Tolerance of others pertains to one of the many paradoxes of Christianity
As a teenager,1 I read an intriguing article in a Reader’s Digest-like magazine that argued that to teach our children to be generous, we must first instruct them to be selfish. In reality, what the article actually claimed was that some things owned by the child should be reserved for the child’s exclusive use without having to share, while the remainder must be shareable. Doing this, it was argued, would enable generosity with the non-reserved portion.
Though I have difficulty labeling the concept of an exclusive, reserved portion as selfish—making such a reservation was something God Himself did in Eden—the original sales pitch is nonetheless somewhat appealing: One must be selfish in order to be generous. Even though the original proposal is misstated, its paradoxical character is intriguing. A similar paradox seems to exist in Christianity and is visible in the earliest records of the Christian Church, the New Testament. One side of the paradox is highlighted in the theme chosen for 2011 Conference of the Evangelical Theological Society: “No Other Name.”
Ostensibly, “No Other Name” is a reference to Peter’s statement in Acts 4:12: “‘Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved.’”2 The message here seems clear and unambiguous. Peter asserts to the assembled Sanhedrin that Christ is the sole means of salvation appointed by God. Such a claim points to the exclusivity of Christ and a demarcation of communal identity based on whether or not one believes in and confesses this exclusivity of Christ.
By contrast, the theme for 2011 Conference of the Adventist Society of Religious Studies—"Gates and Walls: Inclusiveness and Exclusiveness and the People of God"—directs us toward the opposite side of the paradox. A faith that preaches an exclusively defined way to salvation is called to reach every nation, kindred, tongue, and people. In short, our exclusive claims about Christ call us to be inclusive, inviting nonbelievers to enter our fellowship and become fellow believers. Is it possible that we living in a paradox in which to be inclusive, we must first be exclusive?
Exclusivity and the Church
In Peter’s daring claim of Acts 4:12 to the Sanhedrin, he clearly challenges the established Jewish order, charging that a Christless Judaism cannot save anyone. In short, Peter is making a very radical claim: There is no other way to salvation than Christ. Why is Peter’s claim so important?
Through the first nine chapters of Acts, Peter is the prominent church leader, and seems to act as the spokesperson for the church. It is he who preaches the Pentecostal sermon in Acts 2 and calls the multitude to be baptized. Likewise, it is he who speaks to the lame man healed by the Beautiful Gate, and who addresses the people in the temple in response to that healing. Upon their detention by the temple police for proclaiming Christ in the temple, it is he who addresses the Sanhedrin in response, and it is in this address that he makes his claim concerning the exclusivity of Christ.
Furthermore, Peter is the authority figure who confronts Ananias and Sapphira, and it is he, along with John, who is asked to go to Samaria to check out the new body of believers (Acts 8). Even after the appearance of Paul, Peter continues to be a prominent, if not dominant, figure in Acts up into chapter 15. Hence, he appears to be one of the prominent leaders in the early church, and in that role, he proclaimed Christ as the exclusive way given by God for attaining salvation.
In Acts 9, a new character appears in the church who would surpass Peter in leadership, a man later known as Paul. It could be said that Paul shaped the formation of the early church in a similar way to Ellen White’s role in the formation of the Adventist Church. He is the most prolific author of our New Testament, with 14 books, and Pauline theology continues to incite debate across Christianity to this day. Despite his great prominence in the early church, however, Paul openly recognized Peter’s prominence.
Paul cast Peter in a pivotal role in Galatians, going out of his way to show that he and Peter were united in the meaning of the gospel. Paul’s first trip to Jerusalem after his conversion sees him visit only Peter and James. Only Peter and James are named in reference to his second visit, and then there is the confrontation with Peter as well (Galatians 1–2). Paul describes Peter as the apostle to the Jews, while describing himself as the apostle to the Gentiles. Paul thus expresses his recognition of their co-prominence as leaders in the church.
