Intolerance and Christian Exclusivism

The only match for our culture’s flaming love-affair with the buzzword “tolerance” is our hatred of intolerance. Our hatred of intolerance is not without its bright spots: For example, it is bad to be intolerant toward a Muslim simply because they are Muslim. Similarly, it would be inappropriate for an employer to be intolerant toward a Christian simply because they are a Christian. There is no question that intolerance can be a pernicious form of evil.

In the midst of our tolerant culture, most Christians hold to some form of Christian exclusivism. Broadly speaking, Christian exclusivism is “the view that God will not grant salvation to those who do not believe in Jesus Christ or who are outside the Christian church.”[1] Though exclusivists will differ in degree, the common denominator of this view is that the only way to find salvation is through Christ alone—Solus Christus, as the Protestant Reformers expressed it. Salvation simply is not found in any other philosophy, moral structure, or religious system, no matter how good these worldviews may appear. Put into practice, according to the Christian exclusivist, it does not matter how many ostensibly good works a Buddhist—or any member of any other religious group—may perform during her life, if she doesn’t have faith in Christ, she will not go to heaven.

Is Christian exclusivism an intolerant response to the problem of religious diversity? Is it intolerant for the majority of Christians to claim that Jesus is the only way to get to God? Well, yes, in a sense, it is intolerant for Christians to claim that our way is the only way. Intolerance is, after all, a refusal to accept opinions different from your own as valid. When Christians say that Muslims—or any other religious group for that matter—are wrong in thinking that they can get to God through their religious system, we are refusing to accept a different opinion as valid or as equal with Christianity; instead, we are saying that our belief is better or more accurate. While we Christians must be tolerant in that we are not to oppress Muslims for believing something different—at least if we do, we must drop the name “Christian,” for Christ never oppressed dissenters—Christian exclusivism is at least a mild form of intolerance. We are, in effect, claiming that everyone who disagrees with us is wrong.

It gets worse, however; Christian exclusivists have biblical backing. In John 14.6—to name but one example amongst a litany of possible proof texts—Jesus explicitly says: “No one comes to the Father except through me.” That’s about as clear a statement as one could want, especially given the biblical context. The fact is that this position, which is at least moderately intolerant, has wide acceptance in Christendom for good reason.

But here’s a crucial point that our tolerant culture misses over and over: Not all intolerance is equal. Intolerance seems, at least to me, to be a spectrum. At one end of the spectrum is strict intolerance that persecutes dissenters. The Church has, unfortunately, found itself on this end of the spectrum from time to time; however, the strict end of the intolerance spectrum is by no means the end at which Christian exclusivists ought to aim. At the other end of the spectrum is the sort of intolerance—loose intolerance, if you will—that is necessary for society to function and for the affirmation of truth. It is at this end of the intolerance spectrum that Christian exclusivism must reside.

Loose intolerance is necessary for society to function. Think about prison: We put people who have done bad things in prison. If you murdered someone, you should go to prison. If you raped someone, you deserve to do years behind bars. If you disagree with that, you probably have something seriously wrong with you, such that you may need to be locked up, too. Though they aren’t pleasant, prisons are essential to society’s well-being; prisons, however, are a form of intolerance. What society is doing with prisons is looking at people who have done bad things and saying, in a very tangible way: “We are not going to tolerate that.” Imagine a society in which rapist and murderers were free to continue raping and murdering with no ramifications for their actions, and you’ve thought of a society void of intolerance.

Not only is intolerance necessary for society to function, loose intolerance is necessary for the affirmation of truth, for truth is intolerant. Think about mathematics: 2+2=4 is a true statement, and it doesn’t matter what you think about it. If your child takes a math test at school and writes that 2+2=5, you would be a fool to argue with the teacher for marking it wrong. It doesn’t matter if your child tried his hardest, honestly thought that 5 was the answer, or got confused; he was wrong when he wrote 5. That’s a mild form of intolerance; the message the teacher conveys by marking that question wrong is that it doesn’t matter why your child wrote 5 in the answer blank, 5 is objectively wrong. If a statement is true, then it means that every contradictory statement is false, which is a form of intolerance.

Saying that Jesus is the only way to God is intolerant; however, if it’s true, we shouldn’t back down from it anymore then we back down from believing that 2+2=4 or that murder is wrong. Above all things, Christians ought to be adamant lovers of truth, even when the truth forces us to be intolerant. With that being said, however, we Christians must remember that our intolerance must remain loose intolerance.

At the same time, the at-large, secular culture must remember that intolerance is not inherently evil. If taken too far, intolerance can certainly become evil; however, anything taken to an extreme can become evil—even tolerance.

Notes & Sources

[1] Donald K. McKim, Westminster Dictionary of Theological Terms (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1996), 98.

2 comments

  1. Is it possible that Jesus’ statement, “no one comes to the Father except through me”, rather than being exclusionary and intolerant, meant that, by his death, the same as during his life, ALL people were saved, whether they knew of Him, believed in Him, or Worshipped Him??

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    • That’s called universalism and is certainly allowed by John 14.6; the problem with universalism is that many verses reject it. For example, in Matthew 7.21-23, Jesus clearly says that there will be some people who don’t make it into heaven. Romans 1 also seems to be quite clear that not everyone will make it to heaven. So, while universalism is a desirable position, it doesn’t seem to do well with the biblical text.

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