The Prevailing View of Tolerance

Rev. Kuiper is pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church of Byron Center, Michigan.

Tolerance is the buzzword of the day. We are told that we must tolerate the ideas, words, and actions of each and every segment of society. We may not pass judgment on the character of other people, but must accept them the way they are. What our elected officials do in their private lives must not influence our view of their qualifications for public office. We must accept the lifestyle of homosexuals as (viable!) alternatives to ours. We must cater to the whims and wishes of the feminists. We must not speak of God, lest we anger the atheists.

This attitude of tolerance is found even in the church world today. Many people, claiming to be Christian, will be quick to remind us of Jesus' words that we must not judge (Matt. 7:1) and that we may not cast a stone because we are no better than the other person (John. 8:7). This attitude has wreaked havoc in the Christian church, including churches which are Reformed in their heritage. Heresy is no longer denounced, and heretics are no longer disciplined. The foundational teaching of Christianity — that Jesus Christ, the Son of God who came in the flesh, is our only and complete Savior — is denied. We are told to tolerate the religious thinking of non-Christians, because every religion has an element of truth to it, and because salvation is not exclusively for Christians. We must also tolerate in our churches the sinful actions of others. It is not our business if an unmarried couple lives together! It is none of our business if a member of our congregation practices homosexuality! We must not judge them.

Considering this sad state of affairs in the church world today, it is not surprising to learn that the most frequently quoted text of Scripture is no longer John 3:16, but Matthew 7:1, as I recently heard from a radio speaker. In the past we were reminded: "For God so loved the world...." This verse, wrongly interpreted as teaching the lie of Arminianism that God loves every person, was meant to comfort every person who believed it. "God loves me! All is well with me." Today we are told: "Judge not!" This shift seems logical. If God loves me and every other person, then He finds no fault with us, our actions, or our ideas. And if He finds no fault with us, we should find no fault with each other. However, the logic fails. It proceeds from a wrong premise, that God loves every man, and from a wrong assumption, that a God who loves a person ignores or tolerates that person's sins. Thus the conclusion is also wrong. In actuality, the shift of most-quoted Bible text indicates the increasing godlessness of our society. In the past, God received the emphasis, even though God was wrongly understood. Now the emphasis falls on man, to the point that in certain situations we must be careful not to mention God's name! Man is god, free to construct his own ideas of morality. And man's basic foundation for morality is his thinking: "I am good. You are good. Let us agree not to find any bad in anyone."

There is one group of people, however, on whom society permits us to pass judgment, and toward whom we may be intolerant: those who judge this modern morality as wrong, and do not tolerate it! In this latter group true Christians must find themselves, and the true church of Jesus Christ must find herself. We must judge the prevailing view of tolerance as wrong, for it is not scriptural. Scripture is the only basis for our morality.

In these articles we will examine in more detail the prevailing view of tolerance in the light of Scripture. Our conclusion will be that this view is dangerous, godless, and unscriptural. We will then examine in some detail the Scripture passages which are most pertinent to the issue. From these passages, we will see that to judge is the Christian's calling from God. Although God places some restrictions on how we judge and show intolerance, He does not forbid intolerance.

This view which prevails today can be further explained both from a negative and a positive viewpoint.

Negatively, the view is that our attitude toward the ideas or actions of others must never be one of intolerance. An attitude of intolerance is wrong for several reasons, we are told. First, it manifests hatred; thus it is morally wrong. God Himself condemns intolerance by forbidding us to judge (Matt. 7:1) and by commanding us to love one another. Tolerance is one expression of love. Second, this attitude reveals arrogance on our part for thinking that we are better than the other person, that our view is the only right view, and that our way of doing things is the only right way. This arrogant thinking denies the inherent goodness of every person, each of whom is created in God's image (according to the proponents of tolerance). An attitude of intolerance is wrong, thirdly, because by it we judge a person without trying to understand him or what causes him to act or to think the way he does.

