One of the Greatest Challenges to Christian witness and missions
By Steve Cornell
In the very near future, America will cease to be the primary sending nation for Christian missionaries. Already large numbers of missionaries are being sent from places like Latin America, India and South Korea (to name a few). They are even being sent to reach Americans. Why is it that evangelical Churches in America are full (especially in their Mega forms) and yet a steadily decreasing number of Christians answer the call to take the gospel to the ends of the earth? The answer might surprise you. Let me explain.
A major ideological shift: The tyranny of tolerance
In the last twenty to thirty years, we (in the West) have experienced a major ideological shift with regard to religious truth. America, as a free nation, has supported the existence of a diversity of religions. But, with the recent shift, we have moved to a required acknowledgment of the validity of each religion as a truth option. Tolerance, we are told, mandates this outlook on religious beliefs. And, in the new system, no exceptions to tolerance will be tolerated.
Tolerance is considered the peacekeeping virtue of a pluralistic society. It is the primary quality for maintaining pluralistic civility. Yet while peace and respect for diversity are important, gaining them through socially imposed tolerance is misguided and dangerous. It is also a departure from the proper understanding of tolerance itself.
The true virtue of tolerance is unnecessary when people surrender or silence commitments to real differences. Tolerance only becomes a functional virtue when two people or groups of people strongly disagree and yet treat each other with respect. Where disagreements either do not exist or do not matter, there is no need for tolerance.
Ironically, the tolerance being required today is a form of intolerance. It requires people to keep their differences to themselves. It promotes a monolithic culture—where everyone is increasingly forced to conceal the multi-cultural dimensions of society. What we end up with is diversity we can’t talk about lest we offend those who disagree. An entire generation of Americans have been socially conditioned under the tyranny of tolerance.
Pressure on religious communities:
In the cause of promoting and protecting pluralistic civility, social pressure is particularly placed on religious communities to de-emphasize all positions that could be perceived as claims to superiority among the religions of the world. Under the tyrannical rule of the twisted version of tolerance, people have been conditioned to be deeply suspicious of attempts to privilege one religious tradition or teaching as normative for all. If a religious tradition claims to have special access to truth about God, it is considered intolerant no matter how respectfully it relates to others. Absolute religious and moral opinions are considered potential threats to pluralistic civility.
Division of truth: Personal and public
Social conditioning based on radical tolerance is strengthened by the division of truth into personal and public categories. Moral and religious opinions are widely viewed as matters of personal taste like preferences for chocolate over vanilla. Media and academic elite (the primary means for social conditioning) have tried to persuade the public that moral and religious opinions (unlike scientific facts) are merely personal matters we should keep to ourselves. An unsuspecting public has been taught to marginalize and trivialize religion and morality into a private sphere irrelevant to life in the real world.
Public education: learning environments for the tyranny of tolerance
Participants in public learning institutions face an imposed rule of tolerance that requires acceptance and celebration of each person’s moral and religious beliefs and practices. In his extensive research concerning the thinking and beliefs of American teenagers, Professor Christian Smith suggested that among today’s young students, “The strategy for dealing with religious and moral disagreement is: ‘You don’t go there’” (Soul Searching). To avoid hurt feelings or unnecessary conflict, young people have learned to avoid particulars and absolutes and talk about everything in strictly non-offensive ways. This is the safer option if they wish to be accepted rather than ostracized.
This social conditioning has produced in our young people (and in many adults) in our churches an in-articulacy with regard to the faith. A learned capacity to talk about differences becomes unnecessary in a society that asks us to avoid speaking in particular or absolute categories. As a result, large numbers of people are not only unable to articulate what they believe and why they believe it, they are guarded against beliefs that are too particular or in any way exclude or offend the beliefs of others. Even if they actually hold to particular moral or religious beliefs, they have learned to suspend their commitment to them in most social circumstances. And, since they have been taught that moral and religious opinions are merely matters of personal taste, why stir things up over such matters? You don’t go there.
Exceptions to the rule of tolerance:
Exceptions to this rule of tolerance are found in areas where society decides acceptable views for everyone. The primary tools of influence on these matters come through the media and academia. Elitists in these fields pressure others to see things their way or face ridicule and condescension. Uniformity of opinion is required for all who wish to be considered open-minded and progressive. Those who see things differently will be labeled (among other things) narrow, backwards and right-wing conservatives. For examples, homosexual lifestyles and gay marriage must be considered acceptable. Abortion is a fundamental right and not the taking of innocent life. All religions lead to God in their own way and the value of religion is found not in its truthfulness but in the benefit it brings to adherents. As long as you are sincere in your efforts to serve God, it doesn’t matter what religion you follow. Conversely, one must never publically refer to what the bible teaches—outside of Church at least. Those who are brave enough to do this should expect to hear collective groans and sighs about the presence of “one of those radical Christians.”
