Wednesday, June 24, 2015

The Limits of Toleration

[Originally presented February 14, 2014]
When He entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to Him while He was teaching, and said, ‘By what authority are You doing these things, and who gave You this authority?’ ”

“And Jesus came up and spoke to them, saying, ‘All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.’ ”

We live in a society that enshrines “tolerance” as its highest virtue. At least, it thinks it does.

But it’s a weird conception of tolerance. Modern “tolerance” has less to do with allowing people the right to free choice, and more to do with pretending that you actually approve of and admire all their choices — whatever they may be. You’re never to contradict anyone, tell them they’re wrong or that what they’re doing is bad; no matter what, you’re to smile and pretend it’s all sunshine and roses.

But this change is quite recent.

Historically speaking, the word “tolerance” actually derives from a Latin root word tolere, meaning (lit.) to “put up with” something. That is, to put up with something you don’t like or with which you don’t agree. And until recently, that was the way it was generally understood.

This made sense. It used to be quite clear to people that you don’t need “tolerance” for things you like. So if someone were ever to ask you, “Would you tolerate me giving you a hundred dollars?” you’d look at her like she’d lost her mind: there’s no tolerance needed for such things. But if someone asked you to “tolerate” the noisy activities of repairmen at his house — the clutter of trucks, the noise of hammers, the smell of paint, and so on — you’d understand quite well what he was asking. Tolerance is for offensive things. A person who is tolerant of others does not agree with them; he puts up with them out of a higher principle, like respect for their needs over his own.

Yet it is not this traditional understanding, but rather a strange new omni-tolerance that now permeates our society. In our politics, our public debates, our mass media and our educational systems, one precept is cherished above all: “Thou shalt get along”. You shall not interfere with the happiness of another person as they make any choice they wish. You shall allow that others are equally right if they are altruistic or selfish, stoical or pleasure-seeking, faithful or promiscuous, and whether they believe the purpose of life is something lofty or only one more trip to the mall.

And this attitude carries over into private life. I talk to a lot of young people. And one of the things I hear most often from them is that they strongly believe it’s wrong to “force your views” on another person, as they put it. But what they mean by “force” is simply “contradict”: being young and independent-minded, they want an unlimited freedom to do as they please with no one ever saying, “That’s bad”, “You’re wrong”, or “What you want is something you shouldn’t want”.

When you hear something enough, it’s hard not to start believing it … at least a bit. So, as Christians, we can start to feel that we are being terribly ill-mannered to insist on the exclusive authority of the Word of God, the genuine wickedness of sin, the singularity of salvation through Christ — or, on a practical level, even the distinctive holiness of the Christian life. We pull back … not entirely abandoning our beliefs, but muting them a bit at first, declining to assert the truth consistently, side-stepping discussion of the particulars of our faith, and withholding judgment on public issues. We can start to feel like we have no right to speak up. So though we continue to believe what we believe, we privatize it, and then we discuss it only with those with whom we feel we will be well received. We too don’t want unnecessary conflict. We don’t want to seem intolerant.

And it’s not hard to see that if we did speak up, we’d sound like what the world calls “intolerant”. We are the people who tell others that they are wrong — that their cherished pleasures are sins, their nature is selfish and wicked, their purposes are delusory and their feet are on the road to Hell. We tell them the buffet of religions and philosophies from which they have picked their self-pleasing meal is full of poison — and in fact, there is but one way of salvation, one Savior and but one way to God.

If this were not enough, we ask them to respond by dying. We tell them to give up their pleasures, their purposes, their pride and their plans, deny themselves, and in desperation throw themselves at the mercy of a Man the world gladly murdered. And we tell them that any other choice is disastrous.

Can we be surprised when they respond, “Who gave you the right to tell me what to do?” “Who do you think you are?” “By what authority do you dictate to me?”

Yet the answer is simple.

All authority. All authority in heaven, and all of it on earth.

We were personally assigned by the Incarnate God Himself. We have authority not only to preach, but also teach and then to make disciples. And if anyone has a question about that, our strong right hand is the Son of God Himself, personally by our side every minute.

And woe unto us if we preach not the gospel.

What authority?

ALL authority.

Go therefore.

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