Because this attitude of intolerance is wrong, we must not demonstrate such by speaking against the ideas or practices of others. We must not condemn those who favor and practice abortion, for we do not understand the hardships which the pregnant woman endures and will endure if she has her baby. We must not condemn homosexuality, for God created homosexuals in His image, and their sexual orientation is a part of that creation. Besides, homosexuals are as capable as heterosexuals of keeping God's law of love by being faithful to their partners. We must not condemn those whose theological, social, or political views differ from ours, for God gives to each of us a mind, and each of us individually is free to use that mind as he wishes. Besides, the fact that the Bible has been interpreted many different ways by many different people, churches, and denominations indicates that there is no one correct view of the Bible and its teachings.

Stated positively, this prevailing view is that we must tolerate those who differ from us in thinking and practice. Such tolerance would indicate love, compassion, and understanding for others. In addition to tolerating these people, we ought to approve their views and practices as legitimate. Perhaps our views and practices will still differ from the next person's, but not because ours are inherently right and the next person's are inherently wrong, for all people, regardless of their views and practices, are good people.

This view of tolerance has specific implications for the church of Christ. First, we must not preach an exclusive gospel of salvation through Christ alone. We must not view the teachings of other religions — Judaism, Mormonism, Buddhism, and all others — as inherently wrong. We may not tell the Jew, the Mormon, or the Buddhist that he must repent of his sins against the first four commandments of God's law, and come to the knowledge of the true God who has revealed Himself in Christ. Rather, we ought to approve the teachings of Judaism, Mormonism, Buddhism, and other religions; present them as viable alternatives to the Christian faith; and encourage members of our churches to incorporate into their lives whatever good is found in these teachings.

Second, this affects our mission work. Our mission work should consist not of calling others to faith and repentance, but of helping the poor, the sick, and others who need physical and economic help. We should also be more ambitious in developing contacts with other religions, finding the good aspects of their teachings and practices, and incorporating them into our own teachings and practices.

Third, we must not discipline those whom we believe to be living in sin or teaching that which is contrary to our understanding of the fundamental truths of Scripture. Rather, remembering that we all sin, we must allow church members who are living in sin to remain members in good standing, partaking freely of the Lord's table. We ought even to find some good in their actions, and recommend that other members follow the good example which this member has set in some way. A person who emulates Jesus most closely will view the other person as a brother, remind him that he is a good person, encourage that person in his sin, and remind him that God is pleased.

What accounts for this view?

Certainly the natural depravity of man is one explanation. Man by nature is able to do and think only that which is evil. This view is another instance of man's disregard for the Word of God, and for God Himself. God's Word tells man that he is a slave to sin by nature. Man, however, claims to be free, and insists on manifesting that freedom by doing what he wants to do. The pregnant woman insists on her freedom to choose to live her own life, by aborting her child. The man insists on his freedom by choosing to love other men.

However, this explanation does not sufficiently explain why the church world at large has adopted this view. Explaining this is the fact that the church has, as a general rule, conformed herself to the world in every area of life, failing to live antithetically.1 Underlying this failure is the fact that the church has lost her consciousness of God's holiness. Her great message has been the love of God, but she has divorced His love from His holiness. If the church can once more understand what it means that God is holy, she will understand the need to separate herself from the world's ideas and practices, to denounce sin as sin, and to preach that the loving God, Jehovah, hates sin and punishes sinners on account of their sin.

Christians must evaluate this view as being dangerous, godless, and unscriptural.

The view is dangerous because it leads to further accommodation of the church with the world, in violation of her calling. God calls the church to live antithetically, that is, to live in opposition to sin and the world and in devotion to Jehovah. The church lives antithetically, not by pretending that sin is good, but by declaring sin to be sin, and by disciplining those who impenitently continue to live a sinful life. She lives antithetically also by preaching the truth of God, pointing out the lie of Satan which opposes the truth, and disciplining those in her midst who knowingly and impenitently promote the lie.

Failing to live antithetically, the church is in danger of becoming the world, and of no longer being the church of God. By living and thinking like the world, she shows that she is not fundamentally different from the world, as God calls her to be. Thus her attribute of holiness is lost. By teaching that which is contrary to Scripture, she shows that she is not grounded firmly on the doctrine of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ Himself being the chief cornerstone, as God calls her to be. Thus another attribute, that of apostolicity, is lost. Failing to be holy and apostolic, she has no right to call herself church, for she is no different from the world.