This co-prominence is further seen in Acts 15, where Peter, the apostle to the Jews, is the one who introduces the resolution that Gentiles need not be circumcised, and then is supported by Paul. Interestingly, Peter’s speech is recorded verbatim, while Paul’s is only summarized. In harmony with Peter’s statement to the Sanhedrin, Paul would make similar claims about the exclusivity of Christ, but in a much more developed way.
Paul highlights the exclusivity of Christ through use of the “in Christ” motif, especially in Colossians and Ephesians. As Andrew Lincoln notes, “the phrase has a great variety of force, which must be derived through the context in which it is found. Most frequently its use is instrumental, so that it means ‘through Christ’s agency.’”3 For Paul, God created the world “in Christ”4 and “through Christ” (Col. 1:16). Similarly, Paul also argued that God’s redemption is found “by Christ” (Rom. 3:24), eternal life is “in Christ” (6:23), God was in Christ reconciling the world (2 Cor. 5:19), God’s love for us is “in Christ” (Rom. 8:1), we are sanctified “in him” (1 Cor. 1:2), God’s grace is given “in Christ” (vs. 4), we are justified “in Christ” (Gal. 2:17), all will be resurrected “in Christ” (1 Cor. 15:22), and God upholds the world “in Christ” (Col. 1:16).
Additionally, in Ephesians, we are told that God blesses us “in Christ” (1:3), chose us “in him” (vs. 4), has accepted us “in the One” (vs. 6), redeems and forgives us “in him” (vs. 7), and is uniting all things “in Christ” (vs. 10). Using the parallel expression, “through Christ,” Paul even asserts that God judges the world “through Jesus Christ” (Rom. 2:16). Paul’s message seems abundantly clear. All of God’s actions toward this world—from creation to sustaining to blessing to saving to judging—allGod’s actions and interactions with the world are conducted through Christ as God’s divine agent. This is why Paul asserts Christ is the exclusive mediator between God and humankind (1 Tim. 2:5). Vincent Branick observes that Christ is “part of the ultimate agency of God” and “is God’s instrument of justice and salvation.”5 For Paul, Christ is the only avenue through which God relates to this world. Hence there can be no other way of salvation or any other mediator.
Paul reinforces the exclusive role of Christ in one’s salvation in Romans 10. Here he urges that people are saved and justified by confessing with their lips and believing in their hearts that Jesus rose from the dead (vss. 9, 10). “‘Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved’” (vs. 13). Paul then asks the obvious question: How can people call on Christ to be saved if they have not believed? And how can they believe, so they can call, so they can be saved (vs. 14)? For Paul, standard gospel procedure is that people must hear, so they can believe, so they can call on the name of Christ to be saved. No other name will suffice, for Christ is the exclusive agent that God uses for all His dealings with this world. Christ alone is God’s appointed way.
Paul, however, does hint at a type of exception to standard operating procedure. In Romans 2, he speaks of Gentiles who are ignorant of God’s law yet obey it as if it were written in the heart. These “doers of the law” will be “justified,” he asserts, but they will miss out on the assurance that comes with being righteous by faith. Their hearts accuse and excuse them (vss. 13-16). In Paul’s mind, however, even these folk are surely saved by Christ, God’s only agent for relating to humankind. They just won’t know it until the Second Coming.
It is interesting, then, that the two prominent leaders of the early church preached Christ as the exclusive agent of and means to salvation for humanity. They proclaimed this common belief because their teaching came from the same source: Christ himself. Peter was an eyewitness to Christ’s earthly ministry and teachings, and Paul claimed he received the gospel without human agency through a revelation from Christ Himself. Hence a basic unity on this matter is not surprising. We have an inspired memoir that records Christ’s teaching activity during His earthly ministry, in part, in the Gospel of John.
Jesus and Exclusivity
Two statements of Christ, recorded by John, are suggestive of the exclusivity of Christ later proclaimed by Peter and Paul. The first is John 14:6: “‘I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.’” In the fourth Gospel, this statement occurs during the last supper. Jesus has announced that He is leaving and that the disciples cannot come with Him. The disciples panic, and Christ responds with the famous passage, “‘Do not let your hearts be troubled. . . . I am going . . . to prepare a place for you. I will come back’” (vss. 1-3). He then reminds them that they know the way to where He is going (vs. 4).
