Agnostic son, “We should let people believe whatever they want to believe.”
Christian mom, “I agree.”
Agnostic son, “Everyone should just do their own thing.”
Christian mom, “What if my thing is to tell you about Jesus?”

TolerismIs it just me or are the very people who talk about tolerance a bit less tolerant of people like us? I was taught that tolerance is giving space for people to live according to beliefs for which you are in disagreement. That was the old definition. Tolerance was considered good Christian character. It seems that somewhere along the line the definition changed. The new definition of tolerance has to do with accepting and valuing beliefs of which you are in disagreement. When Christian convictions are at odds with public policy they are often met with intolerance, especially when they touch some of the cultural hot buttons of our day.

I heard a leader in my community say that tolerance means valuing the opinions, religions and expressions of everyone. Aren’t values tied to convictions? She was actually making a creedal statement. That’s not tolerance, but what I will call Tolerism, because it is a belief system that presumes upon another how they should think about a matter. Do I need to value every expression? Or every opinion? I do not! I do value people, but their values and convictions are subject to deliberation and dispute in the arena of ideas.

In a recent Huffington Post article (Saying Goodbye to Tolerance), Unitarian Universalist minister Marilyn Sewell took aim at evangelical Christians. Though her experiences with evangelicals had been positive, she nonetheless regards Christians as “other” and used sweeping stereotypes to describe her discomfort with them, saying that what Christians believe is “unloving and in fact destructive.” She goes on to say of Christians,

“almost all of whom condemn gays for loving differently, support and perpetuate the milieu in which hate crimes take place. They contribute immensely to the cultural ground out of which prejudice grows and flourishes.”

She says that our insistence on Jesus as the one way to salvation,

“turns everyone else into an infidel. An unbeliever. A moral pervert. A sinner doomed by God to everlasting punishment. So if these ‘others’ are offending God by their sins and are on their way to hell, what covert permission is being given to those inclined to act violently on their prejudices?”

She claims moral high ground in that her beliefs are of “freedom, growth and a deepening of compassion” while Christian beliefs are “rigid and exclusive.” For these reasons, she says good-bye to her tolerance of evangelical Christians.

She is profoundly wrong about Christians, ignorant of our foundational theology and judgmental about a significant population of people who follow Jesus Christ. There is more hypocrisy in her post than I can touch upon here. While she wants to believe she is a tolerant person she self-exposes her own intolerance in more way than I believe she intended. Yes, her convictions regarding diversity come into sharp contrast with those of evangelical conservatives. Doesn’t that call for the exercise of tolerance as in the old definition? Especially if the evangelicals she has encountered are open to learning together? From reading Marilyn’s other blogs I believe that she is genuinely interested in finding paths to peace (though bounded by her prescribed fundamentalism). To be fair, she is wrestling with her own close-mindedness in light of the openness of Paul Metzger, her evangelical friend. As she considers her very positive interactions with him, she is confounded by her own intolerance (though she uses the entire post to justify it). Paul Louis Metzger in Beyond Tolerance to Tenacious Love responded to Marilyn Sewell,

“In addition, it is important to note in a discussion on tolerance that tolerance and intolerance do not function as properties of beliefs but of behaviors. If tolerance were to be framed as a matter of acceptance of another person or tradition’s belief system, then anyone who rejects my belief system as true would be intolerant”

As an evangelical I believe that Jesus Christ, in His incarnation, fully revealed the Father. What we find is that while God makes clear pronouncements regarding sin and Man’s condition, He is humble and forgiving. He also revealed that the trajectory of humankind is to be separated from Him, because of our pride. This trajectory was set in motion by the Fall and is kept in perpetual motion by the complicity of Man’s sinfulness and Satan’s encouragement. Even brand new Christians understand the implications of our beliefs – that some of our dearest loved ones are continuing on a trajectory that will eternally separate us. We know that they don’t have to continue down the trajectory that was laid out for them by their enemy, but we also understand that pride is a resistant thing. Jesus came with an invitation – a rescue for all those who would respond to Him. It is not “a seat on plane” for some future event. God calls us to a Kingdom that is both here and now. Each Christian knows that he/she is a living outpost of God’s Kingdom in a fallen world. How should we interact with friends who do not know Jesus? Jesus affirms love of neighbor…

