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“I don’t understand why Christians have to be so intolerant of others.”

I had just finished a moderated discussion on religious pluralism with an articulate professor from another university who argued that all religions and forms of spirituality are equally valid options in today’s diverse world. I agreed that different religions and spiritual practices could serve as a coping mechanism in today’s chaotic world. But I wanted to ask: Might there be ultimate Truth that doesn’t bend God to our needs or desires? I argued, that Truth could be found in the person of Jesus Christ who himself claimed to be the truth, not merely one option (Jn. 14:6). Some liked my response; others did not.

A student rushed up to me after our discussion and voiced his displeasure loudly in front of the lingering crowd. I struggled with how to respond to such a serious accusation.

As the crowd moved in to hear my response, I knew I needed to be careful not to overreact. The Proverbs state that the foolish show their annoyance at once (12:16) while the wise seek to gather information (10:14). Sound advice, but hard to apply. If you’re like me, the word intolerant is a loaded one that is the equivalent of a verbal shot across the bow. Instead of becoming defensive, I tried to heed the ancient writers who state that answering before listening is folly (Prov. 18:13).

As a communication professor, I’m often asked: Of all my graduate education and books I’ve read, what’s one principle that stands out? I remember my favorite graduate school professor writing on the white board: “Words are riddles which need to be figured out. So, ask.”1 The most important words we use—love, justice, God, gender, race, truth, tolerance—are abstract words that need to be explained by the one using them. Social scientist and theologian, Jacques Ellul, noted that even common words can have complex meaning depending on the context:

Even the simplest word—bread, for instance—involves all sorts of connotations. In a mysterious way, it calls up many images which form a dazzling rainbow, a multitude of echoes. When the word bread is pronounced, I cannot help but think of the millions of people who have none. I cannot avoid the image of a certain baker friend of mine, and of the time during the Nazi occupation when bread was so scarce and of such poor quality. The communion service comes to me: the breaking of bread at the Last Supper and the image of Jesus, both present and future.2

Ellul’s point about the ambiguous nature of words became clear to me during the first few minutes of my conversation with this student challenging my stance on religious truth. After listening, I asked, “Could you tell me what you mean by the word intolerant?” He gladly responded. “Christians arrogantly think that because you have a corner on the truth you have nothing to learn from other religious leaders. You are intolerant of everybody’s view but your own!” Knowing his definition of intolerance took some of the ambiguity out of the conversation and helped me shape my response.

I told him that I believed that God has not left himself without a witness among all nations (Rom. 1:19-20; Acts 17:22-28) and that his common grace has been poured out onto all people (John 1:9; Romans 1:21). Because of this biblical truth I’m not surprised when I meet non-Christians who have great practical wisdom or an admirable lifestyle. In fact, one of my friends at Biola recently wrote a thought-provoking book, Confucius for Christians, where he argues that much of the teaching of this ancient Chinese thinker can help Christians live out our deepest convictions.

While I do believe salvation is found in Christ alone, I also believe that Buddha has much to teach me about compassion, while Muhammad provides a powerful example of spiritual discipline and a heart for the poor. I explained that being a Christian does not keep me from commending acts of compassion and activism lived out by followers of other religious traditions. I shared with this student a story about Gandhi’s solidarity with the poor which has always impressed me. While at the height of his popularity, Gandhi was asked by reporters why he chose to travel third class with India’s outcasts when he could travel first class with British dignitaries. “I travel third class because there is no fourth class,” he replied. Such humility, I told this student, puts me to shame.

If intolerance meant that I refused to learn from other religious figures, then I assured him—and the surrounding crowd—that many in the Christian camp are deeply tolerant.

As our conversation progressed, I asked if I could share my view of tolerance. “Sure,” he said.

I started by telling him that my understanding of tolerance is based on both an observation and a definition. The observation comes from Christian author Daniel Taylor who noted that most people would admit that no one tolerates everything. He writes: “Given that everyone agrees that some things should not be tolerated, the real issue should not be whether one is tolerant or intolerant, but what’s included on one’s list.”3 To illustrate Taylor’s point I asked the crowd listening to our conversation to tell me what actions or opinions would be on their “not to be tolerated” list. They quickly responded with words such as racism, hatred, terrorism, child molesting, and so on. I pointed out that the fact that we all have lists show that when it comes to the charge of intolerance, we stand on equal footing. No one is tolerant of everything.

I told him that the definition of tolerance I like comes from rabbi and social critic Joshua Liebman who wrote: “Tolerance is the posture and cordial effort to understand another’s beliefs, practices, and habits without necessarily sharing or accepting them.” 4 To be tolerant, I suggested to the group, is simply to engage in a good discussion where each of us can freely share a wide range of viewpoints and values. All of us—Christian and non-Christian—can benefit from considering experiences, beliefs, and opinions that differ from our own. We don’t all have to agree with each other.

