Overcoming the Intolerant Label Through Practical Ministry
By Samuel M. Huddleston
I decided to go for an early morning walk. The cool air reminded me it was fall, so I put on my Chi Alpha sweatshirt. I live close to an animal shelter. Because I love dogs, I decided to stop and say good morning to the incoming puppies.
Why do I do this to myself? Visiting helpless puppies in cages is not the best way to start one’s weekend. The barking and crying is enough to send you over the edge or, at least, prompt you to take one or two home.
It is one thing to adopt a puppy, but it is a different stretch of the heart to visit a person who is locked up, or assist him in finding a home, church, and new family in Christ once he has been released. Or, how about walking alongside a person who is struggling with his sexual identity while he is finding his true identity in Christ?
It can be messy living out Matthew 25:31–46. What saddens me, though, is the fact some people — including Christians — are more tolerant of a puppy that might soil their carpet than they are of a person who might mess up their schedule or who might have an abhorrent lifestyle. But this is how the world views Christians.
Many in today’s society label Christians as intolerant because of our beliefs and actions toward certain segments of society. We need to ask ourselves, Are we intolerant toward people whose lifestyles are different from ours?
The Intolerant Label
Because of our attitude toward nonbelievers, the world sees us as intolerant. At times, we have given them good reason. Teresa Whitehurst addresses this issue in her article entitled, “Making Tolerance a Sin; Intolerance a Virtue: The Intolerance of Christian Conservatives.” Whitehurst writes: “My friend, the truth hurts: Intolerance has become a standard ‘Christian’ teaching in conservative circles and is now a badge of honor. When Antonio Scalia exhorted conservative Christians ‘to be fools for Christ,’ he was speaking in the longstanding tradition of sacrificing one’s pride and risking ridicule with gratitude for Christ’s ultimate sacrifice for us.”1
We have proven the above statement to be true in our Christian circles by the way we answer political questions, or by the faces we make when speaking with an atheist, homosexual, parolee, or someone with HIV.
Personally, I have found that intolerance is not the rule, but the exception. While some Christians seem to dominate the airwaves, they do not dominate my experiences. The church came to my aid as a young, wayward man — helped my family and me through some of our most difficult days. And, while I was imperfect, they accepted and loved me. If I had not experienced such love and acceptance from His church, I do not believe that — as an African-American pastor desiring to create a multicultural church in an all-white community — I would have had the fortitude to succeed.
How Can Christians Overcome the Intolerant Label?
The New World Dictionary defines the word tolerate as: to not interfere with, allow, or permit; to recognize and respect other’s beliefs and practices without sharing them.Question: How do I, as a believer, tolerate someone’s beliefs if they are contrary or even repulsive to my own? Am I to not interfere, but allow, permit, and even respect someone’s actions even if they may be harmful to society or to me? What is my duty as a follower of Jesus?
The question: What Would Jesus Do? has a new relevance when people begin to look at me as His ambassador.
Too often, the world defines tolerance as acceptance of anything and everything. This is where many Christians go astray. Many Christians do not know the difference between the world’s definition of tolerance and the dictionary’s definition of tolerance. They do not know the Bible, and they do not know what Jesus would do.
As a person of color, I can tolerate a person who may have racial biases, but I do not have to respect his views. I also can refrain from becoming involved in a person’s practices, yet love him until his eyes are opened by the only One who can open a person’s eyes to the destructive nature of rebellion against God. I like Josh McDowell’s quote:
“Tolerance says, ‘You must approve of what I do.’
“Love responds, ‘I must do something harder; I will love you even when your behavior offends me.’ ”2
Back to What Would Jesus Do? How did Jesus love the hell out of Zacchaeus, a hated tax collector whose behavior offended Him? What was the harder thing Jesus did to show His love for Zacchaeus? He went to his house for tea (at least that is what the Sunday School song says He did). As a result, Jesus was misunderstood, talked about, His heavenly robe was soiled, and the religious leaders rejected Him. But Zacchaeus was released and given a grateful heart. Reaching the lost requires that we go.
Zacchaeus’ response is recorded in Luke 19:8, “Look. Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.”
What did Jesus do to a woman who was caught committing adultery? (John 8:3–11). He forgave her in public, in front of intolerant religious people. Again, Jesus was willing to get dirty to make a woman clean. This sounds like preparation for a bloody cross.
