The Necessity of Christian Intolerance
Probably the greatest issue facing the Christian church at the present time is its relationship to Islam. The past twenty years have witnessed the resurgence of a militant, missionary-minded Islamic religion, whose avowed aim is to win the world to the faith of Allah. Recent events in the Middle East only serve to highlight the strident confidence that now marks Islam and its devoted followers. Increasingly, the Christian church will be confronted with the challenge of this 'rival', and we need to be prepared to meet the challenge. Tragically, however, the church is not in the best shape to respond to this Islamic challenge.
In the first place, the church, in general, is characterised by doctrinal indifferentism. We live in the age of ecumenism, the age that is obsessed with the visible unity of the church while being largely indifferent to the unity that lies at the heart of true Christian unity, the unity of truth. We are constantly being told that to put doctrine at the head of the ecumenical agenda would be obstructionist, and inimical to the pursuit of Christian unity. It is thinking like this that is largely responsible for the appalling ignorance of Christian truth in the vast majority of church members and attenders today. Such indifferentism is light years away from the biblical conviction that truth matters, that doctrine is not an optional extra but the very marrow of revealed religion.
How is it possible to 'contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints' if we either do not know what that faith is, or believe it is of little importance whether we contend for it or not? How can we heed the apostolic injunction to 'guard the truth' if we believe that there is no such thing as 'the truth'? Islam knows what it believes. The advocates of Islam are passionate in their espousal of their beliefs. If only the same could be said of professing Christians! Doctrine is the backbone of the Christian church. There is such a thing as a body of revealed truths; truths that are non-negotiable; truths that belong to the very core of the Christian faith. To deny this, or even to question this, is to deny and question the Christian faith itself. The passion for ecumenism has left the church ill-equipped to meet the challenge of a confident, convinced Islam.
Secondly, the church has been invaded by a spirit of spurious tolerance. We live in an age of cultural and religious pluralism. Christianity, we are told (tragically not only by those outside the church), is only one religion among many. It is the Christian's responsibility therefore to listen and learn from other religions, to be open-minded, tolerant, and above all accommodating to the convictions of those who belong to different religious traditions.
The spuriousness of this view lies in the partiality of its understanding of 'tolerance'. Of course Christians are to behave with graciousness, sensitivity and great patience with anyone who disputes the truth and claims of the Christian gospel. When we fail to do so we dishonour God and undermine the credibility of the gospel we claim to believe in. But there is another sense in which it would be sin for Christians to be tolerant of anything and anyone who disputes or opposes the revealed gospel of God's grace in Jesus Christ. Fidelity to the truth, and true love for God and our fellow men and women, demands that Christians be intolerant of any opinion or conviction that challenges the revealed, saving gospel of God.
James Denney makes this point in his work, The Death of Christ:
If God has really done something in Christ on which the salvation of the world depends, and if he has made it known, then it is a Christian duty to be intolerant of everything which ignores, denies, or explains it away. The man who perverts it is the worst enemy of God and men; and it is not bad temper or narrow-mindedness in St Paul which explains this vehement language, it is the jealousy of God which has kindled in a soul redeemed by the death of Christ a corresponding jealousy for the Saviour.
Denney is referring to Paul's declaration in Galatians 1:9: 'If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let him be eternally condemned.' It hardly needs to be said that neither Paul, nor James Denney, were advocating that Christians be rude or arrogant in their defence and proclamation of the gospel. But where the honour of our Lord Jesus Christ is at stake, and where the salvation of lost sinners is at stake, it would be monstrous, as well as a dereliction of love, for Christians to remain silent, or to compromise biblical truth for the sake of appearing 'tolerant'.
The early church existed in an age of religious and cultural pluralism, but it refused to qualify or compromise the revealed truth of God. On the contrary, with passion and conviction the apostles proclaimed the absolute uniqueness of Jesus Christ and his gospel. No doubt they were accused of being intolerant, narrow-minded bigots who could not see past their own 'insights' into truth. But while the apostolic gospel was mocked by many, for many others it became 'the power of God for salvation'. The early church was intolerant of anything that imperilled the salvation of sinners. It has nothing to do with being narrow-minded or bigoted. It has everything to do with honouring God's Son, and loving men and women enough to refuse to accommodate or compromise the gospel that alone can bring them the forgiveness of their sins and the hope of glory.
Christian intolerance is demanded by the nature and content of the Christian gospel. To think otherwise is to rob Christ and his gospel of their uniqueness. It is when the church has been clear and persuaded about this that God has blessed it and made it a power for good in the world. Truth matters supremely. Destinies depend upon it. The preeminence of our Lord Jesus Christ and his saving gospel demand that we 'speak the truth in love'.