Overall, I was pleased with the discussion. Considering each other’s definitions of tolerance and focusing on where our beliefs overlap allowed us to recognize our similarities while probing our real differences. In today’s argument culture, I was encouraged by what had not happened. Our conversation, while at times intense, had not digressed into an argument or shouting match. I asked for his email to continue the conversation, and we’ve already had our first exchange.

All around us loud—and often violent—conversations are happening. Many are tempted to just avoid hard topics altogether. “I just don’t know how to start a difficult conversation,” is a common reply. Perhaps, an opening is created when we approach others with the realization that all words are in fact, riddles. Riddles that can be unpacked by asking, “Can you tell me what you mean by that?”


  1. This was a paraphrase of a famous quote by Jacques Ellul, “All language is more or less a riddle to be figured out.” To read full quote see: Jacques Ellul, “Seeing and Hearing: Prolegomena” in Rob Anderson, Kenneth Cissna, and Ronald Arnett (Eds.), The Reach of Dialogue: Confirmation, Voice, and Community (Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press, 1994), 123.
  2. Ellul, “Seeing and Hearing,” 121.
  3. Daniel Taylor, “Deconstructing the Gospel of Tolerance,” Christianity Today, January 11, 1999, 44.
  4. Quoted in, Tim Downs, Finding Common Ground: How to Communicate with Those Outside the Christian Community While We Still Can (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 1998), 28.

Tim Muehlhoff

Biola University
Tim is a professor of communication at Biola University in La Mirada, CA and is the co-director of the Winsome Conviction Project which seeks to reintroduce humility, civility, and compassion back into our public disagreements. His most recent book is End the Stalemate: Move from Cancel Culture to Meaningful Conversations (with Sean McDowell) and he's the creator of an interactive website designed to help understand disagreements:


  • Gordon Moulden says:

    “I don’t understand why Christians have to be so intolerant of others.”

    I actually think that comment misses the core issue. I believe the core issue is values, and rejection of a particular set of values extends to intolerance towards those who embrace them. Rejection of “I am the way, the truth, and the life” is expressed by opposing those who believe that declaration from Christ, as does rejection of the idea that marriage can only be between one biological male and one biological female. Those who hold to a biological definition of gender are opposed because they reject the popular psychological view embracing multiple genders, from among which anyone is free to choose. In Canada, rejection of “colonialism” because of mistreatment of indigenous groups has found its expression in a distaste towards those who represent the colonialists: Canadians of British descent as well as the descendants of those who’ve immigrated since the nation of Canada was born in 1867. Statues have been defaced and some land districts assigned new names, for the purpose of “decolonialism”. While it is a relative few involved in the movement, the resulting discomfort is felt by many as a result of governmental decisions, and there is clearly resentment stemming from it all.

    All this begs the question: how can we have a civil, intelligent discussion about values?

  • Jeff Bingham says:

    “I don’t understand why Christians have to be so intolerant of others.”

    You answered this student by unpacking the connotations surrounding the word “intolerance”, but also by demonstrating a form of tolerance by referencing the wisdom of nonChristian faiths and practitioners. However, there is another truth in the student’s question: while Christians do not “have” to be so intolerant (as you demonstrated), a very large and vocal number of Christians are intolerant, even by your own reconsidered standard. If intolerance means refusing to learn from other religious figures, then while “many in the Christian camp are deeply tolerant”, many more are not. And, of course, many in religions outside the Christian camp are also not deeply tolerant. I think this has to be acknowledged and addressed as well.

  • Gordon Moulden says:

    There is a life-skill at which adults are often very poor. I’ve heard a saying: Can’t we all just agree and get along?”. That is not realistic: people with opposing viewpoints on an issue are not going to agree easily, if at all. But, in a meeting, when a decision needs to be made, those involved need to arrive at a decision despite their differences. The key is not to agree with everyone in order to get along, but to learn how to get along with those with whom we disagree. “Can’t we disagree and still get along?” That is a vital interpersonal skill in any situation where opinions clash, and they will often clash when people with divergent political views or cultural values come together.

  • Thanks for all your comments–very insightful! One quick thought to keep the conversation going: Tolerance needs to exist on both the content level (our ideas, convictions, and ideology) and, perhaps most importantly in today’s argument culture, on the relational level (amount of respect, empathy, and intellectual humility between individuals). Both levels are represented by the apostle Peter when he commands we be ready to give a reason for the hope in us (content level), but also present those reasons with all “gentleness and reverence” (1 Pet. 3:15). My post mostly focused on the relational level as a way to respond to a fairly heated assertion. While both are equally important, I suspect we need more relational tolerance to shift the tone in our conversations as we seek to share our content. Onward:)