They Say Christians are Intolerant
The world says Christians are intolerant. What most people mean when they call Christians intolerant is that they want Christians to validate their worldview. They want Christians to be pluralistic, believing that all worldviews are equally true. People accuse Christians of bigotry because Christians believe that Jesus is the, ‘…way and the truth and the life and no one comes to the Father, but through…’ Jesus (John 14:6).
It’s hard, because if you are going to define tolerance that way, then there is no way to be tolerant and be Christian.
So, my question is this:
Is there a way for Christians to engage the culture around us without giving up what makes us distinctly Christian and in a way that allows us a hearing with the culture around us?
I believe there is. I believe we can validate the humanity of unChristian people around us; we can love them as real human beings, even if there is a stark contrast in the way they see the world: even if there is a great disagreement on what constitutes right and wrong.
You know, we often see Jesus confronting the culture head-on. That’s because Jesus was addressing Hebrew people who shared the same view of God and God’s standards of morality as Christian people. Christians in the United States were able to model their outreach after Jesus for centuries because the culture of the Unites States was essentially Christian. Even non-Churchgoers shared what we call the Judeo-Christian worldview.
But, that’s not true today. There are countless worldviews. People have all sorts of different ways of seeing life, the world, morality, and so one.
So we look to Paul, who was the Apostle to the unChristian people of his day–we call them the Gentiles. Paul takes a wholly different approach because Paul was living among people who had a completely different worldview than he did.
So, Paul’s approach makes sense for us in a post-Christian culture. Today we will look to Paul as we explore…
…3 Strategies that will help you to be ‘tolerant’ of people who have different moral values than you without giving up what makes you distinctly Christian.
The first strategy is…
Don’t Rock the Boat
I want to be careful here. I don’t want to say that Christians should become sheep in wolves clothing so that we can roam among the wolves.
Too many Christians maintain a good and kind persona at work or school, or in public or among family members of differing worldviews. That’s fairly easy to do. Everyone likes nice people. But then, sometimes we withdraw from people or situations when we sense that conflict will occur. In other words, we try to represent Christ in action, but we never tell anyone why we act the way we do.
So, when I say, ‘Don’t Rock the Boat,’ I’m not telling you to withdraw from conflict. I’m inviting you to engage conflict. I’m just asking you not to insight unnecessary conflict.
Because, there are Christians on the other end of the spectrum who love conflict. They love to engage the homosexual about their sin. They love to engage the liberal about their views on abortion. They love to engage the political conservatives on their views about the poor. They are looking for a fight.
And in so doing, they lose their ability to witness grace.
You know, the Great Wall of China was built to protect the Chinese people from invaders in Northern countries. The world works very hard to put a great wall between Christians and the rest of the world around us. They don’t mind that we get together to talk about the Bible in churches, but they want us to leave them alone. They want us to stay on our side of the wall.
Well, Jesus called us to get out of the walls and into the world. I guess what I’m saying is this: spreading the good news about Jesus is hard enough when the world is building walls; Christians must not help build the wall by inciting conflict.
To ‘not rock the boat’ is to tolerate whatever issue we take with the world so that we can lead with grace.
That advice might not sit well with you, but in our passage that’s exactly what Paul does. He shows up in the city of Athens, which is like Hollywood for us. I’m going to read from the book of Acts which was written by Luke who was a Doctor and a Historian. We will read from chapter 17, verses 16–34.
Now while Paul was waiting for them at Athens, his spirit was provoked within him as he saw that the city was full of idols. So he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons, and in the marketplace every day with those who happened to be there.
Notice, Paul takes a cue from Jesus here. He goes to the Hebrew people first, the Jews who share his worldview and he openly engages them. He doesn’t pull any punches. He absolutely rocks the boat with them. But, then some people over hear what he’s talking about in the marketplace.
Some of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers also conversed with him. And some said, “What does this babbler wish to say?” Others said, “He seems to be a preacher of foreign divinities”—because he was preaching Jesus and the resurrection.
You know, there was a time in the US where you could refer to Jesus or the resurrection and people would know what you were talking about. But, the idea of resurrection makes Paul sound absolutely nuts to these guys. Their worldview is so different they have no frame of reference to deal with Paul’s words.
