Be Intolerant of the Right Things


The other day, I posted “The Intolerance of Tolerance,” wherein D.A. Carson discusses the development and ramifications of the postmodern understanding of tolerance. Listening to his thoughtful and careful exposition set my mind to work, and I found with a number of questions.

Do we, particularly those of us who have been raised with a postmodern mindset, have a right understanding of what it means to be tolerant? And how is our understanding of tolerance affecting us spiritually?

Take the bookstore for example. When I go to Chapters, it’s always interesting to look at the titles in the Religion/Christianity section. There’s a very diverse selection of titles  by a number of authors offering a variety of perspectives and positions. Naturally, some of these are very helpful and generally biblical, and others are anything but. (It’s fun to see Tim Keller and Bart Ehrman next to each on a bookshelf.) They run the full gamut. And, truthfully, I wouldn’t expect the mass market bookstore to have anything but this kind of mix, simply because they’re not catering to a specialty market.

Then there’s the specialty market—the Christian bookstores. What’s funny is I notice a lot of crossover between the mass market and the specialty. A lot of works that are really good and helpful, and others that are downright unbiblical.

A variety of books written by authors whose theological convictions differ on a variety of issues all together in one place, all professing to believe the same thing. Yet, sometimes, there are some pretty drastic differences—to the point that it’s entirely possible that they aren’t all talking about the same God and the same belief system at all.

One author says that the distinction between Creator and creation is being reconsidered. Another says that the Bible is a human product and should be treated as such. Another still tells readers of the great risk that God took when creating the world and everything in it—because He didn’t know what would happen(!)

Alongside them, you have an author who writes that the chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever. Another describes the other-ness of God—the distinction of Creator from His creation, His holiness, His omniscience, and omnipresence. And another still pastorally relays the many facets and sufficiency of the crucifixion to those who are broken, grieving, and altogether ravaged by sin.

While it’s not wrong to read opposing viewpoints (on the contrary, it is quite helpful at times), I’m a bit surprised at some of the content that historically evangelical publishers are offering. Authors who shred biblical Christianity in the name of recovering, rediscovering or reinterpreting it published alongside authors who firmly uphold those beliefs. From the outside at least, it appears to be nothing more than cashing in on controversy. And while making money is certainly not a bad thing (I make some, and would like to make more in the future), is it right for Christians to do so from work that dishonors Jesus?

The impression I get, ultimately, is that the postmodern view of tolerance encourages a lack of discernment.

There are always varying degrees of difference in interpretation and conviction on theological issues that do not put one outside the scope of orthodox belief. These are, generally, “in-house” debates; secondary issues like responsible alcohol consumption and the like… things that really don’t affect the meaning of the gospel and the centrality of Christ in Christian worship. When it comes to a secondary issue, I’d heartily recommend anyone and everyone to study and question those assumptions and convictions; to gain a solid understanding of the things you believe.

Then there are other issues—beliefs for which we must contend. A cursory reading of Scripture will point out some of the big ones: The divinity of Christ, the distinction between Creator and creation, the Resurrection, the virgin birth, penal substitutionary atonement, the reality of eternal punishment, the necessity of caring for the poor… you get the idea. With these, again, study well and gain a solid understanding of them and their importance to the Christian life. To study these doctrines and beliefs, to gain a solid grasp of them biblically, will only make us stronger in our faith.

But here’s my concern: We, myself especially, must be careful not use “tolerance” as a cover for a lack of discernment or an unwillingness to contend for primary issues. To lack discernment is simply to be foolish; it’s one of the effects of being given over to a depraved mind (Romans 1:18-31). And to fail to be discerning and be unwilling to appropriately “contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3) is absolutely devastating.

I guess the real question is, are we prepared to be discerning and not assume that everything with the label “Christian” is safe?

Are we willing to be intolerant of the right things?

Get new content delivered to your inbox!

  • Jason

    Well said–I wrote a similar post on my blog a few weeks back–though mine adopted a more sarcastic tone. You may be interested.

    • Aaron Armstrong

      Hey Jason, thanks for commenting today and for the link to your blog post (you’re right, the tone is far more sarcastic than this post). Some really good thinking going on at your blog – I look forward tor reading more.

  • Keystone

    We are told of the enemy:
    Ephesians 6:12
    “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places.”

    One pastor laid down a military sword, called it the Sword of the Spirit, and invited ALL to come up and leap over it and they would be saved. All but one in the audience joyfully complied and jumped the sword to salvation. I alone, declined.

    So an angel of darkness would be expected and defeated upon recognition.

    But what I find common on internet readings (spiritual oriented blogs) are:
    2 Corinthians 11:14
    “And no wonder, for Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light”.
    These two weeks are the key mask season. Watch for it.

    Over and over, spiritual warfare is discussed, by bloggers who quote Ephesians, to the utter disregard of 2 Corinthians, Luke 10, and many other “discerning tools” provided; and unused.

    The angel of light is the one we encounter today, passing themselves as Christian spots, but blind to truth of every degree…..purposely.
    I have been told of many places that are “authentic”. Then I read items at variance with truth of the Word. When challenged, I find “this is an opinion” as a reply, or tangent ventures, into nitpicking side issues for distraction.

    Discernment is central.
    Tolerance and intolerance follow discernment accordingly.

    As far as Christian Bookstores, their markup is so atrocious that there is no ministry. They cannot compete with the chains and Internet without putting secular on display. This is NOT a function of Christian ministry and a waste of resources.
    The best I have seen are bookstores within a church, especially down South. They are marked up very little over cost, for the items are all seen as ministry, not profit center. More people will have access, due to lower costs. (volunteer staff; fewer hours open; yet, meeting grounds for singles and marrieds alike). I include music with reading here.