And [the lawyer] answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have answered correctly; do this, and you will live.” (Luke 10:27-28)

Jesus then redefines the definition of a neighbor by demonstrating the neighborliness of the non-Jewish Samaritan, who showed sacrificial love to a stranger. Metzger goes on to say, “Tolerance must give way to tenacious love that overwhelms the forces of indifference, intolerance, and hate.

Arrogance is unattractive on anyone. While Christians make definitive statements regarding truth, we should never do so from a prideful position as the chosen. Rather, Christians should speak from our gratitude and from deep compassion for everyone we know and love. Our convictions compel us to see the world from a different perspective that cannot help but influence our engagements. We believe that our unsaved family and friend are careening down a course that was laid out for them by the enemy of their souls. We long for them to be free. In our common, shared humanity we care and cannot hide it or we would be miserable friends to those we claim to love. So we live in tension.

In the film The Big Kahuna, there is a scene where Phil (played by Danny DeVito) takes a moment to give advice to Bob, the young evangelical who is on his sales team. Bob has just gotten into a fight with the third member of their sales team, Larry, who left in disgust. Phil explains that unless Bob is willing to enter the space of others without an agenda, he will not be human. As soon as Bob makes a relationship contingent on an outcome, he is nothing more than a sales rep, whether he is selling lubricants or Jesus. He must enter into the shared space of life with others if he is to be human.

This is what Jesus did – He share space with us. This is what we are to do – to enter into the lives of others without presumption for the sake of knowing and loving one another. So we enter friendships with nonbelievers in the same way as with believers. We share life and space and risk the pain of hurt – even an eternal one for those who will resist God. We cannot ascribe to Tolerism… it would violate every conviction we hold.

About marknicklas

Mark Nicklas is a husband, father, son and follower of Jesus Christ. He is a pastor at Beaverton Foursquare Church and an adjunct professor at Multnomah University, where he earned his doctorate in Cultural Engagement. Like Jacob wrestled with God at Jabbok, this site is a place for talking about the identity of the church with respect to the cultures we live in. You are invited to share the journey.
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4 Responses to Tolerism

  1. rmiller says:

    Many Christians do not understand the fine art of constructive discussion or debate – and it is an art. It requires practice. That is where my discussions with atheists have been very helpful to me, even if I’ve resolved not to do it anymore except in rare circumstances. I’ve learned how to interact in a way that’s respectful, doesn’t cause me to compromise, and yet treats them as people.

    Maybe I should teach a course. I think a course like that should be *mandatory* for people who want to be missionaries to secular society.

    • marknicklas says:

      It is with pain that I often have to unravel the well-meaning but profoundly offensive ways in which some of my brethren have chosen to communicate about Jesus. I won’t throw them under the bus, though. We are all learning. We have all kinds of maturity represented in God’s Kingdom, including immaturity. I pray that I have graduated to some level of gray-haired maturity myself!

      • rmiller says:

        It is one thing to throw them under the bus – but quite another to say that improvement is necessary and education would be a good way to begin seeing that improvement. I think throwing them under the bus would be saying something like they’re all idiots and they should shut up. At one time I would have said that. Now, though, I realize that they are well meaning and profoundly uneducated and unpracticed. We wouldn’t toss an engineer out in the world without some schooling, why do so with people who have a far more important task?

  2. Anonymous says:

    Tolerance is a politically correct word to accept all views. Where it blurs right and wrong. It in reality defines more a personal space than actual acceptance of others. It often breeds ignorance and fear. If you do not have the guidance of Bible, you can be easily persuaded by these arguments.

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