Thomas immediately asserts that they do not know where Christ is going and thus cannot know the way (vs. 5). Jesus replies that He is the way, the only way to the Father. Hence, the Father is the destination and Christ is the way to Him. The key point is in the simple, unambiguous phrase, “‘No one comes to the Father except through me’” (vs. 6). As Paul would confirm later, Christ presents Himself as the only link between the Father and humankind. As Gail O’Day notes, “In Jesus, the incarnate Word, the Son of God, one can see and know God in a manner never before possible.”6
The second passage recording Christ’s teaching is in John 10. In this passage Jesus uses the imagery of doors and walls for a sheepfold. Interestingly Christ casts Himself both as the shepherd and as the door. Focusing on the latter, Gerald Borchert reminds us that, “The sheepfold was a place of security, not a place for intruders. Such a sheepfold would likely have been either a circular or square enclosure, probably constructed like a high stone fence or wall and perhaps topped with vines. The entrance would have been the only break in the wall, and once the sheep were safely inside at night, the watchman/guard (either a servant or a shepherd, usually an assistant) would lie down across the opening and serve both as the protector of the sheep and as a gate to the sheepfold. Unless an intruder was willing to confront the watchman, the only way into the sheepfold was to climb the wall.”7
By contrast, as Borchert notes, “access for the shepherd was quite another matter. He could enter the sheepfold through the opening and check his sheep anytime he desired because he was known both to the watchman and to the sheep.”8
It is interesting that like the gate of an ancient city, the sheepfold door is not cast as a means of unfettered access and egress. Thus, gates or doors, like walls, were viewed as part of the security system protecting the city or the flock from outside dangers. The New Jerusalem has 12 gates, yet we are told: “‘Blessed are those who wash their robes, that they may have the right to the tree of life and may go through the gates into the city. Outside are the dogs, those who practice magic arts, the sexually immoral, the murderers, the idolaters and everyone who loves and practices falsehood’” (Rev. 22:14, 15). Gates thus control access to provide safety. Gateways with no gate offer unrestricted access, undermining security.
Interestingly, in the sheepfold setting, it turns out that the shepherd could also act as the door to the fold. Merrill Tenney notes that “upon returning home with the flock, the shepherd stood at door and inspected each sheep entering. He anointed wounds, removed thorns, and gave drinks of water. When all the sheep were in, the shepherd would lay down across the opening and become the door.” Tenney concludes, “The emphatic singular pronoun ‘I’ emphasizes that the shepherd is the sole determiner of who enters the fold and who is excluded. It parallels the later statement: ‘I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me’ (John 14:6).”9
J. H. Bernard agrees, saying, “In v. 7 the stress is laid on Jesus being the Door through which a lawful shepherd would enter. But here [v. 9] the thought is simpler. He is the Door through which the sheep must enter the fold, . . . . He is the door to the spiritual fold, as He is the Way (and the only way) of access to the Father (14:6; cf. Eph 2:18, Heb 10:20). . . . The saying I am the Door has always been quoted, from the first century onward, as having as wide an application as the parallel saying, I am the Way.”10 It should not be surprising, then, with Christ’s claims to be the only means of legitimate access to God, that we find Peter and Paul, the two prominent leaders of the early church, proclaiming the same essential message. Christ alone gives us access to God.
Because Christ is the only door, and the only true shepherd, a sense of unique identity is established. Arthur Gossip notes, “In these verses [10:1-5] our Lord challenges the action, and indeed the authority in more than name, of those who had excommunicated the once-blind man; claims that he himself is the real shepherd of God’s flock; and that it is those who recognize his voice and follow him who are the true heirs of the promises and the genuine people of God. . . . With confidence Jesus lays it down that those who are really his respond in certain ways. . . . A stranger they will not follow.”11
Those who follow the voice of Christ receive a unique identity. They are His sheep and not those of another shepherd. Only the sheep belonging to the right shepherd can enter a particular fold. Their identity is established through their relationship to the shepherd, and hence they form a defined, separate flock, following the voice of the exclusive, God-man shepherd who leads them. Yet it is this relational identity, separating the sheep of Christ from the surrounding flocks to Himself, that sets up the possibility of inclusiveness. Christ notes there are other sheep in other folds who need bringing in (John 10:16). And thus we have returned to our opening paradox. Why must we first be exclusive, in order to be inclusive?