And they took him and brought him to the Areopagus, saying, “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? For you bring some strange things to our ears. We wish to know therefore what these things mean.” Now all the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there would spend their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new.
So Paul, standing in the midst of the Areopagus, said: “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious.
In other words, everyone has their own worldview, their own way of relating to other people, their own way of seeking God, their own way of determining right and wrong–and so on and so forth. They all had their own religious preference. Paul says,
For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship…
I want you to notice this. Paul didn’t walk along spitting on the idols and alters of worship to false God’s. Instead, he observed them, he learned about them. He considered them.
I found also an altar with this inscription: ‘To the unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything.
And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him.
Instead of condemning the error of the Athenians, Paul makes an observation that allows him to relate to them. He sees that they worship an ‘unknown God.’ In other words, the Athenians knew there was a God who was so transcendent, he was beyond their knowledge and understanding. They knew nothing of Him, but they didn’t want to leave Him out of their worship rituals, because it seemed obvious that He existed.
So Paul says, I worship that God. I know stuff about Him that you don’t know. I know that he created everything and that He rules as Lord over everything. I know that He is so self-sufficient that he doesn’t need anything from humankind. And this God created all people and spread them over the earth in different places.
Paul has said nothing that they can’t agree with. They knew the ‘unknown God’ was beyond their comprehension, that He was supreme. They probably liked this part of Paul’s talk.
Paul goes on to say that God put all people in their countries, cities, neighborhoods for a very specific purpose. And that purpose was that they might look for God and find their way to Him. In other words, Paul tells them that the unknown God can be known. That the God who presides over all gods as King of Kings and Lord of Lords can in fact be known by common people.
They probably liked that idea. It’s what virtually everyone is looking for, whether they realize it or not.
And not only can people know God, but Paul says…
Yet he is actually not far from each one of us, for “ ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, “ ‘For we are indeed his offspring.’
I hate to be crass here, but Paul doesn’t lead with, ‘Do you know Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior,’ or ‘You’re a sinner and you need to repent, because you’re going to hell,’ or ‘If you die today do you know what will happen to your soul?’ And he doesn’t close with, ‘Would you like to say the sinners prayer?’
Why not? Isn’t that how you tell people about Jesus?
Well, no. Not in this case. They had no frame of reference. Listen, some of you are still confused about exactly what sin means, so I guarantee you that the people out there in our communities have no idea whatsoever.
They don’t know what sin or sinner means. They don’t want a Lord and they don’t know they need a savior. They don’t know what repent means, and if you explain it, they don’t see the need to change their lives or to rethink their worldviews.
Most people have never considered whether or not they have a soul–or even what a soul is. And they certainly are not concerned with whether or not their soul is eternal, or whether or not their soul is going to heaven or hell.
They have probably never even considered whether or not they think there is a heaven or hell. And if they have, they have no idea what heaven or hell even is–except what they have learned from cartoons.
Paul simply tells them that there is a God over all, who is genuinely concerned about knowing them. And because of that, God is not far from their knowing. In fact, Paul says, all people are God’s offspring. He says…
Being then God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of man. The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”
I want you to notice something. This is Paul’s Gospel presentation. He doesn’t say that Jesus died. He doesn’t go to any length to explain sin or tie sin to spiritual death or to explain the atonement that took place at Jesus’ death.
I’m not saying that’s not important. I’m just saying that’s not the most important thing. Paul is presenting truth, but he is being careful not to Rock the Boat. He’s making sure that he gets through his message before he says anything that might turn people away.
The key to Paul’s message is this, “He commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world.” When Paul says repent, he doesn’t mean that you stop sinning. I know most have you have been taught that whenever the Bible says, ‘repent’ that means that you have to stop sinning in every area of your life.
And I’m not saying you should tolerate your sin in your own life. I’m not saying you shouldn’t repent of your own sins. I’m just trying to teach you how to read the Bible. You have to consider the words in context.
So, what does Paul mean by repent when he says it here?
Well, repent means to turn around. It means don’t look this way, look that way. It means stop looking at the world in this way and start looking at the world in that way. So looking at the context, it’s pretty obvious to me that Paul wanted the Athenians to repent by taking their focus off of their countless gods, their idols, and putting their focus on the God they did not know, the unknown God–the one true God!
