One topic that isn’t often considered on the subject of Christian conscience and Christian liberty, as we are discussing in this Issue of Theology for Life Magazine, is tolerating one another and the place of open discussion and dialogue. Throughout the history of the Church, we see Christians having open discussions about theological matters—from the Council of Nicaea, Chalcedon, the White Horse Tavern, and many more examples.
The White Horse Tavern, also known as White Horse Inn (not Dr. Michael Horton’s ministry), was a place for the English Protestant Reformers to discuss Lutheran ideas from 1521 onward. John Foxe describes the meetings in his Book of Martyrs.[i] In attendance at these meetings, according to Foxe, were the future Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer, Miles Coverdale, Matthew Parker, William Tyndale, Nicholas Shaxton, John Rogers, and John Bale, and also included Stephen Gardiner, the future Bishop of Winchester.[ii] These men met at the White Horse Tavern located on King’s Lane to the west of King’s Parade.[iii] It was in existence by 1455 and demolished in 1870 when the King’s College Scott’s Building was constructed.[iv] A Blue Plaque on the wall facing the point where the King’s Parade becomes Trumpington Street now commemorates the original location of the White Horse Tavern.
From the Early Church Councils to the modern-day gatherings, Christians have been meeting to discuss issues related to the Church. Even in Acts 15, the Church meets to settle whether Gentiles need to be circumcised or not. The Church has a long history of engaging one another both corporately and individually in various theological Christian traditions to discuss matters related to the Bible and theology.
With the rise of the internet, in particular, we would rather not meet and discuss topics in recent times. But as we’ve seen from the Early Church to the present even, traditionally Christians gather together to discuss matters. Christians aren’t afraid of open, honest dialogue and discussion because we have the truth in God’s Word. We gather around God’s Word on the Lord’s Day, in small groups, or at coffee shops and other places to talk from Scripture about issues in our lives.
A truly biblical understanding of speech and communication dictates that we speak the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15), seasoned with salt (Colossians 4:6). James warns that the tongue is a flaming fire (James 3). Christians engage with one another. We don’t retreat from one another. When one of us errors, we confront in love to win back the brother or sister in Christ with the truth of Scripture (Galatians 6:1-2).
As we come to the idea of “tolerating one another”, I need to be clear about the meaning. In our society today, the idea of tolerance means that we tolerate only one side or viewpoint of ideas. But Christians do the opposite of this. We don’t accept every viewpoint as equally valid. For example, we reject the idea that Jesus is only a good teacher or a prophet, or that salvation is made possible through multiple paths, and so forth. We reject these ideas and more because they deny the teaching of Scripture. Even so, we tolerate the person. We aim to win them with the truth of God’s Word because Scripture pierces the heart (Hebrews 4:12). As we proclaim the Word faithfully, the Spirit opens eyes, converts sinners, and teaches the saints the truth of the gospel.
In today’s culture, it’s often thought that Christians are the least tolerant people in the world, but that’s not the truth. Christians are the first to start hospitals, care for the sick, start universities, start counseling others and caring for them, and more. Christians did and continue to do this because they love the Lord and understand that love for God fuels a love for other people (Matthew 22:37-40).
True tolerance isn’t the acceptance of all ideas as equally valid. True tolerance is understanding the difference between saying that a person isn’t entitled to his/her viewpoint (when it comes to the truths found in Scripture) and the idea that they are. Christians are not against free speech, but for it. A love for God demands that we treat every image-bearer made in the image and likeness of God with dignity, value, and respect. Such an understanding also informs our knowledge of religious liberty, freedom of religion, and conscience, such as that which was inscribed in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.
As D.A. Carson notes in his book, The Intolerance of Tolerance, the sad thing is that we are dealing with a different definition of tolerance today. For example, we can consider the LGBTQ community and their influence on the modern definition of the word. They are given priority in our culture, and we are taught that we must respect their viewpoint. But no Christian is against the LGBTQ as a people group. We are against the ideology that says that we must be tolerant of their ideas and revere them. The reason why Christians must object is because the Bible teaches that marriage is between one man and one woman for life, under God; not to mention the biblical definition of this behavior as sinful.
The rejection of same-sex marriage is not due to a desire to withhold “rights” from these individuals, but rather because same-sex marriage denies the biblical definition of marriage and is therefore heretical in concept. Again and again, we see in our culture how Christians who believe in marriage between one man and one woman for life are shut down in dialogue, discussion, or debate. Our culture believes that upholding the concept of traditional marriage is outdated and wrong, therefore hindering the progress of society. The sad irony in all of this is that Christians have fought for the rights of the unborn (against abortion), started universities, and more because of love for God, which fuels a love for people.
When you aim to shut down dialogue and discussion, you are not tolerant. You are being intolerant of others’ views and viewpoints. You are not hearing them, and you won’t be able to engage them. The sad thing is that our culture is blinded by the “god of this world”—Satan; this leads to forgoing truth for lies. Satan wants nothing more than for people to be blinded to the truth. Satan does not want discussion, debate, or dialogue. He wants to be believed and followed without question or qualification. The Christian faith, however, teaches us the opposite of this.
True Christians are not opposed to discussion and tolerance. We reject the idea of a cancel culture for this very reason. We neither reject people, nor their ideas, because we think we are “better than them”; rather we reject ideas (not people) because we know the truth of God’s Word and lovingly aim to show them the truth found therein. Rather than minimizing people and bombing with opinions, Christians have the truth. We are to speak the truth in love, seasoned with salt, because the Church is called to preach the Word and make disciples of the nations. Only Christians have a saving message that can rescue sinners from the gates of hell.
Of all people, Christians should be loving. We should be tolerant of others. We should display the fruits of the Spirit. We should also be open to dialogue and discussion. And we should do all of this because, not only does the Bible have much to say about our speech, but it has much to say about how we engage others with our speech. We will also be held accountable for every idle word out of our mouths because our words are to be used to edify and build up others (Ephesians 4:29).
So, true tolerance is vital for the Christian. It doesn’t mean that we have to agree with one another on every point, nor cross every “T” in our discussions. We can have a respectful conversation with one another where God’s Word is central on matters related to the Christian life and ministry with the understanding that what we believe about the finished and sufficient work is vital for real Christian unity and fellowship. The gospel is of first importance, Paul says in 1st Corinthians 15. We must stand up and defend the truth in love and contend for it with all that we are, but even so, to win those who error and to correct our opponents in love that they might know the truth and walk in it through saving faith in Christ alone.
All of this requires rejecting the cancel culture, which emphasizes “me” and the idea that “all truth is about me”. All truth isn’t about how I feel, nor about how I see things. All truth centers on the Word of God, which declares the glory of the Son of God and Man—Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ and His Word are central to the Christian, and therefore, we are to engage in open discussion and dialogue with one another. We do this because we love the Lord and love one another, aiming to faithfully preach Christ to sinners entrusting our efforts to the work of the Spirit. The Holy Spirit alone can draw sinners to faith in Christ by opening their eyes to the horror of their sin and the glory of Christ.
Let’s trust the Word, Friends, to do what the Word does and the Spirit to do what He does so well, and let us be tolerant in the true Christian sense of the word. Christians are for dialogue, discussion, and debate because we are for the life of the mind, which flows out of love for God and desire for the good well-being of our fellow image-bearers and society at large.
[i] Foxe, John (1589). Actes and monuments (AKA Book of Martyrs). London.
[iv] “Scott’s Building – King’s College, King’s Parade, Cambridge, UK – Architecture Prizes on Waymarking.com”. www.waymarking.com. Retrieved 15 January 2020.