The danger of this view, then, is the same as the danger of poison. Poison may look harmless, and even palatable, but it is eaten to one's own destruction. The world's ideas and practices are a poison which might appear attractive to some, but when the church tolerates and approves them, she does so to her own destruction. This destruction is not simply a matter of the church failing to be distinct from the world in this life, but is also an everlasting destruction. The God who judges righteously will judge those who impenitently teach false doctrine and who live in immorality without repenting. Taking warning from this, the church must not conform herself to the world, but be transformed (Rom. 12:2)!

Our second evaluation of this view of tolerance is that, for all its apparent godliness, it is in fact godless. The various appeals to Scripture and to the attribute of God's love in defense of this view might make it appear to be godly. There is mention of a god — one who approves of tolerance and who cares for those who are the victims of intolerance, hatred, bigotry, and mean spiritedness.2 There is also mention of a heaven — the place where victims of such intolerance are brought when their "persecution" has ended in death.

Despite this apparent godliness, the view is godless in that it rejects Jehovah as the God whose Word is the standard for doctrine and life. That we must tolerate, approve, and embrace the ideas and practices of others is not God's Word, but man's! Man has set himself up as the judge of right and wrong. And man says: "Tolerance is right! Intolerance is wrong!"

That this is really what man has done is evident when one considers that society itself, not the Word of God, decides in what situations tolerance is right, and in what situations some intolerance is permissible. The Word of God clearly forbids murder, in the sixth commandment: "Thou shalt not kill" (Ex. 20:13). But society, while condemning the murder of a two-year-old child or forty-year-old adult, will tolerate the killing of unborn babies and, in many instances, the killing of the terminally ill who desire a dignified death. The Word of God clearly forbids adultery and all sexual perversions, declaring that sex is permissible only between a husband and a wife. This it does in the seventh commandment, "Thou shalt not commit adultery" (Ex. 20:14), as well as in other passages (cf. I Cor. 5:1-5 and Heb. 13:4). But society, while intolerant of child pornography and molestation, nevertheless permits adultery and fornication of all sorts, and cries out for tolerance on the issue of homosexuality. When it comes to the question "What is truth?" society attempts to give its own definition, ignoring Jesus Christ and the Scriptures as the Truth.

These inconsistencies reveal that man has dismissed Jehovah God and His Word as the standard of right and wrong. Men do not want God telling them what to do! Man will be the judge of right and wrong. Any appeal to Scripture to support the prevailing view of tolerance does not proceed from a view of Scripture as God's Word, but from a view of Scripture being the record of the thinking of society in the past. In the Bible, a text can be found here and there to show that society in the past has also apparently condemned intolerance.

This leads us to our third and fundamental evaluation of this view: it is unscriptural. Perhaps you can hear some asking: "What do you mean, unscriptural? Haven't you looked at Matthew 7:1, John 8:11, and John 13:34?" The fact is, however, that many people interpret these passages wrongly. The passages do not teach what those who use them to promote this view of tolerance say they teach!

We must examine these and other pertinent passages of Scripture to show that, rather than commanding tolerance of the ideas and practices of all others, Scripture forbids such and requires us to judge. This we will do in our next article. 

1Francis A. Schaeffer's book The Great Evangelical Disaster (Westchester, IL: Crossway Books, 1984) develops the thesis that the church in the twentieth century has conformed herself to the world. This thesis is stated on page 37: "Here is the great evangelical disaster — the failure of the evangelical world to stand for truth as truth. There is only one word for this — namely accommodation: the evangelical church has accommodated to the world spirit of the age."

2This was also the theme of a number of letters in the "Public Pulse" section of the Grand Rapids Press. God loved the homosexual teacher, and by death (the teacher died in December of '96 or January of '97) brought him to a better place where he was free from persecution, one writer said. Another writer applied Romans 8:18 to the teacher, and prayed that he might rest in peace.