Is Tolerance Christian?

I want to believe that Christians should promote religious tolerance, but I am unable to justify why we as Christians should, and that this would be truly Christian to promote religious tolerance.

If you know of any good resources, please let me know.

Asked By: 
Through a Wesleyan Lens

I applaud you in your belief that Christians should promote religious tolerance. I think that this is one of the most important issues of our day, and Christians should be in the forefront.

Whenever I consider what I as a Christian should do, I use the Wesleyan quadrilateral, which I learned about during my brief time teaching at a United Methodist seminary. The Wesleyan quadrilateral says that there are four factors to weigh whenever Christians are deciding what to do: scripture, reason, experience, and tradition. (Here is a good, brief discussion of the quadrilateral by a United Methodist theologian.)

1. Scripture: The Bible has been understood in ways that promoted religious INtolerance. As the Hebrews moved into the promised land, they were instructed to kill those who worshiped other gods (Exod 22:20 and other places), as Elijah did to the prophets of Baal at Mount Carmel (1 Kings 18:40). And Jesus' saying, "I am the way" (John 14:6) and other similar passages in the New Testament (e.g. Acts 4:12; Phil 2:9-11) have often led Christians to be intolerant. Yet the Bible can also be understood in a way that promotes religious tolerance and cooperation. Jesus gives the love commandment, directed both to neighbors (Mark 12:31 and parallels, quoting from Lev 19:18) and to enemies (Matt 5:44). Jesus also says, "Blessed are the peacemakers" (Matt 5:9). In our pluralistic world today, our "neighbors" are often those who worship differently than we do. Our "enemies," especially those identified as our "national enemies," often call on a different god than we do. If we are going to love these people and make peace with them, then we must honor their religious commitments (or lack of them), even when we disagree with them. Religion has always been an important factor in both war and peace, even more so in our post-9/11 world. It is important that we understand the faith commitments of various Christians, Muslims, Jews, Buddhists and others, as well as those who hold no religious commitments. 

2. Reason: Certainly one uses reason in interpreting scripture, so each element in the Wesleyan quadrilateral is inseparable from the others. Some Christian theologians speak about the "cosmic Christ," which is present in all religions and ethical systems. Some have argued that in our pluralistic world the body of Christ (1 Cor 12) consists of members of various religious traditions. British theologian John Hick has a book entitled God Has Many Names (Westminster John Knox, 1980). It is often said that a person who knows only one religion knows none!  I have been greatly enriched as a Christian by dialogue with--and even worship alongside--folks of different faiths. Now I'm getting into the experience aspect.

3. Experience: In my congregation I help teach the middle school youth, and a couple of years ago we devoted the year to studying various religious traditions. I remember the field trips to Catholic, Buddhist, Muslim, and Jewish houses of worship. I learned much from these visits, as did the youth.

4. Tradition: For most of its history, the church has not had a good record of tolerating other religions. Yet as our world has become more pluralistic, that situation is changing. Over the last several years many Christians have participated in, and taken leadership roles in, interfaith dialogue groups, such as the Interfaith Conference of Metropolitan Washington in my city. There are such groups all over the country. And many churches have worked with various faith groups in order to understand them better and to contribute to the common good in their communities.

That's a rather long answer, but it's a topic about which I felt passionate. Peace to you in your journey in religious tolerance!

Want to learn more? Get started with Bible study here. Appreciate these answers? Help us continue by donating here

Author: Michael Willett Newheart
It's About Choosing Freely

Christians are supposed to believe that only God can convict someone of the validity of the Gospel and move them to faith.  Authentic faith can't be coerced.  People can't be frightened by us into faith or pushed into it by societal forces.  Societies need rules to regulate behavior, but such rules must also provide for the flexibility that recognizes and respects the God-given role we have as decision-makers, and beings intended to develop our own sense of right and wrong.

Also, we need to distinguish between theocratic societies, the sort of society that ancient Israel is exhorted to become in the Old Testament, and more pluralistic societies in which a variety of religious stances are legitimated, and no one faith-stance is "official" or State-sponsored (the sort of society that the United States was set up to be).

Indeed, if we really believe that God must convict human hearts to embrace the Gospel, and that only a fully volitional response is a valid one, then we must advocate a society in which people can consider the Gospel and *choose* freely (and without coercion or social penalty) whether to accept or reject it, whether to embrace the Gospel or to take up some other stance or religion.  That is, there is a strong theological rationale that I would say *requires* us to prefer this sort of society.  It is necessary to grant a "space" in which to dissent from the Gospel in order to have the "space" in which authentic faith is possible. 

So, I would say that Christians are actually bound to support the right to dissent from the Gospel, to embrace any or no faith freely, precisely in order to avoid interfering with people having the freedom that God wills for them to have in considering the Gospel.  We must not get in God's way!

