One of the things I’m keen to do with this blog is to make available here papers, articles and studies that for one reason or another haven’t been published more formally in books or journals. I prepared the following text as a background paper for senior staff at the Evangelical Alliance around four years ago, when the first raft of revised equality and diversity legislation was making its way through parliament. Given the recent proposed amendments to that legislation, their potential impact on churches, and the Pope’s controversial intervention on the issue, I thought it might be helpful to offer here what was written then for just a handful of colleagues. I’ve produced lengthier, more scholarly papers elsewhere on the specific subject of theological approaches to human rights, but this more general, less footnote-heavy text seemed appropriate for the new blog. Thoughtful comments welcome…
Tolerance and Intolerance: Then and Now
Few if any of us would want to be called ‘intolerant’. After all, intolerance is hardly seen as an attractive quality. By contrast, tolerance can seem so obviously a good thing as to be beyond question. From a Christian perspective, however, the whole issue is somewhat more complex.
In early 2006, the then UK Prime Minister Tony Blair proclaimed that tolerance was “what makes Britain”. He was reflecting on the rise of global terrorism since September 11th 2001, when the Islamist suicide pilots of Al Q’aeda destroyed New York’s Twin Towers, and left one of the most gruesome symbols of intolerance the world has ever seen. In the wake of 9/11, discussion of tolerance has focussed most intensely on religion – that is, on the capacity of one faith community to bear the doctrines and practices of another without resort to persecution, violence or killing. But the religious associations of tolerance in fact go back much further.
From the late first to the early fourth centuries, the Christian Church was viewed as a threat to the Roman Empire, and was periodically persecuted. However, following his conversion the emperor Constantine issued an Edict of Toleration in 313, which allowed Christians to practice their faith unhindered. In 380 Theodosius the Great pronounced Christianity the official religion of the empire, and the era of tolerance gave way to the full-blown bond between church and state known as Christendom. On occasion, as during the crusades, a faith which had grown in the teeth of oppression itself became the oppressor. Medieval theologians like Augustine and Aquinas viewed the coercion of non-Christians and heretics as strong medicine administered to cure doctrinal error. Christendom was still dominant at the time of the Protestant Reformation in the Sixteen Century, but Protestantism presented new challenges for tolerance. Not only were Protestants exiled and executed as heretics by Roman Catholics; where they gained power, they often responded in kind. In addition, different Protestant groups refused to tolerate one another: Germany endured a succession of religious conflicts before the Peace of Westphalia in 1648 heralded a more tolerant age. Around the same time, scepticism about religion’s capacity to foster social harmony fuelled the Enlightenment, with its characteristic emphasis on human reason rather than divine revelation, and on a secular state governing apart from the authority of the church or dominant faith-tradition. Today, this model operates not only in the more obviously secular West, but also in India, in many African states and much of Latin America.
Supreme Virtue or Grudging Concession?
Given its development, it is important to realise that tolerance is a ‘negative’ or ‘limiting’ value rather than a ‘positive’ one. Where religion is concerned, it implies neither approval of a faith other than one’s own, nor celebration of a plurality of faiths. Indeed, the very meaning of tolerance carries a sense of disapproval: as Justin Thacker points out, ‘we do not tolerate good food or a great lover: we welcome them. It is disingenuous to speak of tolerating things we don’t mind’. The point is not that the tolerant Christian condones or endorses Islam, but rather agrees to live alongside Muslims without abusing, beating, or murdering them in the name of Christ. In this sense, it is helpful to distinguish ‘tolerance' from 'liberty'. Tolerance is exhibited by a majority group when it resolves to put up with those who dissent from its own outlook. Liberty, on the other hand, implies a more deliberate commitment to equality: not just restraining oneself from persecution of the other, but actively promoting the other’s rights to the free expression.
Seen in this way, 'tolerance' can appear less a supreme virtue than a grudging concession. Yet it is helpful to have an ethical category pitched somewhere between outright approval and penal condemnation. In 1963, President John F. Kennedy summed up the modest yet vital quality of tolerance when he said: ‘If we cannot now end our differences, at least we can make the world safe for diversity’. After all, certain things might be theologically rejected yet provisionally tolerated for the sake of an orderly world – a world in which one’s own convictions may be expressed safely as others may safely express theirs. For orthodox Christians this might mean tolerating Hindu worship, or Mormon evangelism, while simultaneously holding such things to be erroneous. Yet there are other things which cannot be tolerated, since they overtly threaten such order and safety - rape, child abuse and racism to name but a few. Indeed, too lax an approach to tolerance can lead not only to moral ambivalence, but to licence. As the saying goes, all that is required for evil to thrive is for good people to remain silent - or one might say 'tolerant' - in the face of it. In practice, of course, most people do recognise that there must be thresholds to tolerance. At the time of the Spanish Civil war a Republican poster depicted a young child killed by Fascists under a sky of bombers with the stark heading, “If you tolerate this, your children will be next” (a slogan later appropriated in a hit song by the Manic Street Preachers). In due course, the Allies collectively decided that the actions of Hitler were 'intolerable', and refused to appease Nazism. Today, one must surely say that terrorist attacks on innocent civilians are intolerable, and that measures should be taken to prevent them.