Francis Beckwith states: “Many people see moral relativism as necessary for promoting tolerance, non-judgmentalism, and inclusiveness, for they think if one believes one’s moral position is correct and others’ incorrect, one is close-minded and intolerant. I will argue . . . that relativism itself cannot live up to its own reputation, for it is promoted by its proponents as the only correct view on morality. This is why relativists typically do not tolerate nonrelativist views, judge those as mistaken, and maintain that relativism is exclusively right.”12
Further, Beckwith observes that “the principle of tolerance is considered one of the key virtues of relativism.” He then reveals a paradox: “The moral relativist embraces the view that one should not judge other cultures and individuals, for to do so would be intolerant. . . . Ironically, the call to tolerance by relativists presupposes the existence of at least one nonrelative, universal, and objective norm: tolerance.”13
The fact that tolerance functions as an absolute moral value causes the relativist a problem. Thus, in another volume co-authored with Gregory Koukl, Beckwith levels the challenge that “if there are no objective moral rules, . . . there can be no rule that requires tolerance as a moral principle that applies equally to all.”14 Beckwith summarizes his complaints in three points. “First, the relativist says that if you believe in objective moral truth you are wrong. Hence relativism is judgmental. Second, it follows from this that relativism is excluding your beliefs from the realm of legitimate options. Thus relativism is exclusivist. And third, because relativism is exclusivist, all nonrelativists are automatically not members of the ‘correct thinking’ party. So relativism is partisan.”15
Beckwith concludes that the moral relativist is thus confronted with a dilemma: “Judging someone as wrong makes one intolerant, yet one must first think another is wrong in order to be tolerant.”16 Put another way, because relativism has an absolute moral standard—tolerance—while denying there are absolute moral standards and because tolerance acts judgmentally and intolerantly, Beckwith charges that “Ethical relativism is thus repudiated by itself.”17
In Shakespearian imagery, the moral relativist is “hoist[ed] with his own petard,” or, as expressed by Paul, “You who pass judgment on someone else, . . . are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things” (Rom. 2:1). This paradox, however, can work in reverse as well.
Beckwith explores the obverse side of the tolerance paradox by arguing that to be tolerant of others in moral debate, one must first be an absolutist. Arguing from a major dictionary definition of tolerance, Beckwith asserts, “tolerance, then involved permitting or allowing a conduct or point of view you think is wrong while respecting the person in the process. Notice that we cannot tolerate others unless we disagree with them. We don’t tolerate people who share our views. Instead, tolerance is reserved for those we think are wrong.”18
In his other volume, Beckwith refines his point: “Tolerance presupposes a moral judgment of another’s viewpoint. That is to say, I can only be tolerant of those ideas that I think are mistaken. I am not tolerant of that with which I agree; I embrace it. And I am not tolerant of that for which I have no interest (e.g., European professional soccer); I merely have benign neglect for it. (That is, I don’t care one way or another.)”19
The problem, then, is this. To be tolerant, I must first believe something is right or wrong, but to believe something is right or wrong implies some kind of definite standard that reveals the rightness or wrongness of the issue in question. On the basis of Beckwith’s observations, it seems that the moral relativist is, in reality, a closet moral absolutist, making moral judgments of others’ views based on fixed standards of good and evil as defined by moral relativism.
It thus seems impossible to avoid espousing fixed, absolute moral standards in some form or other, and hence the reversal is now complete. In order to be tolerant, one must first have clear, defined standards to know whom to tolerate. Relativism along with its moral norm of tolerance together become entrenched, fixed markers of identity, thus creating boundaries with which to determine who is included in the ranks of the faithful and who is not.