In other words, he wanted to them to stop worshiping idols and start worshipping Jesus.
That’t it. That’s Paul’s Gospel presentation.
So, how did Paul’s Gospel presentation go?
Now when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked. But others said, “We will hear you again about this.” So Paul went out from their midst. But some men joined him and believed, among whom also were Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris and others with them.
Some people thought he was a moron and they mocked him. Others were intrigued. And some believed. I guess what I’m asking you to do is to talk to people about real things, true things, eternal things. Find things you agree on and start there like Paul. Get a hearing before you ask someone to change something huge about the way they live, think, or feel.
Overlook their sin and befriend them before you challenge them to turn their eyes to Christ. Don’t lead with the sin you want to see them change; lead with the grace offered through Jesus.
Some people are going to respond really well. Others are going to reject you for it. Just don’t let them reject you before you offer them grace and forgiveness.
Rejection is OK. God is the one who brings in the harvest. People rejected Paul. Some people will reject you. And that’s hard, but sometimes you have to…
Roll With the Punches
You just can’t keep everyone happy, and that’s OK. In fact, if you don’t have people unhappy with you because of your beliefs, you might be too tolerant. You might be far too happy staying on your side of the wall that the culture has built around you, never having to speak of spiritual or moral things in public so that you can avoid the conflict.
This might be a good time to deal with this.
What exactly is tolerance anyway?
The definition of tolerance is:
To accept or endure someone or something unpleasant or disliked with patience and self-control.
The culture wants us to validate their worldview, to be pluralistic. We can’t do that. But, we can endure our differences with the culture with patience and self-control. We can be tolerant in this way.
You know, if Paul had come into the Areopagus shouting about how the Athenians were all idolaters and they were all going to be locked up in Hell or Hades, we might call that righteous indignation. But, it’s not tolerant. That behavior could not be described as accepting or enduring the unpleasant worldview of the Athenians.
Some Christians want to condemn others for their brokenness and unfaithfulness rather than observe and listen and find a way to clearly communicate grace to them. I know most of you would never go to a gay pride parade to yell at gay people about repentance. But, I would wager that at least a few of you say a quiet amen when you hear about those kind of stories.
Friends condemnation is Jesus’ job when the Day of the Lord comes. This kind of bigotry is why the culture calls Christians intolerant. They don’t call us intolerant for being kind and gracious and patient as we share our worldviews with them.
It’s the reason the wall keeps getting bigger between the church and the culture. We choose judgmental methods to communicate truth instead of loving ways to communicate grace and the wall gets taller and wider.
There has been a pattern of Christians attending gay pride parades, not to picket and yell, but to apologize for the ignorance of certain groups in the church. They are choosing to relate to the people there like Paul at the Areopagus. They are leading with grace.
You see, that’s the pattern of the New Testament; that’s the pattern of Jesus’ teaching. Jesus said if someone tries to rob you of your jacket, offer them your shirt too. He said to pray for those who persecute you. He said we ought to show love to our enemies. And because that’s what Jesus said to do, Paul takes this very seriously.
Sometimes though, even if you aren’t looking for a fight, a fight might be looking for you. We can work real hard not to rock the boat, but sometimes the boat rocks and we need to roll with the punches.
So, not long after Paul was in Athens at the Areopagus, he was in Ephesus where the temple to Artimis is. This is Acts 19. And he’s telling people about Jesus and something happens that Paul could have never foreseen.
He’s patiently preaching grace and so many people are becoming Christians and following Jesus–they are doing exactly what Paul told the Athenians to do, to stop following their gods and start looking to Jesus–so many people are doing this that–get this!–a silver worker starts to get upset because he isn’t selling very many idols.
Who could have ever seen that coming?!
So many people started following Jesus that the silver workers job was in jeopardy. So this silver worker starts to insight a riot. He grabs his silver working buddies and they go drag some of the Christians into the theater to kill them. For hours people are yelling, ‘Great is Artimis of the Ephesians!’ and the town clerk shows up and is trying to get control of the crowds. It’s complete chaos.
And there’s this problem. The clerk is really nervous because Ephesus was under Roman rule at the time and rioting was illegal in Rome. So the clerk is afraid that the people in the town are going to start killing Christians and then Roman guards will have to come and occupy the city and it will be a nightmare for everyone.