The problem with tolerance, however, is that its application is not always so clear-cut; indeed, in an increasingly pluralistic world, it has become more contentious and paradoxical than ever. While both western and non-western nations become more tolerant of sexual permissiveness, they move to ban smoking in all public places. While sentencing becomes more lenient, ordinary street crime is addressed though ‘zero tolerance’ policing. In this morally confused climate, Christians can often struggle. Many find it difficult to ‘tolerate’ abortion on the grounds that one should not tolerate murder, yet reject the confrontational tactics used by more extreme pro-life campaigners to save the lives of unborn children. Others cannot ‘tolerate’ homosexual practice yet have no wish to harass lesbians and gay men, or to repeal laws allowing them to form civil partnerships. Then again, Christians themselves can face state-sponsored intolerance of their own convictions, through ‘equality’ or ‘hate speech’ legislation which effectively brands them 'bigots', 'fundamentalists' or 'homophobes' simply for expressing classical Christian morality, or which associates any distinctive claim to truth they might make with ‘religious discrimination’. As Samuel Taylor Coleridge once observed, gross intolerance can be shown in support of tolerance.
Biblical Pointers to Tolerance
As such examples show, relying on any supposedly ‘natural’ or ‘common’ sense of what tolerance means can be misleading. So what pointers does the Bible provide on this vexed subject? I would like to suggest five.
i) The Image of God in Humanity: Genesis 1:26-7
The picture of human beings made in God's image in Genesis 1:26-7 suggests that every person is worthy of dignity, even if they do not yet recognise their true creator. As John Stott observes, the fact that the divine image is expressed in both male and female, and that they are made for relationship, also enshrines principles of mutual society which underlie ‘the right to peaceful assembly, and the right to receive respect’ – rights due to all people regardless of age, sex, class or religion.
ii) The Impartiality of God: Luke 10:25-37; Acts 10:34-5; James 2:1-9
The imperative of religious toleration can also be inferred from the core biblical principle that God ‘shows no partiality’ (Acts 10:34). One of the starkest examples of this principle is the Parable of the Good Samaritan, in which a marginalised heretic demonstrates divine grace more effectively than a doctrinally upright Priest and Levite. James reinforces the principle when he insists that that partiality and prejudice constitute a grave sin.
iii) The Golden Rule: Matthew 22:35-40
When Jesus tells a legal expert in Mark 12:28-31 and Matthew 22:35-40 that the Law and the Prophets hang on the command of Deuteronomy 6:4-5 to love God, and on the injunction of Leviticus 19:18 to love one's neighbour as oneself, tolerance is surely part of what he requires. Indeed, if the Good Samaritan is the model of the neighbour (Luke 10:29), then George Gatgounis is right to suggest that ‘everyone has the right to be treated according to the principle of love’ - that ‘everyone has the right to be treated well.' Clearly, love must ultimately require much more than merely ‘putting up with’ another, which is something we tend to do for our own sake rather than theirs; yet it may well be a first step towards fulfilment of Jesus’ core ethic.
iv) Self-Sacrifice for Others: Mark 10:45 and Romans 14:1-23
Just as Jesus ‘gave his life as a ransom for many’ on the cross, so his gospel entails a life of self-sacrifice in which the needs of others come before the assertion of one’s own individual rights. What we call tolerance is at least a reflection of this. Indeed, perhaps the clearest precedent for modern-day religious tolerance in the New Testament is Paul’s instruction to bear with those of weaker conscience in the matter of diet, and of food sacrificed to idols in particular (Rom. 14:1-23, cf. 1 Cor. 8:1-13; 10:14-33). While ‘everything is clean’ on the basis of Christ’s once-for-sacrifice and his elimination of Jew-Gentile enmity, we should not consume or do anything which might make others stumble (Rom 14:21).
v) Humility with Respect to the Truth: Isaiah 55:9 and John 16:13
While Jesus is ‘the way, the truth and the life’ (John 14:6), our capacity to grasp the immensity of God and God’s Word are limited by our sin, and by the fact that the truth has yet to be fully disclosed to us by the Spirit, who is leading us ‘into all truth’ (John 16:13). God’s ways are thoughts are thus higher than our own (Isa. 55:9). This should encourage us to articulate our faith boldly, but with a humility which recognises that our grasp of the truth is fallible and partial – that for the moment at least, we ‘see through a glass darkly’ (1 Cor. 13:12).
As we have seen, tolerance is an important moral precept, and is aligned with some key biblical teaching. But in and of itself, it will only get us so far in our discipleship and witness. Simply tolerating other groups and worldviews might not cost us a great deal. It might allows us to function in our own sphere without doing much more than acknowledging those who differ from us and letting them ‘do their own thing’ without interference. This is an increasingly common creed today, but it is a pretty thin basis for building community. As Christians we are called to go further than this - to engage those outside our own small worlds as neighbours, as fellow human beings made in the image of God, whom God loves as he loves us. A crucial aspect of loving our neighbour as ourselves will undoubtedly be sharing the story of how God has transformed us through his Son. But we should not expect to use this testimony as a weapon against anyone who fails to accept its message. Indeed, it is of the essence of true Christian tolerance that we express our convictions in a context which allows others freely to express theirs, and which enables us to persuade them by gracious words and deeds rather than by force of law or arms.
 John Stott, Issues Facing Christians Today (Basingstoke: Marshalls, 1984), 144-5.
 George Gatgounis, 'Human Rights - A Biblical Notion?' (Rutherford Institute Paper, 1995), 1.