Similarly, when a proposed moral norm like inclusiveness or tolerance becomes the litmus test of identity, such an issue becomes invested, not only with the absolute of a fixed standard, but also with a quasi-political nature that, like medieval church power, seeks to oppress or eliminate dissidence. A crusade mentality is easily inculcated, fostering a fundamental exclusion of contradictory views, relegating them to inferior status. Therefore, for inclusiveness to achieve its stated purpose, there must be some other basis of identity that allows us to recognize who is not part of our “fold” so that we can reach out inclusively. The paradox, then, is that we must have a clear, exclusive identity based in something other than inclusiveness, in order to be inclusive. Further clarity about this paradox is brought through Christ’s teaching about walls and gates in the sheepfold.
Christ says His sheep hear His voice and follow Him. They will not follow the voice of a stranger. We cannot be inclusive until our identity is defined, not by a cause or crusade, but by a person—Jesus Christ. Only an identity centered in one’s personal relationship with Christ can be properly inclusive, for, as we have seen, once inclusivity becomes a cause defining our identity, it becomes exclusive and intolerant. Responding positively to Christ’s voice and following Him as one’s Shepherd become the two identifying marks of the sheep’s identity in Jesus’ teaching about the sheepfold. In regard to the second identity marker, we must thus ask, Where does Jesus go that the sheep follow?
First, the sheep follow Christ in dependence on the Father. Christ twice stated that He did nothing of His own except as given by the Father (John 6:57, 58). This is the same Jesus who rebutted Satan by declaring we are to live by every word that comes from the mouth of God (Matthew 4:4), and who frequently appealed to “it is written” as the governing basis of His choices and actions.
The sheep follow Jesus as He lays aside personal rights in sacrificial service to others (Phil. 2:5-8; 1 Corinthians 9). They follow Jesus to the cross saying, “‘Not my will, but yours be done’” (Luke 22:42). They follow Christ into the paradox of saving one’s life by losing it (Matt. 16:25). They follow Christ to the mount of blessing with its supercharged moral purity that probes far deeper than mere rule-compliance morality (Matthew 5–7). And it is on this mountain that we find godly inclusivity.
“‘But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect’” (Matt. 5:44-48).
The language of “enemies” shows a clear sense of identity in the sheep. They know who belongs to the fold and who are enemies. It is this exclusive identity—being His sheep and no one else’s—that calls us to model God’s grace and reach out to those not in the fold and to woo them into fellowship with the Shepherd, and thus into fellowship with the sheep.
Paul is clear that Christ died for us while we were still enemies, undeserving of any divine favor (Rom. 5:10). The woman caught in adultery exemplifies this principle. Based in her own qualifications, she had no hope of divine favor and was fully aware of her full deservedness of condemnation and judgment. Yet Jesus lifted the condemnation, calling her to a new life free of the sinful ways of the past. Thus, to snobbishly ignore or to scornfully reject interaction and fellowship with those differing from our “fold” is to subvert the work of the Shepherd who goes out into the wilderness to find lost sheep and return them to the safety of the fold. Pious separatism from those differing from us undermines the example of the one who ate with Pharisees, publicans, and prostitutes. There must be a fold that determines identity so we can see to whom we should reach out, yet with a door that provides both a protected haven of safety from intruders and accessibility for the inclusion of more sheep.
Paradoxically, then, it is precisely our hopeless estate under divine judgment that prepares the way for God’s grace. This is because grace is undeserved favor, and undeservedness is established through divine judgment. God consigns all under sin (Gal. 3:22) in order to bring grace to all (Titus 2:11).
