Sunday, February 15, 2009

Exclusivity and Intolerance

Last week I had a conversation with someone claiming to be Christian concerning their "denomination." During the course of the conversation this person said "I don't want to sound like we believe we are the only ones..." An interesting statement.

On another occasion I had a mother and daughter in my office. The teenage girl had been in contact with Jehovah's Witnesses and her mother was concerned. During the course of conversation she kept bringing up how the Jehovah's Witnesses believe that they are the only true religion and that all others are false. At one point she looks at me and said "You guys don't believe that!" An interesting question.

We live in a world of tolerance. It is very unpopular to be intolerant unless you are intolerant of the intolerant. Christians often feel the pull to acquiesce. "Well I don't want to sound like we believe we are the only ones with truth." "We acknowledge that there are other religions out there and possibly other paths." We......." "We......" "We......"

A couple of questions I have are "Is it ever acceptable for a Christian to be intolerant?" and "Is exclusivity really intolerance?"

The online Webster's dictionary says that the word intolerant means "unwilling to grant equal freedom of expression especially in religious matters." We live in a country where freedom of expression is allowed. Or perhaps I should say that we live in a country that was built partially on the concept of freedom of expression. I believe our founding fathers saw that there is a level of God given freedom enjoyed by every person giving everyone the right to make choices whether good or bad. Speaking somewhat from a Libertarian point of view I would say as long as a person does not harm another they have the right to express themselves in any way they want.

Unfortunately Webster's definition reveals what people truly believe concerning intolerance. It is the suppression of a person's right to speak and act freely: to limit the expression of others whether such expression harms or not. While many Christians have been guilty of doing this there are many more who understand that this world is full of people with different worldviews. There should never be an expectation of people with different worldviews to conform to the Christian worldview.

As a Christian, I will not become so intolerant that I begin to suppress the expression of others. I believe that everyone has this basic freedom, however I do believe there are appropriate places and times as well as inappropriate for expression to freely occur. For example, it should be a given that overtly sexual expressions should not be done in front of children (whether you are heterosexual or homosexual is not the issue).

As a father I will not tolerate uncontrolled expressions into my childrens' lives. The same would go for my youth group and church. I am not saying that I would not allow some seemingly controversial expressions to be expressed to my children, youth group or church, but I am saying there would be, once again, appropriate times and places and inappropriate times and places. In other words, controlled and the simple reason is the harm principle. I would never take my children to a gay pride festival, but my children do not need to be sheltered from every expression of the LGBT community.

Now here is the next question. Is exclusivity really intolerance? As a Christian I believe that those who follow Christ should behave in certain ways. These people have developed a worldview that dictates their actions. Part of this worldview is to see oneself separate from the world. Let's do a little thought exercise.

Is it intolerant to not allow a practicing homosexual to teach Sunday School in your church? I would say no. As an exclusivist I believe that homosexually has not part in the Christian lifestyle and see it as being a sin just like any other sin. I do not wish to limit this person's freedom of expression, but I do feel that it is an inappropriate place for them to be teaching the Bible which clearly defines sexuality while they are in disagreement. Am I being intolerant? I don't think so for my concern is that of the children and my responsibility to protect them from a harmful view of sexuality. This is my worldview and I have the right to not allow certain expressions to enter uncontrolled into an environment shaped by such a worldview.

Some may see no difference here. The definition of intolerance is the being "unwilling to grant equal freedom of expression." I believe we need to add "when it will not harm." Now who is to say what will and what will not harm others? I guess that needs to be left to a person's or communities worldview. Do we call Muslims intolerant when they don't want Christian missionaries in their borders? Most people will say no because we need to respect their cultural values and beliefs (worldview).

Every group is exclusive in some sense of the word, but just because they are exclusive doesn't mean they are intolerant. As Christians we need to understand that we are a very exclusive group. You can't get around "I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me." Just because we are exclusive doesn't mean we have to be intolerant.

Each of us needs to really think about this new definition of intolerance: being unwilling to grant equal freedom of expression when it will not harm anyone. We can't expect the world to live by our standards until they understand the person our standards are based upon. Yes, because we believe we have the exclusive take on truth we will cross cultural/worldview boundries. We need to accept the consequences when this happens, but we also need to be creative in how we go about introducing people to Christ. There are ways that will seem less "intolerant" to the world and be more productive.

Our world is constantly changing and so must our methods of reaching it. It is possible to be exclusive and tolerant at the same time. The two don't necessarily go hand in hand.

1 comment:

Tonya Root said...

Good points, PB. We have neighbors and good friends who are a gay couple. They are close to our family and our daughter calls them "uncles." We interact with them on a regular basis and try and show them love based on the only true love. Do we condone their sin? No, but we also acknowledge that not only do we also regularly hang out with all the other sinners in our lives (Christian or not), but none of us is perfect either. As you said, we can in no way expect them to understand what we believe until they know why we believe and in Whom we believe. At the same time, we would never ask them to teach our daughter about their lifestyle. We will teach her the truth as we know it - and also teach her how to show true love.