The Demands of Christian Tolerance
By John S. Gibson, III - April 9, 2012
John S. Gibson, III
John earned a B.A. in Religious Studies from the University of Alabama, served as a pastor for 10 years, and retired from the Department of Human Resources for the State of Alabama.
I realize that the title of this article appears to be somewhat of an oxymoron. First, regarding the use of both terms tolerance and demands. Any position, even tolerance, has its demands or it is not a position at all. There must be parameters to any position and those parameters must be met to maintain that position. When there are parameters that must be met there are demands. There is also the use of both terms Christianity and tolerance. First, I want to say that I am looking at Christianity from an evangelical Christian point of view. Typically Christianity, like most historical religions, is not often aligned with the term tolerance. Tolerance is a term that is often used with a liberal political or social position. But I am not using the term tolerance in the sense that Christianity, or a consistently Christian position, should look on non-Christian positions or activities with tolerance. I am using the expression Christian tolerance for Christians to be tolerant of other Christians who do not believe, behave, or hold the same positions as they do.
When I say that Christians should be tolerant of one another, I am not saying that they should necessarily be chummy and spend much time together with Christians in other groups. I am not even implying that they should even worship together on any kind of regular basis. If, perchance though, they were in a position to worship with these other Christians, they should be willing to. Other than that, it is probably best that different groups of Christians should remain in their own body of believers for ongoing worship times.
What, then, are the demands of Christian tolerance? The demands of Christian tolerance are that Christians should not condemn other Christians either by specific words or by any type of actions, such as ostracizing those of another group. Ostracism, based on the Matthew 18 teaching of Christ, implies if not openly affirms, condemnation. When I say condemnation, I mean that you do not believe that the substitutionary work of Christ on the cross has been applied to them. Christians should not speak or write harshly against those Christians of a different ilk. Neither should Christians have any demeanor or attitude of superiority in any way toward others, especially other Christians. The same Savior is the one who saved everyone of us and even though others may have committed more heinous sins in the past than we and believe in teachings that we truly believe are in error, does not give us a license to feel, act, or even believe that we are better.
Matters of Doctrine
There is a plethora of examples that I can use regarding the ways in which Christians refuse to tolerate one another. First, there are matters of doctrine. Examples of doctrinal differences are obvious to most Christians and there are plenty of them. There are the differences of the Calvinists and the Armenians, i.e. Calvinists believe more in predestination of all people and Armenians believe more in the free will of man. The specifics vary among different Calvinist and different Armenian groups. One aspect of the differences between those two groups is eternal security, or perseverance of the saints versus the doctrine that Christians can fall or turn away from grace. I personally have heard and known many dedicated saints of God on both sides of this issue. Yet many, on both sides of this issue have little if any tolerance for those of the other side. This is a theological issue that cannot be bridged with some kind of middle of the road position but the Christians on either side of this issue can still be, and should be merciful, gracious, tolerant, and non-condemning of those of the other side.
Differences with Respect to Sacraments
The next type of difference has to do with the different rituals or sacraments. There is the ritual of baptism. Just mentioning baptism opens a can of worms when it comes to the different ways that different groups practice the rite of baptism. There are the different modes of baptism. I know of three and only three different modes of baptism. There is sprinkling, pouring, and immersion. Many evangelical churches teach immersion only. This is almost always for adults, teens and even pre-teens that have made the decision to accept Christ as their Savior and then they are candidates for baptism by immersion. Those that practice sprinkling or pouring usually apply this method to infants, though not always or necessarily. Their teaching is that the infant is baptized into the community of believers of its parent or parents. The child is also being dedicated to God. Then later when the child can make a willful decision to follow Christ, that child can make a confirmation of his or her baptism. There have been groups in the history of the church that have even immersed infants but these groups have been relatively rare. I have my own position on this issue, but for our purposes in this paper it does not matter. We, as Christians, should not make too much of the difference. Those of opposing viewpoints from you may be wrong in God's sight. But that would probably only mean that they are more ignorant than you regarding the true mode of baptism. Respect them, be compassionate toward them, and do not condemn them. What if they are right and you are wrong?
There is also the sacrament of communion or the Lord's Supper. Some groups practice communion every Sunday, others once a quarter, every fifth Sunday, or even once or twice a year. Some groups use alcoholic wine, others only use grape juice. Some groups have open communion where any Christian in the service at the time may participate in the communion, while others have closed communion in which only members of that group may participate. Again, we are to respect those of the opposing positions, not be critical, and let them honor God the way they understand it and believe they should.
Experiential Differences and Practices
There are those that emphasize a second "special" experience that Christians in other groups often do not experience. This is usually referred to as the baptism of the Holy Spirit and they teach that this experience is evidenced by speaking in tongues. Those holding this position (usually known as Pentecostals) tend to believe and, usually it is directly stated, that those who have this experience are "better" Christians, more spiritual, or have greater spiritual authority or power than those who have not experienced this "baptism of the Holy Spirit" evidenced by "speaking in tongues." This is spiritual elitism and can cause the Christians in these groups to look down on others who do not have this experience. This also often causes individuals in these groups to practice a subtle type of ostracism of others because of feelings of their own super-spirituality. The elitism between these differing opinions is not one way. Those who do not believe in a second "special" experience have been known to be harshly critical of the Pentecostals. They have been known to regard "speaking in tongues" and other spiritual gifts to be demonic and definitely unchristian. They have and continue to look upon them as ignorant and not as sophisticated as themselves. Because they encourage speaking in tongues, and other gifts of the Spirit, they should not be treated as lesser Christians either.