No need for evangelism or apologetics classes:
Under this kind of social conditioning, it becomes unnecessary to be trained in moral argument or to learn how to constructively engage someone in a discussion about different beliefs. Young people in particular might question the value of such training. Why talk about things that could be perceived exclusive or violations of pluralistic civility. Some might even suspect hidden imperialistic agendas designed to oppress a minority group or to impose your politics on others. Let’s not go there. A growing number of people actually feel that there is something morally repugnant about followers of one religion maintaining that they are correct in their beliefs and that sincere adherents of other religions are mistaken in what they believe. Most college students, for example, accept the idea of some creative force behind the existence of the universe. “What is a debated topic is how you move from this rather impersonal force to the beliefs of a particular religious tradition, and especially whether in affirming the truth-reliability of one path, you must stand against the truth-reliability of all other paths.” (Professor Daniel Liechty, Illinois State University).
The new tension is not about belief in God but whether or not it is “safe” to believe in one absolute deity. The tyranny of tolerance has scared people into postures of neutrality. It feels safer to choose not to believe anything too conclusively but to hold all beliefs in their broadest terms. The by-product is a culture that has lost its ability to think, discuss and debate. “Whatever” has become the common response to differences on morality and religion. In this environment, it becomes increasingly hard to train people to share and defend their faith.
A new social etiquette
Social etiquette requires acknowledgement of the independent validity of every faith. Those who attempt to convert people to their religious beliefs are viewed as religious chauvinists. It’s not enough to maintain (as we should) that each person is free to follow and express his or her own religion. Now we must treat each religious belief as equally valid and abandon, as unacceptably arrogant, any attempt to convert others to a different religious opinion. Strangely, this approach “… forecloses on open-mindedness in the same breath by which it extols the virtues of open-mindedness. Both the irony and tragedy of this fierce intolerance stem from the fact that it is done in the name of tolerance” (D. A. Carson, God and Culture). The new mantra is: “No exceptions to tolerance will be tolerated”.
Effect on Christian witness and missions
Should we be surprised that Christians with a missionary faith feel intimidated by this attitude? How can they obey Jesus’ call to, “go and make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19), without being considered rude and intrusive? Under the tyranny of tolerance, how should we think about Jesus statement, “I am the way, the truth and the life. No man comes to the father but through me” (John 14:6)? Should we change Jesus’ words and make him say, “I am a way, a truth, and a life. People can come to the father through me or any other means they desire.”
It’s tempting to feel marginalized by the selective tolerance of our culture. The primary object of intolerance is Christianity. Islam doesn’t receive the same level of ridicule and hostility. Professors who openly mock Christianity wouldn’t dare attack the Islamic faith in university classrooms. But like the first followers of Christ, we must not compromise the message of salvation. In a fiercely pluralistic and polytheistic Roman society, the early apostles testified of Jesus that, “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). They did not offer this as a personal opinion among many equally valid options. This was proclaimed as a fact of prophecy and history.
When Jesus described his true disciples in the beatitudes (see Matthew 5:10-16), he included persecution as distinguishing mark (cf. John 15:20). Persecuted people live provokingly different lifestyles in the world. They are true difference-makers and Jesus picks up on this when he reminds his disciples that they are the salt of the earth and the light of the world. He also cautioned them not to follow the temptation to dilute the salt or hide the light. The followers of Jesus must be like well-lit cities on a hill that cannot be hidden. We must capture strategic places of influence for Jesus and not allow ourselves to be marginalized by the pressures of selective intolerance.
Witness with wisdom and grace:
Considering the atmosphere I have described, Christian witness should be offered with wisdom and grace. Scripture that is particularly applicable exhorts us to, “Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; make the most of every opportunity. Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone” (Colossians 4:5-6). Given the prevailing distortions of tolerance and the misdirected attitude toward religious beliefs, it is also wise to emphasize the inclusive parts of our message. The good news of salvation is meant for all people. At least seven truths related to the gospel apply to all people – without exception.
1. God has demonstrated his love for all people (John 3:16).
2. God desires the salvation of all people (I Timothy 2:3-4).
3. God has made provision for the salvation of all people (I John 2:2).
4. God commands all people to repent (Acts 17:30).
5. God will hold all people accountable for their response (Acts 17:31).
6. God takes no pleasure in anyone’s rejection of his provision (Ezekiel 18:23,32).
7. God will save all people who place faith in the Lord Jesus Christ (John 3:16).
Questions for discussion:
1. What are the long-term affects for those who spend large amounts of time in environments where they learn to avoid talking about particulars and absolutes?
2. Would a learned ability to suspend commitment to one’s belief lead to moral compromise in similar circumstances?
3. How can churches address these matters and the issue of inarticulacy regarding the faith?
4. How does Christian teaching that all people are created equal in the image of God serve as the only reliable basis for true tolerance?
5. Does tolerance ask too little of people?
6. Would it be better to use the word respect instead of the term tolerance? If so, Why?
7. How would a call to radical neighbor love over tolerance be more socially transformative from a Christian perspective?
8. How do the salt and light metaphors relate to the roles of Jesus’ followers in the world?
Millersville Bible Church
Millersville PA. 17551