Such a society doesn't mean, however, that we advocate any or all stances. In a genuinely free and plural society, various political points of view should be put forcefully, and various religious stances advocated, including exclusivist ones such as the Christian Gospel.  We need not become Vendantic Hindus or Sufis (who tend to ignore the distinctives of various relgions). Instead, only the exclusivist can show genuine patience and tolerance for those of other views and commitments.

The true Christian basis for tolerance is not apathy or soft-hearted liberalism, but instead a profoundly theological one: People must have the space/opportunity to accept or reject the Gospel freely for true faith to be exercised by anyone.

Author: Larry W. Hurtado
It's Simple

The simplest answer is probably at the same time the best:

"Love your neighbor as yourself."

Need anything more be said?

Christian Inclusivism

“Christianity and Religious Tolerance.”  A prickly question!  The best and—to me—most persuasive essay on that topic that I remember reading, was written by a Roman Catholic theologian in the Boston area, whose name I have unfortunately forgotten, but the substance of whose essay I will try to convey here.


There are basically three different positions held by Christians on the question of Christianity and religious tolerance. The first is call “Christian exclusivism.”  It says, basically, that we know what the Christian requirements for salvation are, whether a certain kind of faith, or certain kinds of works, or a combination of the two.  Further, we know that everyone who fulfills those requirements will go to heaven, and that everyone else will go to hell.  Pretty simple.

The second position is called “religious pluralism.”  The best formulation of this position is a brief passage in the Indian scripture called the Rig Veda, and it goes something like this: God, or the Divine, or the Ultimate, is One, but is called by many names.  But since there is only One Ultimate Divine God, all those names can refer only to that One-and-the-Same Ultimate Divine God.  Consequently it really doesn’t matter which name you apply to, or how you approach, that One Ultimate Divine God.  Just as any point on the circumference is equidistant from the center of a circle, or just as “all roads lead to Rome,” so any radius or path you take can only lead you to that One Ultimate Divine God.  Again, pretty simple.

But my own preference is for a third position, called “Christian inclusivism.”  Indeed, according to John 14:6, Jesus said to his disciples, “I am the way, the truth, and the light.  No one comes to the Father except by me.”  This I too believe, as long as we are just talking about the path from us to God.  But whoever said the way between us and God was a one-way street?  For we also believe that, long before we ever thought about going to God, God came and still comes to us; that God now comes to us in Jesus Christ; and that God’s presence with us in Christ now has the dual form of his Word and his Spirit.

Many years ago, some of us discussed the question of whether God’s Holy Spirit was present not only inside the Church but also outside the Church.  We looked at distant places on the globe, and decided that many peoples, although they had never heard of Jesus Christ, were nevertheless doing what the Gospel required.  And they were doing it in a way that we could explain to ourselves only by concluding that God’s Holy Spirit was present and active also with them.  This gave us the courage to go back and look again at our New Testament, where we discovered that the risen Christ is Lord not only over the Christian Church but over the whole world.  What a revelation!

So now whenever I am with our non-Christian brothers and sisters, I do my best to regard and treat them as what they really are, that is, as people whom—whether they know it or not— God loves just as much as he loves me.  After all, don’t we read in that same Gospel of John (3:16) that “God so loved the whole world that he gave his only son”?  This too I believe.  So let’s go with that!


The Bible has Mixed Perspectives

The words “tolerance” and “inclusion” are often not as clear as we might hope, but if one wants to look for biblical perspectives, it is probably best to note that they are mixed. It is sometimes assumed that the Old Testament represents an exclusive Israelite view and the New Testament an inclusive view that welcomes all ethnic groups as members, but this is not really accurate.
First of all, the Old Testament varies in its views of outsiders. Some nations are treated negatively, such as Canaanites, and others more neutrally—Egyptians and Assyrians can be either good or bad. Also, Nehemiah seems negative toward Israelites who were not exiled into Babylon, but is very civil to craftsmen from Tyre and Sidon—and these are Canaanites! Ruth is a Moabite who is welcomed, while many Israelites are condemned for their actions.
The New Testament sometimes opens up a perspective of inclusion of outsiders—the Syro-phoenician woman in Mark 7 is rightly also called a Canaanite woman in Mt 15 and she is accepted (after first being rejected)—but some of Paul’s fiercest language is aimed at Christians who do not agree with him, including Peter in Gal 1-2. There is not much tolerance for Christians who disagree in 1 John either. A further question is whether there is tolerance of non-Christians in John 14:6.
As with many issues, the Bible is a sprawling, varied text over a thousand years in the making. It represents a lot of human struggles and often provides perspectives from both sides of an issue. In regard to tolerance as well, the Bible expresses both exclusive and inclusive views, and most faith traditions also move through exclusive and inclusive periods. One question is this: Do we allow events of the day to push us toward an exclusive emphasis or a tolerant emphasis? A good approach may be to try to incorporate a large number of biblical texts in our discussion, not just one or two phrases which may be taken out of context.