  • Isaac

    This is an interesting collection of words. On the main topic of “which-titles-in-the-Christian-store-are-righteous-and-biblically-qualified” I must only concede there are entirely too many of them. It’s truly stunning just how many printed and pressed interpretations there are of the spiritual universe. It’s almost unholy and seems ripe for leading the flock astray.
    And why might i suggest this is true? Well, one small example is the “esteemed” Rick Warren being a member on The Council On Foreign Affairs. How is that affiliation possible?

    Now, Aaron….regarding tolerance, it goes both ways you know. Should I be tolerant of your opinion and visa versa? Should we agree to “co-exist” in our different stances of common themes in this spiritual reality? Is one of us wrong or right? Does it matter? If it does, WWJD…as they say?

    • Aaron Armstrong

      I absolutely agree, tolerance does go both ways. That’s one of the key points that’s missed by postmodern “tolerance”–that you can disagree and still co-exist.

      As for one of us being right or wrong, and if it matters… to some degree, I think it depends on the issue. If we disagreed on a matter of conscience, it wouldn’t matter in the least (provided that one wasn’t causing the other to sin).

      Where it becomes an issue is disagreements on issues that are clearly stated within Scripture. In these instances, if we want to show true love for others, we must contend for what the Bible teaches, no matter how unpopular it may be, and be humble enough to hear legitimate correction.

      With those issues, Jesus has made what He will do terrifyingly clear, notably in His letters to the churches in Revelation 2-3.

      Thanks for commenting today, Isaac.

  • Isaac

    whoa, correction needed here.
    I meant Council on Foreign Relations…..not Affairs…apologies all around

  • Wes


    I have a feeling that you’ve been reading entirely way too much RC Sproul, John Piper, and Josh McDowell. While I don’t say that everything this camp puts out is irrelevant or misleading, their points about postmodernity seem largely unfounded.

    I know from reading and listening to these three myself that their take on postmodernism is that it’s a threat to Christianity. Their reasoning is usually reduced to two points, one of which you mention here: 1) tolerance, and 2) the lack of absolute truth. Simply put, I think that the “anti-postmodern” movement somewhat misconstrues the reality of what postmodernism is about.

    Christians today view postmodernism as a threat that is recent, but the truth is that this movement stemmed from the latter part of the 19th century, and only really got it’s mojo going in the 1920’s. This is not a new concept.

    Contrary to what the anti-postmodernists believe and propagate, postmodernism’s central tenants deal with deconstruction in regards with reality and the superficial. It’s goal is simply to take apart the things that were built up and to re-analyze them in order to gain a proper understanding. We see this being the case in two arenas that were impacted by postmodernism the most: art and architecture. The old ways of simply designing a building so it would fit into a specific society or culture to fulfill a specific role was broken down in order to “open the box” to a different way of conceptualizing architecture. Frank Lloyd Wright was one of the most notable architects in this era. The same is true in the realm of art with such movements as abstractism, dadaism, and surrealism.

    Postmodernism has the same effect on other aspects of life, such as philosophy, spirituality, and religion. Traditionally (and I would say “purely”) deconstruction is part of the scholarly works of studying scripture. One method widely used by biblical scholars is hermeneutics; which is deeply rooted in the concept of deconstruction. The point of hermeneutics is to break down a preconceived meaning that was based on superficial extractions and to look at it based on the reality and context of the situation. One passage in scripture that is wonderful to use hermeneutics on is 1 Cor 14:34-35 where Paul tells the Corinthians that women shouldn’t talk in church. The superficial interpretation of this passage (and I would say the one that most Christians agree with) is that women are not to be in a speaking role. So many times we take this and further assume that women should not be pastors or preachers and that they shouldn’t even teach in some instances. However, applying hermeneutics here, we break down the superficiality of the passage and look at the reality of the situation. What was going on? Why did Paul write this? Once we take a further step back (and maybe even bring in other non-biblical sources pertinent to this situation), we see that Paul’s point overall was that the Corinthian’s were uncertain of how to handle a specific problem to their church: the fact that there was a group of women that were talking amongst themselves while the other congregants were teaching, fellowshiping, and worshiping. In other words, the women were being a distraction, constantly causing trouble and leading others away from God by it. Hence Paul saying that they should keep quiet and (Paul giving the benefit of the doubt) if they do have questions, they should wait until afterwards to ask. So the entire issue here is about the orderliness of worship, not that women shouldn’t prophecy, pastor, or speak.

    Therefore, deconstructionism (and postmodernism) has roots in scriptural study. We use (or should use) them to a point. The advent of the thinking that no truth is absolute and that tolerance is the acceptance that all people could be “right” is a fairly new concept in this philosophy. And, on these two points, I must agree with you: there IS absolute truth, and tolerance DOES mean what you and DA Carson say it means. But, because this isn’t being perpetuated by every postmodernist under the sun, I think that to treat it as such is a gross overkill. Instead, it should be handled on a case-by-case basis.

    Some people which I’m sure you wouldn’t agree with, such as Rob Bell and Shane Claiborne, would probably consider themselves postmodernists. But to say that those people don’t believe in absolute truth and true tolerance without qualitative evidence is just asinine. The point I’m trying to make is that postmodernity is so often construed as being a direct and imminent threat to Christianity that those purporting such things overlook the benefits of such thought; namely hermeneutics. Are there things that postmodernity has at least led to that aren’t right? Yes. But modernity has also led to things like this as well. Namely, top-down leadership, rigid hierarchies, blind obedience, and unswerving beliefs about a world that is anything but certain. Both philosophies have their pros and cons. We need to discern what is true from both of these in order to understand God better.