This is the first article of a three-part series in looking at tolerance and Christianity.
Christian truths, values, teachings and practices have often been criticised as intolerant by both non-Christians and people within Christian circles. One place where these themes intersect is in the usage of polarising social or political issues, such as marriage or abortion.
With good intentions, many seek to reduce or eliminate intolerance in our society as intolerance fuels discrimination between people or groups. Throughout history and even today, there have also been acts of intolerance between religious groups and/or ethnic groups which result in, but are not limited to, acts of violence and racist slurs.
However, this journey to eliminate intolerance, is marred by different understanding of the word “intolerance” and from that, the principled application of it varies greatly in practice.
The original definition of tolerance is an acceptance (ie to bear with) of an opposing view. Whilst the “modern”, modified definition is to accept (ie to “take” or believe) it. The former definition recognises different views but does not necessarily have to agree. The latter definition implies one has to agree with a different view.
Does the Bible have a view on this? Are Christians one of the most intolerant groups of people today?
Christian intolerance in the Bible
Many critics of the Christian faith will “easily find” many passages in the Bible to use as evidence of an intolerant Christianity. When asked to quote passages, the majority would come from the Old Testament.
An example is in Deuteronomy chapter 7, where Moses is giving the “law” to the people of Israel before they enter the Promised Land after forty years of wandering the desert. In this chapter, Israel is told to ensure that the inhabitants are completely destroyed and to show no mercy on them (verses 1-2).
It raises many good questions like “why is God so intolerant and violent?” or “if God is so loving, why does He kill so many people and condemn them?” Each question deserves its own article outlining the reasons why. Although I will not cover it in this article, I encourage you to study the Bible and talk to Christians, pastors and Biblical scholars to get answers to these questions.
In looking at Christian intolerance, a common accusation people say is “religion is the source of hurt and pain in this world”. To answer the question “Why does God seemingly promote intolerance?” we need to understand the object about which God is intolerant.
Object of intolerance
Jesus in the New Testament in Matthew chapter 22, verses 34-40 stated that all the Law depended on two commandments:
- Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.
- Love your neighbour as yourself
In other words, God’s law was built on the foundation of these two greatest commandments. Breaking God’s law or rebelling against Him is defined as sin in the Bible.
Sin is the rejection of God. It is the object that God does not tolerate. Reason being, the God of the Bible (the same God in both Old and New Testaments) is a God of justice. He is a God of justice with no exceptions for “minor” sins.
The Bible is very clear in telling us that no one is innocent in breaking God’s law. Romans chapter 3, verses 10-12 states:
“There is no one righteous, not even one;
there is no one who understands;
there is no one who seeks God.
All have turned away,
they have together become worthless;
there is no one who does good,
not even one.”
Paul, the author, concludes the section stating “Therefore no one will be declared righteous in God’s sight by the works of the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of our sin.” (Romans, chapter 3, verse 20). What this means is that everyone (including Christians!) is subject to God’s judgment and in turn deserves the punishment for sin.
Christian intolerance today
The principle that God is a God of justice and therefore intolerant of sin is fundamental in understanding the Christian perspective of perceived “intolerance” today.
This is at odds with the “modern” modified definition of tolerance requiring one to accept (to “take” or believe) views that are different. Christians will (and should) be intolerant of injustice and wrongdoing that harms our neighbours and should speak out against them.
Christians also acknowledge that they are not perfect and seek to better themselves. This is done through the in-depth studying and rigorous questioning of the Bible. In learning more about the character of God, Christians learn more about how God wants us to live and apply it in our lives.
The application of Biblical truths and principles is not only applied to Christians’ spiritual and personal lives, but also in the public life. This is why Christians also participate in the public sphere whether it is in politics, media, social platforms or just day to day discussions.
One way to love our neighbours is to be actively listening and engaging with them seeking to understand their perspective. This is an important avenue for Christians to engage in discussion and, in turn, be very tolerant (if not the most tolerant) of different ideas and people. This is something that we will explore in the second part of this series.
Brandon Tsang is a Sydney-based writer currently working in IT. He studied Marketing and Economics at UNSW and loves to spend his spare time hiking, playing volleyball or watching Netflix.
Brandon Tsang’s previous articles may be viewed at http://www.pressserviceinternational.org/brandon-tsang.html