Author: Lawrence M. Wills
Love is Better than Tolerance

Tolerance is a notion that gained momentum in the wake of the post-Reformation era wars in Europe.  The framers of the U.S. Constitution, for example, were influenced by the writings of the English philosopher John Locke, whose Letter Concerning Toleration sought to distinguish the powers of government from the powers of religion.  Locke was really more interested in political power than in theological argument, and among his immediate concerns was the fear that the Catholicism would spread in England. 

Tolerance, for Locke, was based on the principle that government should not limit religion, because in doing so violence was likely to result.  Interestingly, for him toleration did not apply toward Catholics, because “all those who enter into it do thereby ipso facto deliver themselves up to the protection and service of another prince,” i.e. the pope.  (Note that a similar concern arose when John F. Kennedy ran for president, and spoke to to Baptist leaders in 1960.)
Tolerance, or toleration, is a political idea and therefore not rooted in theology per se.  On an intuitive level, one can relatively uncontroversially accept the idea that in the civil order, it is good for people of different religious groups to get along.  What makes this issue modern is that in the ancient world, citizenship and shared religion almost always went hand in hand.  Today, of course, we who live in pluralistic societies must interact with people of many different religious groups (or none), and so it is hard to argue the basic point that it is good to get along rather than fight.
The difficulty lies in the recognition that over time “tolerance” has slid into “indifference,” and even antipathy toward any religious expression at all.  There is a vast proliferation of literature that equates religion with violence, as if to suggest that any time people have different religious views the seeds of violence are there.  This strikes me as a rash conclusion.  If religion is about seeking to live in the face of the most important questions about human life and death, love and suffering, meaning and purpose, then there is something that all religious traditions share.  In my own Catholic tradition, for example, the document Nostra Aetate (Declaration on the Church’s Relation to Non-Christian Religions) of the Second Vatican Council (1965) articulates this point:
Other religions found everywhere try to counter the restlessness of the human heart, each in its own manner, by proposing "ways," comprising teachings, rules of life, and sacred rites. The Catholic Church rejects nothing that is true and holy in these religions. She regards with sincere reverence those ways of conduct and of life, those precepts and teachings which, though differing in many aspects from the ones she holds and sets forth, nonetheless often reflect a ray of that Truth which enlightens all men. (section 2)
There is, I think, a basic cooperation that ought to prevail among religious people to seek what is true and to respond to what God reveals.  This is hard work, especially when sacred texts themselves are disputed.  To be sure, it can be difficult to balance faith in Jesus Christ and a Biblical understanding of God’s revelation, on the one hand, with the desire to seek truth with those who seek sources of revelation elsewhere.
“Tolerance” strikes me as a rather weak beginning point; it suggests to me a bland willingness to let people do their thing separate from me, and I won’t get in the way.  This is certainly not the way of Christ.  I am more persuaded by the way of love, which at times can require hard work, even crucifixion.  I am reminded of the counsel of one of my heroes, Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Jesuit order who founded Boston College.  In his letter to the Jesuit delegates at the Council of Trent, he articulated some very wise ideas for engaging in hard conversations:
Be slow to speak, and only after having first listened quietly, so that you may understand the meaning, leanings, and wishes of those who do speak. Thus you will better know when to speak and when to be silent. … if some point of human or divine science is under discussion and I have something to say, it will be of great help to forget about my own leisure or lack of time—that is, my own convenience. I should rather accommodate myself to the convenience of him with whom I am to deal so that I may influence him to God's greater glory.
Ignatius was a realist.  And while his counsel was for those meeting with other Catholics, still the dynamic he describes is helpful.  Its emphasis is on good listening and on learning to accommodate our speech to that of our interlocutors.  This happens today in ecumenical and interreligious dialogue, which more than tolerance seeks to find ways that people of different religious traditions can move together toward a shared vision of what is good.

Tolerance is the Norm

From my study of the Bible, I think tolerance is the norm.  When the early Israelites pass through the land and eventually settle in it, there is no expectation that Canaanites will abandon their beliefs.  Moses accepts advice from Jethro, his father in law, who is a Midianite priest.  The priest respects and appreciates what Moses’ God has done for the people of Israel. Moses participates in offerings and sacrifices offered by Jethro (Exodus 18).  There is no indication that this is a problem.  Jethro is a Midianite priest who follows the Midianite religion.  Moses is an Israelite who follows the Israelite religion.

