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Volume 14, Issue 5: Tohu

(In)tolerance

Jared Miller

The doctrine of tolerance in the secular world has become nothing less than a replacement of the doctrine of the Trinity. According to the UNESCO "Declaration of Principles of Tolerance," tolerance is "harmony in difference." It is not surprising that such a doctrine has surfaced outside Christianity; the declaration wisely observes the necessity of harmonizing the one and the many: "Without tolerance there can be no peace." The document defines tolerance as "the respect, acceptance, and appreciation of diversity of culture, forms of expression, and ways of being human." It is a universal, absolute "moral duty" and "political and legal requirement," but it also has very clear limits. Tolerance is not "concession, condescension, or indulgence," or the weakening or abandonment of convictions and cannot be used to allow infringement of basic human rights or "social injustice." (Article 29 of the UN's "Universal Declaration of Human Rights" states that "These rights and freedoms may in no case be exercised contrary to the purposes and principles of the United Nations.") Tolerance "rejects dogmatism and absolutism." It is "a responsibility that upholds human rights, pluralism, democracy, and the rule of law."

Note the key undefined terms: rights, injustice, and law. Obviously—as even the secular world recognizes—any appeal to bare "tolerance" is an empty one. Tolerance alone as universal ethical code is incomplete; everyone tolerates some things and refuses to tolerate others. Beneath tolerance there is a silent substratum of law by which this decision is made, because law is inescapable and law always creates the acceptance of one thing and the rejection of another. Thus the tolerance of our age is nothing new to mankind; it is only that we have found wider agreement on the meta-ideology that controls the standards of tolerance among what must necessarily become second-order ideologies.
The language of (in)tolerance is ultimately neither useful nor clear. It assumes a universal, shared standard that transcends all worldviews. At best, it just pushes the debate back one step further from whether one should tolerate to what one should tolerate. At worst, it hides behind a false shield of noncommittal objectivity and neutrality, being dogmatic and absolutist while claiming not to be. Can a "universal" declaration of human rights be neither dogmatic nor absolutist? An ultimate appeals court for all conflicts is inescapable. Of course, the goal of tolerance is admirable—peace and harmony and the balance of unity and diversity. But again, to protect peace and unity, tolerance must be limited according to law, and the nature of that law is the issue really under debate.
Christians have recourse in the doctrine of the Trinity, which affirms that peaceful, diverse plurality is desirable—a true harmony of differences that is made possible by knowledge, love, authority, and submission in the context of a covenant. Peace is not possible among diverse beings unless they agree to submit to a shared standard—that is, unless they cut a covenant. For both the Godhead and the creature, the standard is God Himself. Within the covenant of Christ, both unity and diversity are desirable and necessary (1 Cor. 12), and we obtain peace and likemindedness by submission to Christ.
The principles and procedures of tolerance change according to the boundaries of the covenant, but generally speaking, it is equivalent to the command of love; and love by doing no harm to its object is equivalent to law-keeping. Christian tolerance, then, is patient, longsuffering, and sacrificial effort toward unity with those in Christ, and peaceful, lawful behavior toward those outside of Christ. Within the covenant, tolerance means that we cover a multitude of sins, and that when we cannot cover a certain sin, we still behave with grace, fear, humility, and fair procedure. We also cover the majority of our differing opinions with love. Notice how Paul in Romans 14 can love the "weaker brother" while not hesitating to point out his weakness. As long as those opinions do not pervert the gospel itself (Gal. 1:8). We are not to tolerate divisiveness, immorality, false teaching, and the "works of darkness" (Rom. 16:17, 1 Cor. 5:9-13, Rev. 2:14-15, Eph. 5:11), but even Christian "intolerance" (in the form of church discipline), works with love, order, and hope of restoration, never with pride or malice.
To those outside the covenant, even those who hate us, we are to show love (Mt. 5:44, Rom. 12:14-20), while at the same time testifying against their sin—with gracious speech that has a kick (Col. 4:5-6). We should strive to live peaceably with everyone (Rom. 12:18); violence of any description in the name of Christ that is not in defense of oneself or another is an abomination. The government of the Church has no judicial authority over unbelievers (1 Cor. 5:12-13), and in that sense is called to tolerate them.
True redemption is not imposed in a bureaucratic, top-down manner, and unbelievers who fear persecution and widespread "intolerance" if the Church triumphs do not understand the nature of that triumph. Law and government will be redeemed and reformed in submission to God, but only after the citizens have already been so redeemed. Drawn to the beauty and truth of redemption (Is. 2:2-3, 60:3; Mic. 4:2), the nations submit with joy, and the will of the people will coincide with the will of God. Humanists can hardly have an objection to such a postmillennial State—it is impeccably democratic.

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