In my role as a “public Christian” who values spirited discourse about the issues of our time, I want to nurture environments where people can openly wrestle with their beliefs—but without the fear of being caricatured, labeled, or demonized.
In other words, I am for disagreeing in an agreeable way. I guess you could say that I am an advocate for tolerance.
My friend and former colleague Tim Keller says that tolerance does not require us to abandon our convictions. True tolerance, says Keller, is revealed by how our convictions lead us to treat people who disagree with us.
Tolerance that tolerates only people who think like us is not tolerance. It is covert prejudice.
For the Christian witness to be taken seriously in an increasingly pluralistic and secular environment such as the West, Christians must learn the art of being able to 1) have integrity in our convictions; 2) genuinely love, listen to, and serve those who do not share our convictions; and 3) consistently do both at the same time.
Otherwise, rather than being a light to the culture, we run the risk of becoming products of the culture.
I believe that an effective Christian witness—especially when the prevailing tone in virtually all public discourse is outrage, not civility—depends on Christians adopting a tone that is counterculture to the norm.
I appreciate what a former Harvard chaplain says about bridging relational divides between people who disagree, even on the most fundamental level. He writes:
The divide between Christians and atheists is deep. . . . I’m dedicated to bridging that divide—to working with . . . atheists, Christians, and people of all different beliefs and backgrounds on building a more cooperative world. We have a lot of work to do. . . .
My hope is [to] help foster better dialogue between Christians and atheists and that, together, we can work to see a world in which people are able to have honest, challenging, and loving conversations across lines of difference.
The Harvard chaplain’s name is Chris Stedman. He is an atheist. Yet his perspective and tone are deeply Christian and biblical.
The Israelite spies came alongside Rahab, a working prostitute, to advance the work of God’s Kingdom. Joseph served alongside Pharaoh, Nehemiah alongside Artaxerxes, and Daniel alongside Nebuchadnezzar. Jesus, a Jewish male, received a drink from a promiscuous Samaritan woman.
Paul, a Messianic Jew, affirmed secular poets and philosophers as he quoted their works from memory to Athenian intellectuals.
All these were faithful, noncompromising people of faith in deeply secular, pluralistic environments who 1) had integrity in their convictions; 2) genuinely loved, listened to, and served those who did not share their convictions; and 3) consistently did both at the same time.
Contested issues like politics, race, sexuality, economic justice, and more should be approached and discussed in a way that builds relational bridges instead of burning them. Inviting others to belong and journey with us even before they believe with us or agree with us is a deeply Christian thing.
So is breaking bread with people and welcoming them into relationship, whether or not they ever end up agreeing with us. Do we understand this?
In this, Jesus shows us the way.
When the rich ruler dismissed Jesus’ invitation to come follow him, Jesus looked at the man as he walked away and loved him. And as he walked away from Jesus, the man was sad. Not angry or hostile or feeling judged . . . but sad.
Consider this thought from my new book, Befriend: Create Belonging in an Age of Judgment, Isolation, and Fear:
Wherever love dominates the environment, it’s no condemnation first and ethics after that.
With Jesus, love establishes the environment for the morality conversation. It is not our repentance that leads to God’s kindness, but God’s kindness that leads to our repentance.
After eighteen years of pastoral ministry, I have never met a person who fell in love with Jesus because a Christian scolded them about their ethics. Have you?
Gandhi, who claimed that his humanitarian ethic was almost 100 percent inspired by the life and teachings of Jesus, chose Hinduism over Christianity. Why? Because of how poorly he was treated, and how much he felt judged, by the Christians that he knew.
Chillingly and famously, Gandhi said, “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.” In a climate of hostility and “us against them,” let’s start working for a different narrative, shall we?
In contrast to the above, over the years I have met hundreds, if not thousands, of people who fell in love with Jesus because a Christian or community of Christians loved, served, lifted a burden, and befriended them.
When Jesus said to let our light shine before men that they may see our good works and glorify our Father in heaven, he envisioned something more like this. He envisioned people being drawn irresistibly to him, not in spite of Christians, but because of Christians.
There is perhaps no better way to finish this thought than with these words from Madeleine L’Engle’s Walking on Water:
We draw people to Christ not by loudly discrediting what they believe, by telling them how wrong they are and how right we are, but by showing them a light that is so lovely that they want with all their hearts to know the source of it.
Let’s roll up our sleeves and love somebody, shall we?
Scott Sauls is senior pastor of Christ Presbyterian Church in Nashville, Tennessee, and author of Jesus Outside the Lines and Befriend. You can connect with Scott at scottsauls.com or on Twitter at @scottsauls.