When Elijah challenges the prophets of Baal on Mt. Carmel, the purpose is to convince the Israelites that they should only follow the Lord, the God of Israel and not Baal.  Elijah does not concern himself with which God the Canaanites worship (1 Kings 18).  Micah 4:5 reads, “For all the peoples walk, each in the name of its god, but we will walk in the name of the Lord our God forever and ever” (NRSV).  The assumption is that each ethnic group will worship its own God. 

The intolerance that is in the Old Testament is directed at Israelites who abandon their faith, either literally or through adopting practices that lead them away from the teachings of their God.  It is an internal intolerance not an external one.  In the Old Testament, once people have made a commitment to God, they are expected to abide by it (Joshua 24).  As the Old Testament comes to a close, it becomes more and more clear to the Israelites that there really is only one God.  If there is only one God then everyone who is worshipping God must be worshipping the same one.
The New Testament focuses on the life and ministry of Jesus and  the development of the early church.  According to the New Testament Jesus spent almost all of his time among his own people (the Jews) or other descendents of the ancient Israelites such as the Samaritans (John 4:7-30).  When Jesus has an encounter with a non-Jew, the Syrophoenician Woman, who is identified as a gentile and a Canaanite, he heals her sick child (Mark 7:24-30 and Matthew 15:21-28).  He does not attempt to convert her but he does commend her for her faith, according to Matthew’s Gospel. 

When Jesus heals the Gerasene demoniac, he tells the man to “Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you” (NRSV).  The text uses the Greek Word for God, Theos, a generic word that may be used for any God.  Jesus does not tell him to “believe in me.”  The former demoniac however chooses to tell people “how much Jesus had done for him” (NRSV).  He chooses to confess Jesus but Jesus did not require him to do so.  Jesus responds to a question posed by Thomas, one of the disciples, in the following way, “No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also” John 14:6 (NRSV).   Traditionally, the church interpreted this statement to mean that Jesus understood himself to be God.  Therefore, one might interpret,  no one comes to God except by God. 

God beckons those whom God wills to the divine self.  How that happens or what precisely one must believe is left to God.  As 1 Corinthians 13:12 says, everyone knows only “in part” (NRSV).  We cannot judge someone else’s acceptability to God.  Jesus encounters with people who were outside of his community illustrates a high level of tolerance for those of different faiths.  He demonstrates his compassion for them. He talks to them.  He  heals them.  He lets them be.

Author: Wilma Bailey
Tolerance vs. Relativism

There is a difference between relativism and tolerance.  The Scriptures do not take a relativistic (or pluralistic) stance regarding religious truth or reconciliation to God.  Jesus in John states, "No one comes to the Father except through me" (14.12).  The early church proclaimed regarding the reconciliation offered by Jesus, "There is no other name under heaven given to humanity by which we must be saved" (Acts 4.12). 

The First Testament also made exclusive claims re God.  In contrast to the idols, which were made by human hands, Yahweh is the creator of all existence and the eternal God (Isa. 40.12-28.).   It is true that we do not know the full dimensions of the mercy of God.  There is an opening in Paul's words, "To those who because of perseverance in accomplishing good seek glory and honor and immortality, God will give eternal life" (Rom. 2.7).  We do not know if anyone can fulfill that.  Trust in Jesus thus is the only basis of assurance of that.

Toleration is different. It is not a claim regarding truth.  It is a principle of public morality.  It is predisposition to respect the beliefs of others, to not force our faith upon others, to not limit politically the expression of some beliefs or religious actions which we otherwise justifiably regard as wrong.  Christians have been in the forefront of establishing religious freedom as a right of all people.  Christian groups have known the suffering that occurs when states violate that freedom right.  The basis of human rights is biblically grounded in that not only is every person one who has been created by God, but every person is one for who Christ died.

Author: Stephen Charles Mott
What Do You Stand For?

1.   If humility is a religious virtue…
2.   If a person think s/he still has something to do on him/herself in regard to developing his/her own religiosity or faith or devotion to        God…
3.   If a person really does believe that God is a source of love rather than hate…
4.   If a person really does believe that God is powerful enough to handle someone else’s disbelief…
5.   If a person realizes that there probably are some pretty big motes in their own eye…
6.   I a person realizes they don’t have infinite time, and their religious obligation is  concentrate on their own sins…
Then we have lots of Christian reasons for tolerance…

Alternatively, let’s drop the concept of tolerance altogether, and just recognize that we are all tolerant of different things. I for instance really don’t mind what a person calls God, or how they pray, or whether or not they think the soul continues after death. But I am intolerant of rape, nuclear wastes, and genocide.

So the question is not ‘is a Christian tolerant’ but “what do you stand for?”

Author: Roger S. Gottlieb




Massachusetts Bible Society Logo

Exploring the Bible Logo