Conservative Christians, perhaps more than any other group, have been pinned as the quintessential intolerant, bigoted, anti-progressive people of our world. They, in the eye of the public, are constantly resisting political progress by going against the popular views of society like abortion, marriage rights, marijuana, and the likes. And with so-called churches like Westboro Baptist who’s website url is www.godhatesfags.com, can anyone really blame the criticism?
Being that I identify as a Christian (and a conservative one at that), I have an interest in the argument. I do not as a pastor want to spew out a rhetoric that poisons the well of people’s minds. Civil liberties are important, and it is the inalienable civil liberties of people that the founders of this United States of America built the country on. And though I believe Christianity to be true, I must still consider whether its truths have been tainted by poor interpretation. I would, after all, condemn the misunderstood Scriptures that many slave owners used when justifying slavery in the South.
However, in order to do this effectively, I must try to thoroughly work through the argument’s claims. That is, I would not be answering the argument effectively if I merely setup a straw man (i.e., a misrepresented version of an argument that is easily beatable) and then tore it down. While it would be impossible to exhaustively cover every issue in which someone feels warranted in labeling a Christian as intolerant in this short article, I think it is manageable to figure out whether or not there is any merit in thinking that Christianity is an intolerant religion. First, we must understand what tolerance is.
Understanding the true definition of tolerance
Tolerance is the willingness to respect someone else’s views or beliefs even if it does not align with your own. Merriam-Webster Dictionary puts it like this “sympathy or indulgence for beliefs or practices differing from or conflicting with one’s own.” Thus, tolerance consists of (1) having a different opinion and (2) respecting others despite the difference.
Tolerance consists of (1) having a different opinion and (2) respecting others despite the difference.
It is with this definition of tolerance that we can best understand whether or not Christians are tolerant. However, I phrased the last sentences poorly. I said, “Whether or not Christians are tolerant.” The answer here is yes and no because no Christian can mange to live the “Christian life” perfectly. And it is because of this failure to live up to the standards of God that I must admit that there are many intolerant Christians, but this isn’t exclusive to Christianity. All people, whether living by a perfect ethic or not, fail to maintain their standards. So it is for this reason that I must next crtically evaluate whether or not Christianity as a religion is intolerant.
How did Jesus view tolerance?
Who better to judge Christianity than by Jesus. The gospels offer a brilliant picture of Jesus’ views on tolerance. Despite cultural traditions of treating people who fail to live up to their standard of righteousness, Jesus is constantly seen with the outcasts of society, who, for the better part of their lives, lived in a way that was atrocious to morally conservative Jews. Take Jesus’ experience with Matthew in Matthew 9. Matthew was a tax collector who in Jewish society was considered utter scum, a sellout who was against the Jewish dream of gaining independence. Yet it is with this “scum” that Jesus associated himself and invited to become one of his twelve disciples.
Jesus is constantly seen with the outcasts of society, who, for the better part of their lives, lived in a way that was atrocious to morally conservative Jewish people.
Another clear example of tolerance comes from the character of Judas. A man who dishonored Christ and would eventually betray him. Jesus, knowing full well Judas’ evils, still allowed for him to remain in his near presence. And the list goes on and on: Sitting with a Samaritan woman; speaking with the resistant Pharisees; stopping Peter for striking his captors; rebuking John and James for wanting to call down thunder on Samaria for rejecting him.
If this isn’t a strong enough picture of tolerance, then consider the remarkable truth that God ushered in a plan to redeem the world despite its continued resistance.
Christianity is intolerant, intolerant toward sin
Christianity is intolerant. Wait… is the case now closed? Christianity has a long list of do’s and don’ts. Take a look through Leviticus and you’ll get a small taste of the moral code that God’s people are meant to live by. This is because Christianity, along with any Judeo-Christian belief, takes a hard moral stance on how you ought to live.
What makes Christian morals difficult to accept is just how different they are from popular culture. That is, if we were all living in the 1950’s, many people, whether Christian or otherwise, would most likely agree that sleeping with someone before marriage is wrong or at least promiscuous. But we don’t live in the 50’s. We live in a time where most people think that it is completely acceptable to bring relationships to the next level. Whether married or not. And this is why Christians stand out from the crowd, because unlike society’s ever-changing views on the matter, Christians believe that biblical teachings are timeless. The fact that Christians think that God’s law is timeless is why Christians have not “progressed” with society. This of course creates a dilemma for society and Christianity.
…unlike society’s ever-changing views on the matter, Christians believe that biblical teachings are timeless.
There are things that we as people should never tolerate. For instance, the mass genocide of people groups or using people as property or allowing children to marry adults. These are all deplorable things that we, as moral people, should always be intolerant toward. And it is here that Christianity can be very intolerant. Christianity sees these acts as sin and will never come to accept it. But as we saw with Jesus, there are plenty of differences that Christianity can and does remain tolerant in as long as those differences do not violate the inalienable rights of an individual.
How society views tolerance as affirmation
This whole article has looked at Christianity, yet I feel compelled to now test whether or not society (most notably the political left) is actually tolerant. Sometimes the person pointing the finger can get off the hook by distracting the audience.
The world confuses tolerance with acceptance and affirmation.
Society, in fact, has a very warped view of tolerance that pales in comparison to Christianity. Unlike Jesus’ view of tolerance or the common definition of tolerance, the world confuses tolerance with acceptance and affirmation. That is, when they say you are intolerant, they typically mean that you are not accepting and affirming whatever beliefs they may have. This is in no shape or form tolerance; to the contrary, taking issue with someone who does not hold the same beliefs as you and fails to affirm you in them is exactly what it means to be intolerant. Take the former CEO and co-founder of Mozilla, a cyber tech company in California, who supported a traditional marriage campaign six years before taking the position as CEO. The liberal media crucified him and created a cauldron of pressure that led him to stepping down. Tragically, many people who shout out that Christians or others are intolerant are being the very thing they are opposing.
A healthy view of tolerance
Tolerance must always be a willingness to live with someone’s else’s differences while still maintaining your own beliefs. A tolerant person may still debate issues—especially within a democratic society. And a tolerant person should always be willing to let other voices, regardless of how different they may be, be heard in the public square. Yet it takes a Christ-like level of patience and discipline to be a tolerant person. And although we know that Christianity is incredibly tolerant, this does not mean that every Christian will live up to true Christian tolerance. It does, however, mean that as Christians we have a moral duty to be kind to others regardless of how different they may be. And maybe through our demonstration of tolerance, we can encourage others to do the same.