‘I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it,’ 

This well know phrase, often incorrectly attributed to Voltaire, rather encapsulates the meaning of the word ‘tolerance’. I may disagree with your argument, but I will defend your right to hold it, and even to express it.

We all love a bit of tolerance.

For many years, I was part of a ‘Union’ Church in Essex which prided itself on tolerance. Members of the congregation celebrated the fact that they came from all kinds of denominational backgrounds, but that none of that mattered, because they practised tolerance. To be fair, everyone worked together pretty well and enjoyed each other’s company. It was all going so well. Until, that is, a dispute arose unexpectedly over, of all things, the authority of Scripture.

The Minister who, let it be remembered, had been called by the Church members to lead and guide their spiritual lives, mentioned in passing one day that Scripture was the Word of God, written by men under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. To the average evangelical, this is foundational to our understanding of Scripture. However, the comment brought a surprisingly strong response from the Church leaders.  For some reason which I have never really understood, people started referring to the denominations of their previous Churches as a flawed and slightly awkward means of asserting their ‘authority’ to express a view. 

The first (Baptist, tolerant) said that he felt it was unwise to mention the authority of Scripture because nowdays no-one believed in the Holy Spirit (?). Another (URC, liberal) said that  the status of the Bible was less important than Christ’s commandment that we ‘love one another’ (I think you’ll find that in the Bible…).  One former elder (Quaker (apparently), fiercely tolerant of everyone who shared his views) questioned whether we were seriously suggesting that all of the Bible was the Word of God, implying the freedom to choose which bits to believe. At a Church meeting, he supported this view by dismissing the creation story as ‘mere myth’. Another (Anglican, confused) questioned whether any reasonable person of average intelligence would seriously argue that Revelation was God’s Word. Several people (diverse denominational backgrounds) voiced the opinion that the Old Testament was full of violence and intrigue and should be ignored (except, perhaps, the Psalms, which could provide reassurance to those in need). (One assumes that they were unfamiliar with the ‘imprecatory‘ psalms!)

The fact that this conversation was even necessary was a huge and damaging surprise to me (Follower of Jesus, contemplative). People became increasingly entrenched, argumentative and polarised in their views. Almost overnight, a welcoming and generally ‘happy with life’ congregation at a suburban Baptist Church dissolved into heated arguments and confusion, with insults being traded by all concerned with abandon.

I have always been puzzled that the issue which caused this absurd act of self destruction are widely regarded as central to the Christian faith, yet were seen as beyond the acceptance of a significant portion of a ‘tolerant’ congregation.

Predictably, within a few months, the Church became fragmented, and the unfortunate and passionately well intentioned pastor (Baptist, conservative evangelical) , who, as a Bible believing Christian,  welcomed persecution but never anticipated it coming from his own congregation, succumbed to a breakdown.

This was all a very long time ago. After many months, the minister recovered sufficiently to tender his resignation, and was welcomed to a new pastorate in the East Midlands where he was loved and respected for many years.

I have had many years to reflect on what happened back then (it was a very long time ago). Over time, I learned that matters could have been handled better by everyone, including me (and the Minister). I learned that tolerance is a very helpful concept, but for a Christian can must never be a defining or overriding position. When people think or act in a way which we are uncomfortable with, in other words of which we are rather less than tolerant, how do we respond?

It seems to me that we’re unconsciously making ‘tolerance’ decisions all the time, you and I. We pass someone in the street and we notice if their clothing is too revealing or unusual. We drive along the motorway and watch in horror as someone weaves between the lanes of fast moving traffic. We walk down a street and notice the badly parked car, the unusual colour of paint on the brickwork of a house, the language of the teenagers om the street corner, or the off hand attitude of the cashier in the bank. Our tolerance filter is constantly running, checking virtually everything we see and hear against our cultural reference databank which we have unknowingly and unconsciously assimilated and developed throughout our lives. Every now and then, more often than we would think, our tolerance filter registers something which we are uncomfortable with. Something which we tend to be intolerant of.

As a Christian, I have a special addition to my cultural filter. It’s called Scripture. I try to use it as a constant reference point which influences and sometimes overrides my instinctive response to situations. If something exceeds my normal tolerance level, my first reaction might be confrontational. I may even feel angry. But then my Scriptural filter clicks in and says ‘don’t get angry’ (Matthew 5:22, James 1:19). I may feel judgmental of the drunk who sits on the square close to my apartment, but my spiritual filter reminds me that he too is my neighbour (Luke 10:25-27).

The Apostle Paul writes,

‘All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness,’                           

2 Timothy 3:16

Tolerance is great. But it’s not always the answer. The tolerance of Christian’s should be limited by their cultural norms, mediated by their understanding and interpretation of Scripture. Having said that, of course, it only really works if you believe that all Scripture is the Word of God, written by men, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.

You may think otherwise. If you do, I would respectfully disagree with your position, but will defend (pretty strongly) your right to hold it. 

But can we still be friends?

Here we go again.

Richard Jackson is the Director of LifePicture UK. He is exploring life as a Contemplative Evangelical. 

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