A Plea for Toleration—Part 2

What does the Bible teach about religious toleration? There are passages, especially in the Old Testament, which seem clearly to teach intolerance. God forbade interfaith marriage with the inhabitants of Canaan (Deu. 7:3), ordered the destruction of their places of worship (7:5), and even told the Israelites to commit genocide (7:1-2).  However, we need to remember that Israel was a theocracy. God has a right to discriminate against and even exterminate his enemies. We do not.

There are also themes of toleration to be found in the Hebrew scriptures. Moses calls God “the God of the spirits of all flesh” (Num. 27:16). The Torah enjoins love for one’s neighbor (Lev. 19:18). And there were positive contacts between Judaism and other religions. For example, the influence of Zoroastrianism allowed the Hebrews to develop a robust view of the afterlife and the spirit world that it didn’t have before.

Under the new covenant, scripture clearly teaches toleration. Jesus refused to curse those who did not receive him because of religious prejudice (Luke 9:52-56). He corrected his disciples for rebuking an exorcist who did not follow them (Luke 9:49-50) and treated a Samaritan woman with respect (John 4:7-30). He used the example of a good Samaritan to shame his fellow Jews about their intolerance (Luke 10:25-37). The Apostle Paul acknowledged the religious devotion of pagans in Athens (Acts 17:22) and even spoke approvingly of Gentiles who do what is right, even though they don’t have God’s law (Rom. 2:14-16). And God called Cornelius, a God-fearing Gentile, “a devout man, and one that feared God with all his house” (Acts 10:2). Finally, while the New Testament doesn’t command toleration in so many words, it comes close when it commends “forbearing one another” (Col. 3:13, Eph. 4:2). And there are plenty of verses that command us to love others, even our enemies.

In addition to Biblical reasons, there are legal and historical reasons to practice religious toleration. I know this may come as a shock to some, but America was not founded as a Christian nation. Legally the United States has always been a secular state. There is no mention of God, Jesus, or Christianity anywhere in the Constitution, and the First Amendment mandates the separation of church and state. This is even more significant in light of the fact that a large majority of the founding fathers were professing Christians. They could have made the US officially Christian, even Protestant, but they chose not to.

Today there is a good kind of Christian activism, which seeks to preserve the rights of all Americans to worship according to the dictates of their consciences. It works to safeguard America’s godly heritage without trying to privilege one religion over another. This approach is an heir of that great tradition of Roger Williams, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison. There is, however, another kind of Christian activism that wants to establish evangelical Protestantism over all other religions, seeking to force organized prayer and the teaching of creationism on the public schools, insisting America is a Christian nation, and politicking from the pulpit to the point of instructing church members how to vote. However well intentioned, this kind of activism is unhealthy and potentially threatens our religious freedom.

How would we evangelical Protestants like it if we faced such activism from others? Imagine if Catholics sought to outlaw birth control, Mormons caffeine, or Hindus the eating of meat. What if Jews wanted legislation to force all school cafeterias to keep kosher or Muslims wanted every Friday declared an official day of worship? If we can’t put the shoe on the other foot and feel comfortable, it’s not a good fit.



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6 responses to “A Plea for Toleration—Part 2

  1. Glenn Bratcher

    Hello Travis, interesting article, but I have a couple questions. Is “toleration” meant to be followed only by Christians? And is there a LIMIT to the amount of toleration one is to endure? For example, can a Christian tolerate another religion that is not tolerating “Christianity?” As a Christian, I feel certain that Christians should be tolerant of others…UNTIL they start shooting at me! Then what? Would YOU be tolerant of someone who was about to harm your family…or kill you in the name of their religion? Luke reports in Acts 5:35-42 about how Gamaliel spoke to the Sanhedrin advising the Pharisees to leave the Apostles alone…”for if their purpose or activity is of human origin, it will fail. But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men; you will only find yourselves fighting against God.” After a flogging the Apostles were released, but they “rejoiced because they had been counted worthy of suffering for the Name.” I certainly would not be wanting to find myself “fighting against God”…but I recognize that Christians are being persecuted all over the world…for their freedom to express God’s Love and His plan for Salvation. I do wonder how much toleration a Christian is suppose to endure. Can you help me out?

    Also, I believe the term I am used to hearing is that America was founded on Christian “principles” not whether or not it was founded “as a Christian nation.” Surely you would agree that much of our legal system was/is based on the Ten Commandments…or which ones would you leave out? Yes, I realize that the Commandments came from God…the Father of Jesus! And it was Jesus who emphasized LOVE! I do think had our “founding fathers” known there would have been such an attack on Christianity (as is now going on), they most likely would have been more explicit! (e.g. religious Holidays, merely mentioning God and/or the Bible in schools, prayer in public schools, removal of our motto on coins and bills, etc., you know the rest.

    Help me out. Yes…tolerant…but is there a limit?

  2. Kristi May

    Interesting topic. I fear that when Christians are not tolerated in the United States it is not because they are showing love. I see in the gospels that Jesus was most “intolerant” of the religious who thought themselves somehow superior to the rest of humanity. Let us be careful to preserve humility and an attitude of grace toward all others and to live our lives in ways that please our God – loving ALL of our neighbors as ourselves.

    Christians who are truly suffering for their faith often show a humility that we lack. When in China, praying with believers in the underground church, we Americans always wanted to pray for religious freedom and protection; our Chinese brothers and sisters asked only that we pray for courage and strength. They sought not a way out, but a way through. When Nate Saint’s son asked in Ecuador if he would use his gun if his life was threatened, he said he would not, because the native people did not know Jesus…and so he gave his life.

    • Kristi May

      One addition, let’s not forget that “our citizenship is in heaven” and be careful that we not confuse a hearty patriotism with a vibrant faith.

  3. Glenn Bratcher

    Kristi May…I enjoyed your response, which is helpful and remind me of the similarities between forgiveness and being tolerant. Your comments about the house-church Christians in China and Nate Saint in Ecuador are inspirational.

    My thanks to you!

  4. Glenn,

    I’m not sure I have a better answer than Kristi. (Thank you for your comments, Kristi!) But since you asked . . . I do not believe that someone else’s intolerance justifies my own. If some people burn down my church, I don’t have the right torch their place of worship. If they insult my God, I shouldn’t insult theirs. That doesn’t mean that I approve of intolerant behavior or don’t try to stop it when I can. If someone believes it is his religious duty to abuse a child, I would try to stop the person with legal, non-violent means. If a religious group were trying to deny my freedom of worship, I would use legal, non-violent means to protect my freedom.

    Most ethicists would say you have a right to self defense. If someone is threatening either your life or someone else’s, you have a right to resist, even with lethal force if the threat is imminent and there are no non-lethal options available. While this line of reasoning makes perfect sense, I don’t think Jesus would agree. He said, famously, “That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also” (Matt. 5:39). I’m not sure I could live up to this standard if my family were being threatened or harmed, but the Savior did not give me the option of using violence.


  5. Glenn Bratcher

    Travis, I would not have expected or wanted a better response…than you have given.

    Thank you, your comments are appreciated. I pray that I can accept God’s will…


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