So the clerk finally gets the crowds settled and he tells them they all need to go home. He tells the silversmith to take Paul to court to see a judge if he has a problem and to stop with the rioting. And they listened.
And this is kind of what I think is happening in the US right now. Law after law is being passed that we sense are a direct response to the witness of the Bible. We have laws on homosexual marriage, abortion, drugs, immigration, all things the Bible speaks to. And we think we are being persecuted because these laws are being passed.
When we feel we are being persecuted by the world, our blood starts to boil and we want to rise up and fight against the culture. But, look what Paul did.
After the uproar ceased, Paul sent for the disciples, and after encouraging them, he said farewell and departed for Macedonia. ~Acts 20:1, ESV
Paul rolled with the punches. He didn’t flee in terror. He didn’t stay and fight. He stayed to make sure the disciples there were good. He gave them some encouragement and teaching. But, then he picks up and moves on to see what God has in store for him next.
So, is there a way for Christians to engage the culture around us without giving up what makes us distinctly Christian and in a way that allows us a hearing with the culture around us?
Obviously, yes. Don’t rock the boat–which means lead with grace. And learn to roll with the punches–which means don’t fight against rejection and persecution–and you will do well. Then my final strategy for you as we address this issue of Christians being intolerant is this: Sometimes you just need to…
Walk a Mile In Someone Else’s Shoes
Like seriously, walk with them. Or better, walk for them.
You know, I get it. If you don’t like the way the world works, it seems best to separate from the world. It seems best to go off in your own corner by yourself. It seems best to take the wall that the culture has been building and celebrate it by building the wall higher and wider so that we don’t have to associate with the culture around us.
By the way, that’s the thinking that got us monks.
That’s not the pattern we see in scripture, though. There’s a few texts on this, but I want to show you my favorite one. The Old Testament preacher, Jeremiah, said this to the Israelites when they were taken away from their cities into exile in Babylon:
Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.
For thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Do not let your prophets and your diviners who are among you deceive you, and do not listen to the dreams that they dream, for it is a lie that they are prophesying to you in my name; I did not send them, declares the Lord. ~Jeremiah 29:5–9, ESV
The first thing you will notice is that there seemed to be this desire to go back home to Israel. Which is obviously true. But, Jeremiah knows that’s not going to happen. So he says to them, settle in among these people and stay awhile. Plant a garden here. Raise a family.
And not only that, get involved in the culture around you–I know they’re so different and it’s hard to understand their way of life–but get involved! Seek the welfare of these people and even you will prosper.
They wanted to leave, but Jeremiah says, no you can’t leave, and you won’t leave so get involved in doing the best you can here and now.
And, it was hard, because there were false prophets who were saying that the time of exile would be short, that God would move them back to Israel soon, so don’t get too comfortable.
And I think sometimes the church gets caught up in this kind of thinking. We think that the culture around us is hopeless and that’s OK, because Jesus is returning soon and those people can’t be saved anyway.
Well, I honestly don’t see that the end is coming soon anywhere in scripture. What I see is Jesus saying that no one knows the day or the hour when the Lord will return (Mark 13.32). And I see Paul saying to live peaceably with one another (Romans 12.8). And I see James saying that showing mercy to the culture around you results in mercy. But judging or being intolerant towards the culture around you will result in condemnation. (James 2.13). I see Peter saying that love covers incredible sins (1 Peter 4.8).
And just think about it. Wouldn’t you like Jesus to show up while you are doing whatever good pious Christians do–you know, praying and reading the Bible, or at a church potluck. I actually think that would be a great time for Jesus to return, like maybe right now while we are in church worshipping.
But, there’s one place I think would be better.
Would’t you rather Jesus return when you’re out there in the world sharing grace with someone who doesn’t know Jesus? Wouldn’t that be better?
Or would you like Jesus to show up while you’re condemning someone outside the church for their behavior–maybe outright yelling at them, or maybe just being disgusted in your heart? Maybe feeling like, ‘Man, I’m glad I’m not like them.’?
So don’t be intolerant towards the culture, don’t condemn the people out there. Get out there, live with them, get to know them, walk a mile in their shoes. Plant a garden and settle down with them. Seek their welfare. That means, be a part of their lives. And be a good part.
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