What about the Samaritan woman who had a bad reputation? How did He reach her? He had an appointment with her during the day at a public place. No real believer would ever meet with her in the daytime. What was the result of her meeting with Jesus? She became an evangelist, instructing others to come and see. To tell others to come and see, you must first be able to see for yourself.
In our district, we have ministries (M2 Prison Outreach; Hope, Help, and Healing; Unspoken Ministries, and Door of Hope Ministries) that reach out to the lost, the strays, the sick, and the weak. Two of these — Unspoken and M-2 — challenge the church to be the powerful life-giving change agent that God has ordained and empowered it to be in the world. These ministries give the church — you and me — opportunity to become like Jesus to a person in desperate need who may never visit or return to our churches — or might they? These ministries do not just tolerate, they infiltrate a person’s pain with the powerful, life-challenging love of Jesus Christ. In fact, they try to love the hell, hurt, pain, rebellion, and confusion out of people. They go after the unclean, smelly fish, not waiting for them to jump into the boat, or be packaged. Not all make it, but those who do find the love of our Savior through the arms of His church.
Ministering to the Homosexual
How does a ministry like Unspoken touch the lives of those who are hurting and in need of help? How do you reach a person who is struggling with same-sex attraction? Char Blair, founder of Unspoken Ministries, believes that the next great revival will happen within the gay community. “God is at work in the gay community. This year we received an e-mail from a man who had lived as a homosexual for 25 years. He recently moved to Sacramento, where our ministry is located. After being in Sacramento for 2 weeks, he gave his life to the Lord. He wrote, ‘Christians must be praying for the gay community in Sacramento.’ ”
Each year Unspoken Ministries gathers volunteers from churches across our district and distributes water bottles at the gay pride parade in Sacramento. At first they believed the outreach was for those in the parade. Unspoken, however, is starting to realize that the outreach is for those in the church as well. According to Blair, “Passing out water bottles with labels that read, ‘Loving people for who they are,’ creates opportunity for people within the church to interact with gay people in a nonthreatening environment. Christians are able to set aside their bias when they see hurting humanity in need of Christ.” Many people in the gay community pride themselves on coming out of the closet. The church must be willing to come out as well, not with signs of hatred or voices raised in malice, but with the truth couched in Christ’s love. Author Watchman Nee reminds his readers to do two kind things for someone before sharing the gospel with him. Unspoken Ministries is doing just that.
Ministering to the Captive
How does M-2 minister to a person who has been in a cage for years, and in some ways, has taken on animalistic behaviors? Volunteers tolerate the smells and noises of the prisons, jails, and juvenile facilities to bring prisoners the message of hope they desperately need. M-2 equips, trains, and monitors the volunteers before sending them out. The result of these visits of hope is that after being out of prison for 2 years, 7 out of 10 become law-abiding citizens, breaking the recidivism rate in California of 8 out of 10. Not a bad return for a few hours of your time.
As Christians, we must push past the tolerant or intolerant label toward a lifestyle of love. Scripture reminds us that people will know we are Christians by our love (John 13:35).
What is the purpose of my being intolerant of sin, yet tolerant of the person? Doing the harder task — love. We are reminded in 2 Peter 3:9 that Jesus “is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (emphasis added). Until everyone comes to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ, we must keep going to the highways and hedges, compelling men, women, girls, and boys to accept Christ. We must get our suits, pews, cars, and even our homes dirty so some can become clean. Dealing with unsaved, unreached, and unchurched people is a dirty business, but someone has to do it. Will it be you? Will it be me? What did Jesus do?
Samuel M. Huddleston, D.Min., is assistant superintendent of the Northern California and Nevada district, Rancho Cordova, California
1. Whitehurst, Teresa. CounterPunch. “Making Tolerance a Sin;Intolerance a Virtue:The Intolerance of Christian Conservatives.” Jan 25, 2005. http://www.counterpunch.org/whitehurst01252005.html (accessed March 14, 2008).
2. McDowell, Josh, and Bob Hostetler. New Tolerance No Virtue. Bob Hostetler official web site. http://www.bobhostetler.com/writing/bestof005.html (accessed March 14, 2008).