“It’s okay to tell someone else what you believe as long as you don’t say that what they believe is wrong.” The person who shared this with me, calmly and thoughtfully, was a Christian. We went on to have a good-natured conversation about her statement and what it implied. This sort of belief is common coin in our culture today. It sounds enlightened and is often well-motivated. The one who says it often wants to allow others space to make their own belief decisions and desires to treat those decisions with respect.
I resonate with that motivation. For one thing, others are going to believe as they choose, whether we agree with them or not. And while we may try to persuade them to think differently, if we attempt to force agreement, we go further than even God does. Despite all the commands and entreaties He’s given to the human race, in the end, God steps back and allows each one of us the free will to choose or to reject Him. He could easily eliminate our freedom by either programming us like computers, or by overpowering our wills. He does neither. Furthermore, people are more likely to listen to gospel if it’s presented winsomely rather than harshly. Peter, in 1 Peter 3:15, tells us to present the “reason for the hope that we have ”with “gentleness and respect”.
There is, however, a flaw in this common belief, well-motivated as it may be. As others have pointed out, it’s based on a new definition of “tolerance”. The old definition said, “I may disagree with you, but I’ll be civil with you about it and respect your right to have your own opinion.” That sort of tolerance is necessary, especially in a pluralistic society like ours with so many different religions and beliefs. Without it, we’d be in a constant uproar, with lots of harsh accusations and even unfair restrictions against minority groups. What she shared with me, however, was the new definition of tolerance. This new definition says, “Not only should I be civil toward those who believe differently than I, I must also resist the temptation to say that their beliefs are misguided or wrong. It’s intolerant to tell another person that they are mistaken.”
On the surface, this new tolerance sounds kind and enlightened. Once we dig below the surface and see its implications, however, it has serious problems, especially for a follower of Christ.
What are the problems with the new approach to tolerance?
1. The new tolerance is hypocritical
Think about it. The new tolerance does exactly what it forbids others to do. It tells us that we’re wrong if we tell others that they’re wrong. In other words, it breaks its own rule. It’s intolerant of what it considers intolerance. It gives itself the right to judge while trying to remove that right from everyone else.
2. The new tolerance is counter to our experience
Whatever some philosopher might say from his ivory tower of theory, we all know that it’s illogical to say that there are no such things as moral absolutes. None of us live that way in day to day life. We share many common definitions of right and wrong. Few of us would say, for instance, that child molestation is acceptable or that it’s okay for a man to beat his wife. If I owe you $100 and only pay back $5, it doesn’t matter if my actions feel “right” to me, you will still feel cheated.
3. The new tolerance is illogical
It’s illogical, first of all, because makes an absolute statement telling us that there are no absolutes. It’s also illogical because it denies the logical law of non-contradiction. If you believe that there is no God and I believe that there is, we can’t both be right. That’s just common sense. Without the law of non-contradiction, our attempts at rationality crumble into confusion and chaos
4. The new tolerance is dangerous
There are aspects of the new tolerance which, in themselves, are harmless. These involve matters of preference and opinion. We may argue about the greatest basketball player of all time or which restaurant makes the best Italian food. These are subjective matters, hard to prove or disprove, and, ultimately, unimportant. On these issues, it’s usually more appropriate to say, “This is my opinion” rather than “You’re wrong and I’m right”, unless it’s playful banter.
Other issues, however, do matter a great deal. In practical matters, for instance, certain moral boundaries are critical for a healthy family or society Rape and physical abuse are not good to tolerate. Businesses must not be allowed to falsify and cheat customers. The list could go on. Tolerating these sorts of things destroys individuals and societies. Many of these are, at their core, spiritual values, which leads to our next observation:
5. The new tolerance is not one practiced by God
One has only to read the Bible to see that God has established His own ethical norms as absolute. “Every man did what was right in his own eyes” is a negative statement in the book of Judges 17:6, and it led to societal chaos. God may be loving, and willing to forgive, but He’s not tolerant of sin. He reserves the right to judge it and punish it, to some extent, in this life (2 Peter 2:9), and without exception in the next (Rev. 20:11-15). This sets up the following observation:
6. The new tolerance, practiced by Christians, is a disservice to unbelievers
If you knew that your friend was about to drink poison would you stay silent in the name of tolerance? We all agree that that would be foolish. The same is true when it comes to spiritual matters. Sin is spiritual poison. Unless Jesus provides the antidote, people will die spiritually, beginning in this life and culminating in eternal death. Is it kind, in the name of tolerance, not to warn them of this horrible danger? It may seem, from outward appearances, that unbelievers are doing fine without Jesus, but they’re not. To keep silent about their spiritual danger, in the name of tolerance, is actually a form of cruelty, often fueled by cowardice (who wants to be called “intolerant” or “judgmental”?). They need the truth, intolerant though it may seem, and the sooner they hear it, the better.
Are you willing to be seen as intolerant for proclaiming the gospel? You say, “But I hate those preachy type of Christians who put down everyone who’s not like them.” I understand. There are better and worse ways to proclaim the gospel. Remember the verse I quoted earlier, out of 1 Peter 3, that counselled us to share the gospel “with gentleness and respect”. We can be humble and gracious as we share our faith, and should be, but we still cannot entirely avoid the offense of the gospel. Jesus is the only way to God (John 14:6). If that’s intolerant, by today’s standards, so be it. It’s the truth; a truth that everyone needs, a truth that opens the door to eternal life with God. Speak it kindly, but speak it clearly. Speak it graciously, but speak it boldly.