The Great Commandment, According to Popular Thought: Tolerate!
In the popular thinking of our day, tolerance is the supreme virtue. The great commandment for society has become: Tolerate thy neighbour as thyself. Especially in Singapore, with its blend of many different cultures and religions, tolerance is seen as essential for the functioning of society. Thus, through our system of public holidays, through the schools’ commemoration of Racial Harmony Day, and through the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act, tolerance is not only promoted, but legislated, as we are continually reminded of the need for harmony in our multicultural society. Summarizing this sentiment, the Straits Times reported: “Harmony between different races and religions is a fundamental principle for Singapore, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong noted on Racial Harmony Day on Thursday (July 21). In a Facebook post, PM Lee wrote that Singaporeans should celebrate their diversity, and share one another’s customs and cultures” (Nair, 2016).
But what does it mean to tolerate others? If tolerance simply means acknowledging that there are different religions and cultures among people, all is well. If tolerance simply means allowing others the legal right to practice their religion, all is well. The child of God can tolerate other religions in this sense, while at the same time vigorously exposing and opposing those religions as unbiblical and false. However, today’s popular notion of tolerance is that we must not only acknowledge that other beliefs exist, but accept other beliefs as equally valid, and even embrace other beliefs as equally good. Merriam- Webster defines tolerance according to this idea of acceptance: “willingness to accept feelings, habits, or beliefs that are different from your own.” About this meaning of tolerance, D. A. Carson writes, “To accept that a different or opposing position exists and deserves the right to exist is one thing; to accept the position itself means that one is no longer opposing it. The new tolerance suggests that actually accepting another’s position means believing that position to be true, or at least as true as your own” (Carson 2012, p. 3).
The contemporary idea of tolerance is closely related to the postmodern age in which we live. There are many terms to describe the thinking of our age: postmodernism, relativism, multiculturalism; but all of these terms basically mean that there is no absolute Truth, no absolute standard of right and wrong. Each individual decides for himself what is true and what is moral, and his truth and morality are just as valid as his neighbour’s; what is true for one might not be true for another. We can see how the contemporary idea of tolerance fits within this postmodernism. If there is no over- arching Truth, then we must accept and embrace everyone’s truth as equally valid and good.
Such postmodern ideas of tolerance are incompatible with Christianity, because Christianity is absolute. There is one absolute standard of Truth: God’s Word. There is one absolute standard of right and wrong: God’s law. There is one absolute way to salvation: Jesus Christ. There is one absolute calling: believe in Jesus Christ and be saved, or perish in unbelief. In being faithful to Jesus Christ and His truth, Christianity is not tolerant, and cannot be tolerant, according to the postmodern definition of tolerance.
Therefore, the contemporary idea of tolerance has serious consequences for the church. When tolerance is the great commandment, judging becomes the unforgiveable sin. We are told that it is morally wrong to condemn the beliefs or practices of others. The spiritual leaders of the world lecture us about the evils of such judgment. The Dalai Lama is quoted as saying: “What is love? Love is the absence of judgment”. Mother Teresa is credited as saying, “If you judge people, you have no time to love them”. Indeed, Christians who judge others are now subject to legal penalties in some parts of the world. In recent years in the West, Christian bakers who judge homosexuality to be sin on biblical grounds have been actively persecuted through heavy fines for their refusal to bake wedding cakes for homosexual “weddings”. Everything under the sun is tolerated, except Christian intolerance for sin and the lie.
The Great Commandment, According to Jesus: Love!
How shall we as covenant youth respond to these ideas of tolerance? Our response must begin with a correct understanding of our calling toward our neighbour. The great commandment, as spoken by Jesus, is not, Tolerate; but, Love! “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets” (Matt. 22:37-40). Love is the new commandment, the defining characteristic of a Christian, the identifying mark of one who follows the Lord. “A new commandment I give unto you, That ye love one another; as I have loved you, that ye also love one another. By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another” (Jn. 13:34, 35).
Now that we know our calling is to love our neighbour, we must understand what it means to love him. Love is an affection for the neighbour that desires the neighbour’s good. Love is not merely a passing sentimentality, but a real interest in the neighbour and a real concern for his welfare. True love has such a deep interest in the neighbour’s welfare that it is willing to sacrifice itself to see the neighbour’s needs met. Love puts everyone else first, and itself last. Read Paul’s description of charity, or love, in 1 Corinthians 13:4-7, which emphasises the selfless, sacrificial nature of love.
Our love for the neighbour is rooted in God’s love for us. God chose us from eternity in love (Eph. 1:4, 5). God sent His only begotten Son, Jesus Christ, to die upon the cross for our sins (Jn. 3:16). God establishes His covenant of love and friendship with us (Ps. 25:14). God finally brings us home to heaven to live in joyful love with Him forever (Ps. 16:11, Rev. 21:3). As God loved us and gave His only begotten Son, so we are to love our neighbour. Or, as Jesus put it, “As I have loved you . . . love one another” (Jn. 13:34).
With this understanding of love, we can now see our calling toward the neighbour. Our calling is to love him, even when it means that we must oppose his lies, sin, and unbelief. We speak the truth in love over against his lies (Eph. 4:15), not to destroy him, but out of love, for the truth sets us free (Jn. 8:32). We reprove his sin, even through rebuke (Lk. 17:3), not to destroy him, but out of love, for repentance leads to everlasting life (Act. 11:18). We call him to believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, out of love, for in Christ alone is salvation (Act. 4:12). We pray for him, recognizing that God alone can call him out of darkness into His marvellous light (1 Pet. 2:9).
Tolerance, as the world defines it, is one of the most hateful things we could do to our neighbour. If the neighbour is ensnared in lies, shall we accept his lies and leave him so entangled? If he is bound in sin, shall we accept his evil and leave him in such bondage? If he is blinded in unbelief, shall we approve, and leave him to be cast out? Loving the neighbour means we cannot possibly tolerate the mortal danger he is in, that we cannot stand silently by while he is destroyed. Love compels us to seek his highest good: salvation in Jesus Christ.
In the popular thinking of our day, tolerance is the supreme virtue. The great commandment for society has become: Tolerate thy neighbour as thyself. As children of God, let us be renewed in our minds so that we are not deceived by the thinking of the world. Let us seek our neighbour’s good as we heed the true commandment of our Lord: Love thy neighbour as thyself.
Nair, Sanjay (2016, July 21). Harmony between different races and religions fundamental for Singapore: PM Lee. The Straits Times. Retrieved from http://www.straitstimes.com
Carson, D. A. (2012). The Intolerance of Tolerance. Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge, UK: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.
Written by: Pastor Andrew Lanning | Issue 43