Some years ago, I told a friend that I had visited a local evangelical church. Unhesitatingly, he remarked, "Oh, you mean that homophobic church!"
While Christians are known for their high regard for Scripture, their acceptance of certain behaviors at odds with that standard has not gone unnoticed. As Anglican cleric Robert Hart has noted, "[Christians] have become more and more accepting of sexual relations that fall far below Christian belief in chastity, to the point where many churches accept unmarried couples, as long as they are not homosexual.
Sadly, selective tolerance encompasses much more than acquiescence toward heterosexual immorality. Moral silence on various forms of self-indulgence, pride, gluttony and other "socially acceptable" sins has allowed Christians to remain in a spiritual orbit overlapping that of their secular neighbors, while the moral voice of the Church has dampened to a murmur.
How did it come to this?
The Supreme Virtue
One factor is the desire to measure ourselves by looking around rather than up. We believe that a loving God would not condemn a majority of mankind to eternal destruction; so, we set our sights on the righteous midpoint — or maybe just a smidgeon above it.
Instead of looking to Jesus to become holy as he is holy, we look to our neighbor. If our sins are not too different than his, we can chill. If they are, we can either work ourselves up to the moral mean or assuage ourselves by what is legally permissible. In fact, civil law has been an effective tool in "defining deviancy down."
Within a generation after Roe v. Wade, the number of abortions increased 30 percent. During the same timeframe, "no-fault" legislation helped skyrocket the divorce rate by a factor of two, affecting nearly half of all marriages. The de-criminalization of homosexual sodomy and the legalization of same-sex "marriage" and assisted suicide continue the tradition of normalizing what were once considered deviant behaviors.
Another factor is cynicism. As noted by George Barna and others, belief in unchanging moral truth is held by a waning number of Christians. I've had Christians tell me that Jesus lovingly accepted everyone and wasn't too particular about moral absolutes. It is a strange argument regarding someone who claimed to be the way, the truth, and the life.
However, the rejection of absolutes is never absolute. As the acid of cynicism dissolves the obelisk of objective truth into relativistic rubble, one spire remains: tolerance — the supreme virtue in a "live and let live" world that keeps seven billion "sovereigns" from mutual destruction.
An Insidious Ruse
Tolerance means that any biblical passage can be trumped by sincerity and goodness. As long as a person is sincere and lives an otherwise upright life, his lifestyle choices should be free from criticism or correction. Through this moral lens, even "loving neighbor as self" takes on a twisted shape.
Since I would be uncomfortable — yeah, offended — if someone pointed out my faults, I'll not point out those of my neighbor. By relieving myself of that rather unpleasant task, I avoid mutual awkwardness and discomfort, and I fulfill half of the great commandment to boot! It is a deception more beguiling than the one that charmed Eve.
When Eve took the fruit, it wasn't because she rationalized that, in some contrived way, she was fulfilling God's command; she violated it because she rationalized that God's command was unreasonable. In the modern ruse, you can do what Eve couldn't: reject God's commands and fulfill his moral standard at the same time. All ya need is love; and that's spelled:
T-O-L-E-R-A-N-C-E. But the truth is another matter.
Tolerating the sin of a brother for fear that a disapproving word might offend, is like the physician who neglects to correct a 300-lb. patient about his lifestyle — it may look like compassion, but it is selfish indifference, if not outright cowardice. What's more — it's hazardous. As Robert Hart warned, "Replacing the mercy of disapproval with tolerance is replacing medicine with poison."
Thankfully, the love of Jesus was not the poison of tolerance, but the medicine of intolerance.
An Intolerant Messiah
The popular felt-board depiction of Jesus as a soft-spoken story-teller — bordering on the effeminate — with a wide grin and open arms, welcoming all into his inner circle with nary a discouraging word couldn't be further off the mark.
Tolerating the sin of a brother for fear that a disapproving word might offend, is like the physician who neglects to correct a 300-lb. patient about his lifestyle — it may look like compassion, but it is selfish indifference, if not outright cowardice.