Commenting on the Old Testament influences on Paul’s doctrine of salvation, Branick observes that, “Jewish faith held together the divine traits of live-giving love and deadly anger by a third personality trait, divine justice or righteousness. . . . This righteousness or justice often appears in the Bible in images of God as judge. In the prophetic tradition, God arises as judge against his people and against the nations to punish their sins where God is both witness, accuser, and judge in a forensic scenario.” Branick adds, “The ‘wrath’ of God against his sinful people is a theme that dominates the writings of the prophets.”20 And herein lies the paradox, for, as Branick testifies, “In the Jewish faith, only God can save from the wrath of God.”21
For Paul, Christ—in whom all the fullness of deity dwells bodily (Col. 2:9)—saves us from God’s wrath (Rom. 1:18; 2:5; 5:9). Paradoxically, then, it is precisely our hopeless estate under divine judgment that prepares the way for grace. Thus Paul notes he was a persecutor of the church, “not worthy to be called an apostle” (1 Cor. 15:9, NKJV), but “by the grace of God I am what I am” (vs. 10, NKJV). It is when I recognize I am an enemy of God, under the just condemnation of the judgment, without hope, that I am ready to be surprised by God’s grace. Receiving God’s grace as a recovering enemy of God becomes the basis of my showing grace to others. The one who is forgiven much, loves much (Luke 7:47).
And such are the paradoxes of the kingdom of God. God wounds that He may heal (Hosea 6:1). If you try to save your life, you will lose it, but if you lose your life for Christ and the gospel, you save it (Matt. 16:25). The first shall be last and the last shall be first (20:16). “‘Whoever wants to be great among you will be your servant’” (23:11). It should be no surprise, then, that we need judgment to have grace and an exclusive identity in Christ to be inclusively gracious to others.
To return to the opening paradox: To be generous with their toys, children need a reserved subset for their exclusive use, without having to share. Forcing them to share everything they own will engender the desire to share nothing. Having something exclusive provides the basis for being generous.
May the paradox intrigue you as it has me, and may our identity in the exclusive shepherd, the God-man Jesus Christ lead us to demonstrate redemptive, gracious, and respectful relationships with those outside our ideological folds.
NOTES AND REFERENCES
1. This article is adapted from Steve Bauer’s address as president of the Adventist Theological Society in a joint ATS-ASRS meeting on November 18, 2011, in San Francisco.
2. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture references in this article are quoted from the New International Version of the Bible.
3. Andrew T. Lincoln, in David Hubbard and Glenn W. Barker, eds., Ephesians, Word Biblical Commentary (Dallas: Word Books, 1990), vol. 42, p. 21.
4. Quotation marks indicate a use of the “in Christ” motif. The actual Greek text may include pronouns like “in him” or other referents such as “in the beloved,” but all are attestations of the “in Christ” motif.
5. Vincent P. Branick, Understanding Paul and His Letters (New York: Paulist Press, 2009), pp. xiv-xv.
6. Gail R. O’Day, “The Gospel of John,” in Leander E. Keck, The New Interpreter’s Bible: General Articles and Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections for Each Book of the Bible(Nashville, Tenn.: Abingdon, 1996), vol. 9, p. 668.
7. Gerald L. Borchert, in E. Ray Clendenen, ed., The New American Commentary: An Exegetical and Theological Exposition of Holy Scripture (Nashville, Tenn.: B & H Publishing, 1996), vol. 25A, p. 331.
9. Merrill C. Tenney, in Frank E. Gaebelein, ed., The Expositor’s Bible Commentary (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1981), vol. 9, p. 108.
10. H. Bernard, in A. H. McNeile, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel According to St. John, The International Critical Commentary (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1929), vol. 28.2, p. 354, italics in original.
11. Arthur W. Gossip, “Exposition of John,” in George Arthur Buttrick, ed., The Interpreter’s Bible (New York: Abingdon-Cokesbury Press, 1952), p. 621.
12. Francis J. Beckwith, Defending Life: A Moral and Legal Case Against Abortion Choice (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007), p. 3.
13. Ibid., p. 11.
14. Francis J. Beckwith and Gregory Koukl, Relativism: Feet Planted Firmly in Mid-Air (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 1998), p. 69.
15. Beckwith, Defending Life, op cit., pp. 13, 14, italics in original.
16. Beckwith, Relativism, op cit., p. 149.
17. Beckwith, Defending Life, op cit., p. 14, italics in original.
18. Beckwith, Relativism, op cit., p. 149.
19. Beckwith, Defending Life, op cit., p. 12.
20. Branick, Understanding Paul and His Letters, op cit., pp. 64, 65, 90.
21. Ibid., p. 90.