The Prison of ‘Tolerance’

The Prison of ‘Tolerance’

Joseph Backholm is a young, 5’9”, white male. He is also the director of the Family Policy Institute of Washington, which seeks “to unite a coalition of Allied national and local organizations to create public policy that recognizes and respects the significance and sanctity of the family.”

Backholm recently went to the University of Washington in light of the transgender bathroom controversy and asked students what they thought about identity and whether or not it is possible for someone to be wrong about their identity.

One of the first students he spoke with stated, “Bathrooms should be gender neutral because there does not have to be a classification of differences at all.” When he asked a student what they would say if he said to them, “I am a woman,” the student responded by saying, “Good for you.”

He then asked how they would respond if he said, “I am Chinese,” and the student responded, “good for you, be who you are.” He followed those questions up by asking, “what if I told you I’m seven years old,” and the student replied, “If you feel seven at heart, then good for you.”

He continued pressing the students by asking, “Then would you be okay with me attending a seven-year-old class at a school?” and “What if I told you I am 6’5” inches tall”? One student finally drew a line in the sand and said that she did not believe he was 6’5″. According to this young college student, 5’9” white male Joseph Backholm could be a Chinese woman, but he could not be a 6’5” Chinese woman. Another student explained, “I feel like that’s not my place to say as another human that someone is wrong, or to draw lines or boundaries.”

This is the collegiate equivalent of the modern flat earth society (yes, there is still a flat earth society). What would compel these college students to be completely unwilling to tell a 5’9″ white male standing in front of them that he is not a 6’5″ Chinese woman? They are trapped in an intellectual prison, reality is being suffocated by what biblical scholar D.A. Carson has called “the new tolerance” (The Intolerance of Tolerance, Eerdmans, 2009).

Tolerance used to mean that I may disagree with what you say but I will defend your right to say it. In other words, the old understanding of tolerance demanded robust honest disagreements and dialogue.

Whereas, the new tolerance alleges that no one should ever disagree with anyone. Of course this is not new. The tragic Biblical assessment of the root problem in the period of the judges was, “Everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (Judges 21:15). The only sin according to the new tolerance is the sin of intolerance.

This so-called freedom is really a form of cruel bondage. When people are unwilling to say what they know to be true because they are afraid to say that someone else is wrong about anything, the result is that everyone lives in a cognitive penitentiary. The inmates who reside in this delusional environment are not free to honestly love their neighbor. They are forced to affirm what they know to be a lie because immediate perception trumps truth and consequences.

In other words, the self-protecting act of being perceived as nice and non-judgmental in the moment is valued over self-sacrificial concern for others and reality. This is the opposite of Paul’s admonition, “Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good” (Rom 12:9).

How are Christians to respond to the attempted cultural imposition of the new tolerance? We must be insurgent freedom fighters who cannot be intellectually imprisoned because we have decided to know nothing among anyone except Jesus Christ and him crucified (1 Cor 2:2).

The reality of a crucified Messiah teaches us that God is eternally committed to truth and eternally intolerant of sin. Jesus, who declared that he was the truth incarnate, was crucified for sinners so that they might be forgiven of their sins through faith in him. This Gospel of Christ is the ultimate truth that governs followers of Jesus.

Following the one who is “the truth” means that we are liberated to be truth-tellers (John 14:6).
Our cultural opponents are not our enemies; they are our mission field. Our goal is not to destroy them, but to love them and point them to the love of Christ. Our greatest concern in the midst of our current cultural chaos must not be for what we feel we are personally losing in terms of cultural power but rather the destruction that we know such a path will bring to the lives of image bearers whose only hope is found in the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

We must not cry, “Peace, peace, when there is no peace,” (Jer. 6:14, 8:11, Ezek. 13:10, 16) but we must also refuse to cry, Hopeless, hopeless, where there is Gospel hope. We must not minimize sin or minimize the power of the Gospel.

Cruciform love demands that we remain hopeful about the power of the gospel to transform any life; however, genuine love never disregards the truth or exchanges the truth for a lie. We must follow the path of Jesus and his apostles and be willing to receive scorn without self-pity and without forsaking gospel love for the scorners. Christians cannot go along with the current ethos that asserts self-identification is Lord because Jesus alone is Lord.

But we must also remember that we are not Lord, so we do not decide our place in society, we simply bear witness wherever we are. If our commitment to truth and refusal to bow before the cultural powers ever lands us in a prison cell, we can say with the frequently imprisoned apostle Paul, that we are free (Gal 5:1), because “the word of God is not imprisoned” (2 Tim 2:9). After all, we serve the Power above the powers.

David E. Prince is pastor of preaching and vision at Ashland Avenue Baptist Church in Lexington, Kentucky and assistant professor of Christian preaching at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is the author of In the Arena and Church with Jesus as the Hero. He blogs at Prince on Preaching and frequently writes for The Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, For the Church, and Preaching Today.

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