Jesus began his public ministry with the call to "Repent!" From there he launched into a lengthy exposition of attitudes and behaviors identified with kingdom living: he exhorted an adulterous woman to leave her life of sin; he disqualified a rich, young man for his self-sufficiency; he instructed his disciples to rebuke sinful brothers; he nearly started a riot in a violent outburst at the temple; and he was even boorish enough to criticize the religious beliefs of a woman who was merely trying to draw a jug of water.
To those who had supplanted the word of God with the traditions of men (like today's prophets of tolerance), his words were stinging, even hurtful. In one discourse, Jesus delivered seven scathing shock treatments, each beginning with "Woe!" and followed by a moral indictment.
Throughout his ministry, Jesus never skirted wrong-headed beliefs or behaviors. He addressed them head on to the point of rudeness according to our modern sensibilities. But his corrections were never meant to crush or condemn; they were intended to awaken his audience to the truth that gives life.
Even Jesus's rebuke of the Pharisees was driven not by anger, but anguish over their spiritual condition. At the end of his sevenfold indictment, he grieves, "How often have I longed to gather your children together as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing."
To generate introspection, Jesus often told parables. One concerned a wedding feast.
The Wrong Attire
A king threw a banquet in celebration of his son's wedding. It was staged as a gala event, complete with clothes provided by the king to all attendees. Astonishingly, all of the invited guests refused to come. So the royal invitation was given out in the streets and alleys. Once the banquet hall was filled and the festivities set to begin, the king noticed something out of place: a man dressed in his own garb. Incensed over the man's disregard for the graciously provided attire, the king had the man removed from the royal premises. The story has haunting similarities to the Genesis narrative.
The thread of Scripture is clear: It was not the apathy of tolerance, but the mercy of intolerance that led to the ultimate revelation of divine love — the Incarnation.
Adam and Eve were guests in the royal residence of Eden. Everything needed for the good life was generously given them, including beautifully adorned bodies, fearfully and wonderfully made. Then they ate the fruit.
Hoping to conceal their guilt, Adam and Eve hurriedly covered themselves with fig leaves. But their plan unraveled as their newly sewn garments didn't match the setting. They were in deep trouble. They had violated a decree punishable by death, they were found out with no credible defense, and were face-to-face with their Judge.
The King had three choices: he could execute the sentence immediately, demonstrating his justice; he could commute the sentence and demonstrate his mercy; or he could grant a temporary stay and demonstrate merciful justice. He chose the latter.
Fig Leaf Religion
After expelling Adam and Eve from the garden, God removed their hand-made attire and covered them with the skins of animals. Their coverings would be a constant reminder of the blood shed for them. More significantly, it prefigured the sacrificial system that reached its culmination and fulfillment at the Cross.
Fig leaves, on the other hand, came to represent man-made constructions to cover up faults and defects — like the "fig leaf" of tolerance.
Masked behind an ever-affirming face that looks like love, tolerance is neither compassion nor charity but, as Dorothy Sayers put it, "a sin which believes nothing, cares for nothing, seeks to know nothing, interferes with nothing, enjoys nothing, loves nothing, hates nothing, finds purpose in nothing, lives for nothing, and only remains alive because there is nothing it would die for."
The thread of Scripture is clear: It was not the apathy of tolerance, but the mercy of intolerance that led to the ultimate revelation of divine love — the Incarnation. Like our Lord and Savior, let us courageously and lovingly impart a correcting word to those who are being marginalized by poor choices and wrong-headed thinking.
Regis Nicoll. "The Mercy of Intolerance." Crisis Magazine (August 10, 2018).
Reprinted by permission of Crisis Magazine.
Regis Nicoll is a retired nuclear engineer and a fellow of the Colson Center who writes commentary on faith and culture. His new book is titled Why There Is a God: And Why It Matters.Copyright © 2018 Crisis Magazine
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