Recently I attended the second Deep Church lecture of the term, with Justin Thacker discussing tolerance and political correctness. It was an interesting evening and one of many challenges. What was discussed raises several issues regarding our faith, and trying to tie them together was very hard. What I decided was to give the backbone of his arguments and then come to my own conclusions, based on what God was saying to me.
Thacker began by talking about the most basic thing. What do we regard as tolerance? The dictionary definition is ‘to put up with, forbearance involving something you disagree with’.
But is that what tolerance means today? Or what it meant for Jesus?
In today’s post-modern consumer culture it is used very differently. Today, it’s much more about indifference. It can even be something we champion, something we accept and positively approve of.
Thacker discussed different concepts of tolerance. Firstly, he suggested that there boundary issues. No-one for instance thinks we should tolerate everything. There are things like child abuse, murder, rape and other things we should not tolerate. We need to define our boundaries when it comes to tolerance.
Second, there is the liberal v pragmatic concept. These are very much concerned with two different spheres. The public and the private. In the liberal concept there are things we discuss and talk about openly but in private, not for public consumption. Then there is the public sphere where what we say or tolerate is much more limited and boundaries are tighter. Freedom in private but not in public. Basically, the idea that you can believe what you want in private, as long as it offends no one in the public sphere. This is of course very prevalent in today’s culture.
In the pragmatic view there is no private sphere, there is merely the public sphere where all views are openly expressed and you can say what you like. This of course often leads to conflict. Tolerance is practised out of necessity rather than out of consideration for others.
The other main point was the following. The paradox that it could be a virtue to accept something that is bad. That is, upholding free will, accepting the person and respect but disagree with their actions.
That was the foundation of what was said. There are so many avenues to go down from there, but one thing that struck me and that I wanted to know. What is Jesus’ type of tolerance and how does it apply individually and corporately today?
The thing that became clear to me is and that was discussed during the evening was of tolerance being a small part of love. Jesus talked about loving our neighbour as ourselves. Love is not passive, it’s active. It’s a verb. It’s something you do.
So we love people we disagree with, we respect their right to a view but live in a way which shows them what we think and why we think living like Jesus is the way to live a fuller life.
Thacker touched on this when he said that the goal of us as Christians is surely to tolerate, but for the sake of the kingdom. To tolerate for the sake of seeing people’s lives transformed.
When Jesus was on earth He hung out with and associated closely with people who were outcasts in society, who were rejected by people, with sinners. He did this not because He agreed with how they lived, but because He wanted to show them a better way and see their lives transformed. That’s what we should be doing.
Not only that, but we need to continually be transformed into His likeness, going back to the cross and submitting to him and asking His forgiveness. Being a Christian is a process of being transformed to be more like Jesus and living out every day what we believe. We might be further along that path than someone who isn’t a Christian, but nevertheless we are all on this journey of transformation.
One key point Thacker raised here was different variables of tolerance. Someone who is further on in this journey of faith will have more expected of them, What we tolerate in some we maybe should be less tolerant of in a person who has a strong, mature Christian faith and commitment to God, as they are at a different stage on their journey, and have more understanding of the values of the Christian faith. They can’t use ignorance or immature faith as an excuse for some things they may say or do.
One other thing really struck me. That the church needs to be more tolerant of its different parts.
That means bearing one another in love, it means accepting we have different ideas on what being a Christian is and on some things the Bible says, but we accept our differences and celebrate our common beliefs, which all have Jesus at the centre.
Church at its best is community. A community of believers who pray for, support, bless and serve each other and then together reach out into their own communities, and show them who Jesus is by their lifestyle and actions.
The different ‘groups’ in the church need to start being more tolerant of each other, and then need to present an image of tolerance to the world which does not say, we will change our theology to suit your culture – as many churches do – but one which says that this is what we stand for, this is how we live it out and then goes and does it. Instead of arguing amongst ourselves, how about uniting behind our common beliefs and then going into the world and truly living out our faith. Making it clear what we are for, what Jesus is about – and by that I mean the basic truths of our faith – and demonstrating that by our actions. Giving people the right image of the church.
Now in reality that’s not easy. People disagree on fundamental aspects of theology.
Instead of arguing about it, let’s find out what we do agree on and act positively together and show the world what Jesus is all about. There may different ways we interpret things, but the bottom line is showing people who Jesus is and not fighting and splitting over things all the time. That’s not modelling tolerance at all and it’s no way to build the kingdom of God.
Tolerance then in an individual sense is having mercy, grace and understanding of people who aren’t on the same road as you, who are at a different place in their journey of their faith who maybe even fundamentally disagree with it and with the things that we disagree with, and too seek to transform them by how we live, by what we say, by our everyday lifestyle. To show them that they need Jesus by living in such a way that challenges and inspires people to be transformed. It’s showing compassion and love in the way that Jesus modelled.
In a corporate way, its being accepting that other Christians may have slightly different theology to us, but continuing to model our faith and celebrate our common faith as a community by standing up as a church for the values, truths and standards Jesus modelled, tolerating other religious groups but modelling to them a faith that can transform the world, in a positive way.
Tolerance is not a blanket passive acceptance, it’s a form of loving your neighbour. It’s about transformation and showing people who Jesus really is.