During the day, students serve their community.  At night, the community is invited to come hear top Christian bands.  

But before the bands play, Nathan has a Christian apologist address a tough question for an hour, followed by 30 minutes of Q & A.  The big-name bands draw thousands of people throughout the week, but Nathan ensures they’re given more than music.  They get an intelligent yet gracious defense of Christianity.  And our culture desperately needs some clear thinking when it comes to the topic of tolerance.

Homophobic.  Racist.  Chauvinistic.  Bigoted.  Intolerant. Christians are bullied with this kind of name-calling all the time. Rather than cower in a corner, we can counter with clear thinking.  First, before we move the conversation forward we need to define terms.  When charged with intolerance, we need to ask a simple clarifying question, “What do you mean by that?” and then listen carefully to the answer.  Most challengers will offer some version of the contemporary view of tolerance.  “You think you’re right and everyone else is wrong and that’s intolerant.”  Or, “All religious views are equally valid and none should be considered better.”  Only then are we ready to respond in a helpful way.

Contemporary tolerance is self-contradictory.  The “you think you’re right and others are wrong” version is offered as a corrective to our views.  However, a corrective is only given when one thinks their view is right and another view is wrong.  In the very act of correcting Christians, they do what they say we shouldn’t do.  So according to their own definition, they turn out to be the very thing they charge Christians with being:  intolerant.  

The “all views are equally valid” version of tolerance is no better.  I put up some statements for students at Jesus U and asked if they were okay with them.  For example, “Parents who abuse their children in the privacy of their own homes should be allowed to do so.”  Of course, students objected.  But I pointed out if the contemporary version of tolerance is correct, then we’re obligated to tolerate this view regarding child abuse.  All views are equally valid and this is a view, isn’t it?  Students frowned, knowing something was wrong.

I confirmed their suspicions by asking them if the contemporary belief about tolerance is itself a view.  Yes it is and therefore, the criterion of the view applies to itself.  It is a view that should not be considered better than other views.  However, it’s being offered as the correct version of tolerance. But that’s contradictory because there’s no such thing as a correct version if all views are equally valid.  The contemporary view of tolerance turns out to be intolerant.

Students got it.  A few minutes of clear thinking unraveled years of cultural confusion on tolerance.  Afterward, I was able to restore the classical meaning of tolerance:  all people are equal, all views are not.  We are to treat everyone with dignity and respect regardless of their disagreements because all people are made in the image of God.  However, we must put truth at the forefront, always asking what views are true because falsehood in our own lives should never be tolerated. 

The church needs a new generation of Christians who will stand courageously for the truth, even as they are called names like intolerant or bigot.  Clear thinking is an important first step.  

Comments

Yes, but...

It's equally important to acknowledge that, in the name of holding strong moral conviction, there are too many stories of Christ followers who are bigoted, intolerant, and homophobic. I know divorced people, gay people, and people who struggled with porn, all of whom hate the church because they found, not compassion, but judgmental platitudes. This is a far cry from Jesus response to the woman at the well, the woman caught in adultery, the Roman Centurion (who no doubt would be the equivalent, today, of the 'non-Christian' political party), and the woman who broke in, uninvited to Simon's party.

I wish Christians would be accused of the same thing Jesus was accused of: hanging out with the wrong crowd. Instead, we're accused of labeling the wrong crowd, judging the wrong crowd, calling out the wrong crowd. In short... accused of intolerance.

I get the logical impossibility of being intolerant towards intolerance, but I fear that such logic misses the bigger point, which is that the spirit of Jesus, which was a remarkable blend of holiness and a wholeness that allowed him to live well among sinners in bridge building ways, is terribly lacking among us.

I hear you Richard. I am grieved by those stories and that's why I made sure I added, "We are to treat everyone with dignity and respect regardless of their disagreements because all people are made in the image of God."

However, I think those stories are the exception, not the rule. Unfortunately, it's only the bad apples that get the press and unfortunately we Christians are sometimes guilty of only pointing out the bad apples as well. But the more I spend time with Christians around the country, the more I'm convinced that it's actually Christians who largely are the compassionate ones. I hear story after story of Christians who love gay people, people struggling with addiction, etc. So I'm don't agree the spirit of Jesus is "terribly lacking among us."

Furthermore, I think there's this false notion out there that if we simply love people, then they'll embrace us and Jesus. But this is contrary to Scripture. Romans 1 makes it clear that we love our sin so much that we are wiling to deny God. Indeed, Jesus himself was met with anger and hatred by people who did not want to hear what He had to say.

So yes, we need to always work harder at loving people better, but at the same time realize that many people will turn away from Him because not only does He bring grace but He also brings truth. Moral rebels don't simply turn away because they don't like the messenger, but because they don't like the message.

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About
Brett Kunkle is the Student Impact Director at Stand to Reason. He is a huge fan of his wife and 5 kids, surfing the Point in Newport Beach, and the Pittsburgh Steelers. Yes, in that order.