Should Christians Tolerate False Religious Beliefs?
We’re back with John Piper, and a question we get a lot is what should Christians do with the false religious beliefs of non-Christians? We cannot commend false religious systems, so should Christians be tolerant of others’ religious beliefs? And what does this tolerance look like? So explain for us, Pastor John, what is Christian tolerance in the face of false gospels?
First, let’s distinguish between the old tolerance and the new tolerance, which is a form of intolerance. And I am going to point people to Don Carson’s book on tolerance, on the new form of intolerance. But the old tolerance is the kind I want to defend.
The answer is going to be: Yes, yes, yes. Let’s be tolerant of each other’s differing religious and other views. The old tolerance is the view that there is such a thing as objective truth and objective right and wrong and objective beauty and ugliness — and whether any of us can claim to know it does exist out there. And we should all want to find it and believe it and live it. That was the assumption of the old tolerance.
Therefore, one idea or belief would be better than another idea or belief if it was more true, more right, more beautiful. And, therefore, the reason people held their ideas or their beliefs was because they were convinced that their belief was more true, more right, and more beautiful. And when a person with a belief met a person with a contrary belief, they assumed that one of them or both of them were wrong.
Generally each of them, each of us, assumed that he was right. That is why you hold your belief. You believe you are right. That is why you believe your beliefs. They are true or they are good or they are beautiful. And then they would argue with each other and each would try to show that the other person is wrong and persuade them that they are right. They would each give reasons why the other person was wrong. And if the matter was serious enough, they might even give warnings that the other person needs to change his beliefs or something bad is going to happen to them.
In practical matters, the consequences might be that you are going to get a disease if you believe that way about germs or about hygiene. You need to change your ideas. They are not true. Or, another one might be: You are going to lose your job if you have that belief about what the employee’s manual says. It doesn’t say that. You are wrong. You need to change your idea. You are going to lose your job. Or you are going to be caught in a snowstorm if you have that belief about the weather system, because you have got a wrong idea. It is coming tomorrow, not the day after. You are going to get caught if you try to drive there.
You might talk like that to people and give them warnings. Or in religious matters if you believe that there is a hell and that some people might go there because they have certain views of God that are offensive, then you need to warn them.
So that was all part of the old tolerance. We disagreed with each other. We argued with each other. We warned each other. Tolerance in that situation meant: I think you are wrong. But I will not use force or coercion to change your mind. I will not support the use of anybody else using force or coercion. I won’t support the government or any agency or mob to compel or coerce you to change your mind. That is what tolerance meant. Both people claiming to believe something that is more true, more right, and more beautiful than the other person, and both of them defending the freedom of the other person to believe what they considered to be false.
Now the new tolerance does not start with the assumption that there is such a thing as objective truth or objective right and wrong or objective beauty and ugliness. And, therefore, it does not start with the assumption that any given viewpoint or belief is objectively better than one that believes something different, because there is no objective truth or morality out there for an idea to conform to. And so the old tolerance becomes impossible. Tolerance no longer means defending a person’s freedom to tell me I am wrong, but now means renouncing the right to tell anyone they are wrong. The very concept of labeling a person’s idea as wrong or defective or harmful or evil is considered intolerant.
So the new tolerance is the requirement that nobody pass judgment on another person’s beliefs or ideas as less true, less right, less beautiful. And the reason I say this is a new form of intolerance is that in the new tolerance I am forbidden from expressing my belief that certain things are so; namely, that your beliefs are wrong or harmful — dangerous. In fact, the new tolerance sometimes goes so far as not just to forbid the expression of my belief that your belief is wrong, but goes further and forbids me even from believing that you are wrong because, they would say, believing that shows I am hateful and a danger to society and eventually may be locked away or punished in some other way for simply holding a viewpoint. If you want to read more about the development of this new tolerance, then Don Carson’s book The Intolerance of Tolerance is the place to go.
So my answer to the question that was asked is: Absolutely, Christians should be tolerant of other people’s religious beliefs; namely, with the old tolerance, not the new tolerance. That is, we should be free to name each other’s beliefs as false, defective, inferior, or harmful without being accused of hate or injustice or lack of love. In fact, we must defend the fact that calling error “error” may be the very loving thing to do if it is done in the right spirit, that is, a spirit that desires the good of the other person, not a hateful spirit. We don’t want bad things to happen to another person. We want good things to happen and that is why we speak truth.
So saying that we definitely should be tolerant of other people’s religious beliefs means that we should humbly and honestly tell them where we stand and how we understand where they stand and be as clear and open with the disagreement as possible and that disagreement should not feel threatening politically. And if we have thick enough skins, it wouldn’t even have to destroy an ongoing relationship of open, honest, rough-and-tumble give-and-take.
And part of this tolerance that Christians should support is the insistence that we do not support the coercion of anyone’s belief to be similar to our own. We persuade. We argue. We woo. We hold out warnings of what we think God or circumstances may bring about and we plead. But we do not persecute. And we do not force. And we do not manipulate or do anything underhanded or try to bribe or do political maneuvering or do violence to change a person’s mind. That is what tolerance means, that we believe in.
The reason we believe in it — this is so important. I will just say this finally. The reason we believe in it is not simply — though this is important — that it makes for a more civil order in a pluralistic society and protects us from violence, but even more essentially it belongs to the very nature of Christianity that genuine faith in God, genuine allegiance to Jesus, genuine Christ-exalting obedience to God’s Word is only possible if it is uncoerced and free. Therefore, the old kind of tolerance is built into the very nature of Christianity. That is the thing to grasp. And where so-called Christians have contradicted this tolerance in history by using force and compelling belief at the penalty of death or imprisonment, that has been acting against the nature of Christianity even if they call themselves Christians.
So I will say it again. The answer to the question that was asked is: Yes. Christians should be tolerant of other people’s religious beliefs in the good, old, rough-and-tumble way of tolerance when it meant the right to express wrong disagreement and the time when truth was objective, a reality outside ourselves and everyone was pursuing it and arguing whether they had it or not.
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