Differences in the Day of Worship
Then there is the difference of the proper day to worship. Some Christian groups (the major one would be the Seventh Day Adventists) believe that you should worship and rest on Saturday because it is the true Sabbath, the seventh and last day of the week. This of course was the teaching among the Hebrews in the Old Testament times and is observed to this day by Jewish worshippers. Many of these groups, like the Seventh Day Adventists, also forbid eating pork and other non-kosher foods. Is this sufficient to say or act like these are not true Christians? It does not. If they are in error, it is a relatively benign error, and who are we to judge them otherwise? Likewise, the seventh day groups do not have a monopoly on God's will and have no more of a reason for an arrogant attitude than any other Christian group.
Fundamental Disagreement on the View of the Scriptures
This last difference leads me to a very crucial and volatile one, Inerrancy of Scripture. There are of course those among the Fundamentalists that believe that everything that the Christian Bible states is without error. For example, in the statement of faith for the Southern Baptist Convention, it is written under point one, The Scriptures, "…It has God as its author, salvation for its end, and truth, without any mixture of error, for its matter. Therefore, all Scripture is totally true and trustworthy." With such an emphasis on inerrancy, it can be very difficult not to be spiritually prideful and arrogant over those who do not believe in such a strong emphasis on the inerrancy of the Scriptures. On the other hand, there are groups like The Presbyterian Church, U.S.A. that have written in their brief statement of faith under the Holy Spirit, "The same Spirit who inspired the prophets and apostles rules our faith and life in Christ through Scripture." Their teaching is obviously much more vague and up to the local church and/or the individual as to how authoritative one is to make of the Bible's teachings. This, likewise, could be a basis for spiritual elitism and pride that all Christians should avoid.
Catholic, Protestant or Orthodox?
One final difference that we are going to consider. That difference is the Catholic versus Protestant difference. To Protestant evangelicals Catholicism seems to "add" certain teachings to what the Bible teaches. This is probably due to their emphasis on tradition. The three main differences appear to be the emphasis that is put on the Virgin Mary and other saints, the authority of the Pope, and confessing one's sins to the priest rather than directly to God. Though these three teachings are significantly different from what most evangelicals teach and believe, does that keep Catholics from being Christians? Do any or all three of these teachings negate the adequacy of the blood of Christ to save these precious souls from their sins? I think not. Let us therefore pray for our Catholic brothers and sisters that we know. If they are in error, perhaps God will show them their error. Maybe they will also pray for us that where we are in error, God will show us that error.
There are many, many more examples I could give, but I think the point is clear.
Tolerance in Disagreement and Facing Our Own Error
In conclusion, a very high percentage of Christians hold to a set of beliefs because they were either raised and taught certain doctrine at home or they were taught in the church group in which they became a Christian. Unless influenced by someone outside of their group, very few will ever break out of the mold. Group think is so very easy and we all do it. Even more difficult is leaving one group to find another which believes the way that their beliefs have evolved or developed. Some might say that their flesh or sinful nature has led them that way. But perhaps it is the Holy Spirit leading them. Like any teaching or belief, it needs to be considered in the light of Scriptural teaching, especially the New Testament.
Do you tend to be critical of Christians that believe differently from you? Would you prefer that you not have to "put up" with them? Do you consider them less "Christian" than those in your group of believers? Do you talk "down" about them to those in your group? Have you ever said something like, "How can they believe those things? They must be a bunch of idiots." These are all valid questions when it comes to your thoughts or feelings toward others who really are Christians, but do not believe the way you do.
Have you ever thought that some of the teachings that you espouse and hold dear are in error? The error that you believe or practice is probably something that you would least suspect. I wonder how many errors you believe. Probably more than you would guess. But I can assure you of one thing: there are errors in what you believe and/or practice.
At this point you would probably like to ask me, "What about the errors in what you believe and/or practice? How many erroneous things do you espouse?" You would be correct in asking that question, because there are probably more errors in my belief system than I think. If I knew what they were I would definitely have changed those beliefs and/or practices. But I do not know which beliefs are erroneous. That is why we must consider with an open mind the arguments on the "other side" of any issue. Of course we are not to accept an argument against our point of view unless or until we see the "light" of truth on the other side, if we ever see it at all. But we are not just to debate an issue to win. We should most importantly debate an issue for everyone involved in the debate to come closer to the truth, whatever that may be.
I am also telling you that, in the meantime, we need to be thoughtful, considerate, and tolerant of those who disagree with us. In this life no one has attained perfection in spirit, in theology, in knowledge, or in any other way. The apostle Paul had not attained it, at least while he was on earth, not any of us.
"Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own."-Philippians 3:12
"For we all stumble in many ways."-James 3:2
"For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known."-I Corinthians 13:12
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