Don Carson points out that the old understanding of tolerance was summed up by a sentiment attributed to Voltaire (although not actually said by him): 'I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.' It is against this view of tolerance that I want to ask if Christianity is a tolerant religion.
Israel of the Old Testament was not particularly tolerant. After the Hebrews left Egypt they became a nation. The government of the nation might be described as a theocracy. There was no separation between the religious and the secular life. God's law was the nation's law. If something was immoral then it was also illegal. If you disobeyed God's law then you had to leave or were punished.
That been said, God reveals himself in the Old Testament to be something better than tolerant. He is longsuffering. He regularly forgives the evil of his people. He persists with them even though they rebel against him. He is always calling them back to himself.
Eventually, because of the repeated disobedience of the people, God allows them to be exiled from the land. The prophet Jerimiah instructs them on how they should live as exiles. They are to seek the good of the city in which they live (Jeremiah 29:7). This is important for Christians to understand because we live as exiles in our lands (1 Peter 1:1), and so we are commanded to seek the good of the places where we are now resident.
In the New Testament Jesus is not always tolerant. When it comes to those who claim to follow him, he does not allow for a diversity of morality and opinion. Of course there will be room for Christians to disagree on certain secondary issues, but where the Bible is clear we are not given the liberty to disagree. Jesus does not permit an a la carte attitude to his gospel.
In the book of Revelation the risen Jesus condemns the church for its tolerance. He complains that the church at Ephesus is tolerating those who do evil (Revelation 2:2) and that the church at Thyatira is putting up with a prophetess referred to a Jezebel who is leading the people astray (Revelation 2:20). However, again we see that God is longsuffering. Jesus had given this woman called Jezebel plenty of time to repent (Revelation 2:20).
The apostle Paul shows a godly intolerance when he tells the church at Corinth not to associate with those who are claiming to follow Jesus but live lives of unrepentant greed, dishonesty or sexual immorality (1 Corinthians 5:11). But it should be noted that if such a person repents they are to be welcomed back into the church (2 Corinthians 2:7).
So with regards to those who claim to follow Jesus the church is not to be tolerant, but it is to be longsuffering.
But what about the Christian church's attitude to those who live in our shared society but don't want to follow Jesus? Here the church exercises a sort of tolerance that Voltaire might of approved of!
While the church is a new Israel it lives in the world as those in exile. When Jesus was questioned about paying taxes to the emperor, he said to render onto Caesar what is Caesar's and render onto God what is God's (Mark 12:14-17). While many people wanted Jesus to be a nationalist leader who would kick the Romans out of Palestine and restore a Jewish state, his kingdom was not of this world. The apostle Paul is non-revolutionary when he tells the Christians in Rome that the governing authorities have been established by God and that we are to submit to them (Romans 13:1). This was at a time when the vicious Nero was in power! This is not to say that Christians are to be naïve about the fact that the state can also be a demonically inspired persecution power (Revelation 13). The New Testament clearly anticipates the separation of church and state.
While the apostle Paul says that Christians should not tolerate unrepentant sin and false-teaching amongst those who claim to follow Christ, we cannot expect the world to obey Christ's standards for holy living (1 Corinthians 5:10). This leaves us with an unanswerable question: 'what should be the relationship be between what is legal and what is moral?' If a Christian politician is involved in legislation how far should they go in encouraging the state to punish those who do evil (Romans 13:4)? For example, if adultery is an evil that wounds its victims, should adulterers be punished by the state?
Sadly, the historical Christian church does not have a good record on issues of tolerance. I use the term historical Christian church because sometimes it is hard to know when this institution was actually the body of Christ and when it was simply a power hungry and corrupt organisation run by people who had little true knowledge of God.
When the church was persecuted by the Roman state it saw the sense in pleading for religious tolerance. For example, Tertullian wrote that 'it is a human law and a natural right that one should worship however he intends' and that 'it is no part of religion to coerce religious practice for it is by free choice and not coercion that we should be led to religion.'
After the Edict of Milan (A.D. 313), Christianity was tolerated in the Roman Empire, but by the eleventh-century 'Christian' Europe had become a persecuting society.
Maybe the most famous example of 'Christian' persecution is the Spanish Inquisition. During the later middle ages many papal inquisitions were set up in Europe. In 1478 King Ferdinand II of Aragon and Queen Isabelle I of Castile believed that the Papal Inquisition was too weak, and this led to them setting up the Spanish Inquisition. This was designed to enforce Roman Catholic Orthodoxy, so Jews and Muslims did not come under its mandate. This inquisition did not formally end until 1833!
It was not only the Roman Catholic Church that did not allow religious freedom. The main reformers (including Luther, Calvin and Zwingli) are amongst those called 'magisterial reformers', which refers to the fact that they saw a close connection between the church and the local magistrates. We can see that Calvin's Geneva and Zwingli's Zurich did not permit dissenting religious voices.
In Britain (and Ireland under its rule) there were some steps towards religious tolerance in the seventeenth-century. For example, in England in 1689 there was the Act of Toleration. This allowed non-conformists to worship, provided that they pledged allegiance to the crown and rejected transubstantiation (this act was not going to allow Catholics freedom of religion). The movement for Catholic Emancipation in eighteenth and nineteenth centuries involved reducing many of the restrictions against Roman Catholics.
Is modern Ireland a tolerant society?
There are many examples of religious intolerance on both sides of the border in the twentieth century. Mostly between Protestants and Catholics, although many of our new residents have experienced hateful attitudes and words. But a new type of intolerance has emerged in our post-modern society.
At the beginning of this essay I mentioned that the old tolerance involved recognising the right for people to hold different views. Of course there should be limits to this tolerance, for example, no society should tolerate Holocaust denial for it is so obvious false and dangerous. Now tolerance is defined in terms of accepting a prescribed set of values. There is no longer freedom to say 'I disagree with you, but respect you right to hold that opinion.' If you say that you believe that marriage should be between one man and woman woman you are simply labelled 'homophobic'. If you disagree with someone's lifestyle choice you are accused of not accepting them. This acceptance is not shown towards those who do not agree with the majority opinion on issues such as sexuality.
Behind this new tolerance are a few assumptions. It is assumed that those who claim to believe in absolute religious truths are dangerous, which leads to a patronising attitude towards those who take seriously any of the world's major religions (all of which make absolute truth claims). It is believed that religion should be kept to the private sphere of life, which assumes that humankind can create it's own goodness without God (which most theists will disagree with). In essence there is no religious tolerance for serious religion is not tolerated.
I want to finish with a few examples of the intolerance of western tolerance.
In 2019, RTE's Primetime did a feature on transgenderism. It was a fascinating feature because it actually raised some concerns about the issue of gender reorientation. You would normally expect that RTE would be unquestioning of the sexual consensus. However, this programme did highlight that our educational institutions in the west are beginning to censor anything that does not fit with the new tolerance. A masters student, James Caspen, who happened to be involved in transgender advocacy wanted to write his thesis on gender reassignment regret. His university in Bath told him that he could not for such research would lose funding if it was considered not to be fully supportive of all things transgender. This attitude has also been seen in the 'cancel culture' whereby even feminists like Germaine Greer have been banned from speaking at university societies because they have expressed doubt about whether a sex change operation really makes a man and woman and visa versa.
It should also be noted that such intolerance is often selective. Across the United Kingdom there have been attempts to close Christian Unions in certain universities and colleges because they will not allow anyone who is in an unmarried sexual relationship serve on their committees and that they define marriage as been between one man and one woman. However, it is hard to imagine that society would be happy if an Islamic society was shut down for the very same reasons.