Christianity is unacceptably intolerant
Does this mean, then, that some intolerance is acceptable? Probably, for there are many who say that they will tolerate anything except (Christian) intolerance. Some things, such as child abuse, are not to be tolerated at any cost, but generally we must not judge or condemn anything. Deviant sexual practices are OK, as long as they are private and don’t involve children; strange (as in ‘unusual in this country’) beliefs are fine, especially if rejection might be construed as racism. Except for Christianity. Why? Because it is itself reckoned to be too intolerant. The Christian message is reckoned to be beyond the fairness and equality pale, so that it no longer gets a fair hearing. It is in this sense that alleged Christian intolerance is said to be a barrier to belief. Although many ordinary folk do not share this prejudice of the left wing elite, supported by many of the media, they are nevertheless affected by the accusation and Christians have to learn to cope with it.
What then is tolerance?
This misunderstood word means to permit or bear with opinions, practices or behaviour different from your own. It does not mean that you agree with them; just allow them to exist. Given this proper meaning, real, biblical Christianity is truly tolerant. Christians may speak out against certain beliefs and practices, but they tolerate them in society in general. We believe in freedom of conscience for all, leading to liberty of worship, freedom to express our religious and moral opinions without fear of punishment by government or other authority.
Until recently this was the national practice enshrined in British law. Contrast the freedom given to Islam in this country with the severe restrictions enforced in Muslim countries. Religious freedom is sadly lacking in totalitarian states and even in some claimed democracies, where Christians are permitted to practise their religion in private, but others are not allowed to change theirs. The inevitable corollary of this is that Christians may not evangelise the local population. However, just being better than other countries, though true, is little recommendation.
Liberty of conscience
The true character of liberty of conscience is seen if instead of freedom we speak of responsibility. It is not so much that we may obey our conscience as that we must. Martin Luther demonstrated this in the early day of the Protestant Reformation when he told the Holy Roman Emperor, ‘my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will retract anything since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience’. Since then liberty of conscience has been an essential part of Protestantism. Properly the Christian must also grant this freedom to others, whether Muslims or atheists even though they may not themselves recognise the concept. This should never be an obstacle to belief; rather it provides the setting for a proper, unpressurised consideration of the issues leading to an informed decision to adopt (in the world’s terminology) a new religion.
To impose our religious views on others is pointless or rather impossible. Christian faith, to be worthwhile and effective in bringing salvation, must be free. True holiness must be from the heart, from spiritual motives, not from forced obedience. Historically, some Christians, even some evangelical ones, have not observed this. Some have forgotten that we are no longer under the Old Covenant; though the church is the spiritual Israel, it does not have the right to punish sin, unbelief and apostasy physically. The state may, in certain instances, punish sins, such as murder and theft, but as crimes, not as sins. The failure to keep this distinction led to the burning of heretics, who should have been convinced by argument, not put beyond the reach of reason by execution. It is sad to recall that some of those who fled the shores of England in search of religious liberty, once in America, refused that same privilege to others and banished them from their colonies. The name of Oliver Cromwell is often maligned today, but it is forgotten that he restored the right of the Jews to enter and live in England in the seventeenth-century. On the other hand, for centuries non-conformists, non-Anglican Christians, were not allowed to attend the universities of Oxford and Cambridge. It would be sad indeed if their descendants forgot their history and became persecutors today. You may not agree with everything that your Christian brother believes or does, but he must be granted the same liberty of conscience that you expect to be accorded to you.
The basis of Christian exclusiveness
Christian exclusivism is not something invented by modern evangelicals or fundamentalists. It has been part of orthodox Christianity since the beginning. It was, until recently, the accepted view of Christians of all denominations. In Luke’s gospel, chapter 11, verse 23, Jesus says, ‘He who is not with me is against me’. This is not blind prejudice or unthinking favouritism. It is the necessary deduction from the facts of the gospel. In another place he said, ‘I am the way and the truth and the life. No-one comes to the Father except through me’ (John 14:6). The apostle Peter confirmed this saying, ‘Salvation is found in no-one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved’ (Acts 4:12).
In recent years several different, supposedly more tolerant, views, have taken root among some, who claim the name of Christian, but preach a different gospel that denies that anyone is lost. These ‘universalists’ maintain that a God of love cannot and will not send anyone to hell. Others believe that those who do not actually believe in Christ simply cease to exist or, more recently, eventually repent and are allowed into heaven. Another variation on the theme teaches that sincere followers of any religion, who would have repented and believed if they had had the opportunity, are actually ‘anonymous Christians’, saved through Christ, but without conscious faith in Him.
It is said that all paths lead to the mountain top. Try this on a physical mountain some day and you will learn the error of your ways, albeit too late! Christians say that faith in Christ is the only way to God, not because they hate other religions, but because this is the only way that works. If people try to cross into the kingdom by another bridge, they will find themselves stranded in mid-river. Only the Christian gospel makes genuine provision for the forgiveness of sins through the cross of Christ. Why should we approve of other, faulty, ways into heaven, when in Christ we have an infallible route?
In any case, it must be realised that this is not a case of Christians imposing their views on others. Christianity is a religion revealed by God and its followers have no right to pick and choose what they will believe and teach. This also applies to other subjects where Christians are accused of narrow intolerance, such as moral issues like abortion and homosexuality. The gospel is not intolerance, rightly understood, but a fair and loving statement of a wonderful way of salvation. If people feel excluded there is a simple remedy: believe the gospel and you will be included in the world-wide church of God, rejoicing in the forgiveness of sins and destined to enjoy His presence in glory forever.
John Legg is a member of the editorial board of The Evangelical Magazine.