Guilty as charged. Christianity has its fair share of judgmental and intolerant people. I have no interest in covering up the misbehavior of Christians. But before you are tempted to dismiss the evidence for the Christian faith because of Christian intolerance, keep something in mind:
When Christians act in an arrogant, judgmental manner towards others, they are not following Scriptural teachings. Pride is one of the seven deadly sins (Prov. 6:16, 17), an evil that comes from the heart (Mark 7:21–23). I apologize for judgmental Christians; remember, though, when Christians act “holier than thou,” they act inconsistently with what Christianity itself requires. True Christians aim to be at peace with others (Heb. 12:14), build relationships with people regardless of creed, race, nationality, or sex (John 4:1–42; Luke 9:1–10), and are called to be humble and gentle (Eph. 4:2).
Behavior vs. the Message
We must distinguish between Christians’ behavior and genuine Christianity. To condemn Christianity because of the misbehavior of some Christians is another way to commit the “genetic fallacy,” which is dismissing a claim because of some perceived fault in its origin.
Yes, Christians often express judgment and intolerance, failing to follow the example and teachings of Jesus. But even if Christians were kind and gracious in their attitudes, the critic might claim, wouldn’t they still be intolerant for condemning the beliefs of others? My friend Mark Mittelberg, an author and speaker, offers an incisive response:
What’s fascinating is that the people who condemn Christians for acting as if they’re right and others are wrong are, in that very action, acting as if they themselves are right and Christians are wrong. So they are at that moment doing the very thing they say is wrong. When you think about it, it’s pretty silly to condemn people for thinking they are right—because aren’t you simultaneously thinking you are right in saying they are wrong? Or, broadening the point a bit, who in their right mind doesn’t consistently think that they are right? . . . I mean, really, do you ever think you’re wrong while you’re in the midst of thinking that very thought? I don’t think so; I think as soon as you start to realize your thinking is wrong you change your belief and start thinking differently! Therefore, for two reasons no one should condemn Christians just for thinking they’re right and others are wrong: (1) everybody else does the same thing, and (2) Christians might really be right, after all.
A Distorted View of Tolerance
Those who accuse Christians of being intolerant have a distorted view of what tolerance really entails. Rather than accepting all views as equally valid, true tolerance involves recognizing and respecting others when we don’t approve of their values, beliefs, and practices.
After all, we don’t use the word “tolerate” for what we enjoy or approve of—such as steak or good movies. Thus, there is an intimate connection between tolerance and truth. That is, we only tolerate what we find to be false or mistaken in some capacity. If we all agreed, we would not need tolerance. Only when people genuinely disagree does tolerance become necessary. Claiming that someone is wrong for holding a different viewpoint, then, isn’t itself intolerant; the attitude that accompanies the claim may, however, be intolerant. But charitably and kindly disagreeing can be an act of genuine tolerance.
Jesus Was An Apologist
This is what Jesus did. He was an apologist who advanced arguments for his Messiahship. And yet he treated his opponents with charity and respect.
And this is how the American founders viewed tolerance as well. The founders saw tolerance as strongly disagreeing with people, and yet still treating them with dignity and respect. Strong religious convictions on religious matters, according to the founders, is not incompatible with tolerance. In fact, one of the leading proponents of early modern tolerance, John Locke, was an outspoken apologist for the Christian faith.
Not only is Christian intolerance a bad reason to reject the faith, disagreement is actually one of the highest honors we can give someone. If you have been tempted to dismiss Christianity because of the intolerance of Christians, I hope you will think again. Maybe now is the time to consider the evidence for Christ.
Sean McDowell, Ph.D. is a professor of Christian Apologetics at Biola University, best-selling author, popular speaker, part-time high school teacher, and the Resident Scholar for Summit Ministries, California. Follow him on Twitter: @sean_mcdowell and his blog: seanmcdowell.org, where you can find the original version of this article.