“There are lots of ways to find God,” Shelly blurted out.
Sitting next to her friend on the bus, Amy responded, “I don’t
know about that, Shelly. Jesus says he’s the only way.”
“How can you say that? You can’t know for sure that your way is
the only way! All that matters is that you find God, right?”
Amy looked at Shelly and said, “But that isn’t what I
“Why are you being so stubborn? My mom says Christians are so
intolerant of other people because they believe their way is the
only way!” accused Shelly.
The sting of those last words rang in Amy’s ears as she stepped
off the bus — so intolerant! Amy walked up the stairs of her
house, angry and sad at the same time. Angry that her friend
wouldn’t give her a chance to respond and sad that she’d been
misunderstood. Mostly Amy was sad that her friend Shelly just
doesn’t “get it.”
We’ve all heard the accusation before: Christians are so
intolerant! At one time, tolerance would’ve been a great quality
for any Christian to possess. Tolerance once meant to respect
people who hold other beliefs, even if you didn’t agree with
Unfortunately, over the years tolerance has evolved from the
recognition and respect of another person who holds a contrary
belief, value, or lifestyle to an acceptance of those beliefs,
values, and lifestyles as equally valid and true. Today if you say,
“Jesus is the only way,” you just get labeled “intolerant.”
A Historical Perspective
Let’s face it. The church in general doesn’t have the best
reputation when it comes to communicating with those with different
lifestyles or belief systems.
Historically the church has faced differing belief systems,
sometimes responding by sending in a hoard of hostile warriors to
beat some religious truths into our neighbors.
When a prominent church leader responds to the abortion issue,
evolution theories, or sexual orientation differences with a hard
line and judgmental spirit, the rest of the world wonders if all
Christians believe the same way. The world assumes we’re all
judgmental and intolerant.
Currently, there’s another problem. In a poll conducted for
Religion & Ethics Newsweekly/U.S. News & World
Report as to what Americans believe about their faith and
about the faith of others, the survey shows that most Americans are
woefully ignorant of other religious groups and report very little
contact with other religious people.
Simply put, it’s easier to tolerate people when you don’t know
their particular beliefs and practices. The poll also reveals that
religion is only one of many influences that are relevant to how
people lead their lives. Religiously observant Americans may be
tolerant precisely because their faith is less relevant to many
aspects of their lives.
This doesn’t leave us with a good picture. We’re either
perceived as intolerant or we’ve become tolerant because we don’t
know any better! We lack an understanding of and commitment to any
doctrinal truths, perhaps because we perceive that our faith is
irrelevant to our lives.
A Biblical Perspective
Jesus invites us to follow him. He had an open-door policy with
outsiders. He was a “come as you are” kind of guy. If we were to
quickly look at the people he extended himself to, we would see
- having a conversation with the woman at the well, an adulterous
player from Samaria.
- sharing dinner with Zacchaeus, a temple tax collector with an
- calling for the children, the least of these, to come and
- even extending words of comfort, grace, and forgiveness to the
thief on the cross.
Was Jesus tolerant? Yes. Jesus recognized and understood other
people’s beliefs, values, and lifestyle choices, but then through
grace and compassion he challenged them to change. That’s the
clearest definition of biblical tolerance!
Did he consider everyone’s beliefs, values, and lifestyle as
equal? Absolutely not! In fact, if we look at the account of the
rich young ruler who approached Jesus for a backstage pass to
heaven, we see a different outcome. No doubt Jesus loved this young
man, and the young man loved Jesus, but when challenged to
prioritize his values differently, to make a change reflective of
his beliefs, the young man refused and walked away.
In 1 Corinthians 5:1-5, the Apostle Paul describes a church
member who was living in sin with his father’s wife. He had no
regard for the law or expectation of the community. Paul didn’t
suggest that the church should tolerate this behavior but insisted
upon immediate discipline and dismissal from the community so the
man would choose to stop sinning.
We’re called to demonstrate the love of Jesus — even to those
who are involved in practices we don’t approve of or that are
different from ours, without losing our personal convictions and
understanding of the truth.
Children will be exposed to true intolerance at some point in
their lives. They may hear discriminatory remarks on the
playground, see examples of stereotypes or prejudice in movies or
on television, or pick up on intolerance in adults’ behavior. If
parents, teachers, and other adult leaders don’t address issues of
prejudice and discrimination, children may grow up believing that
racial and cultural inequities are normal or that victims of
discrimination deserve poor treatment because they’re somehow
inferior. How we address these issues is critical.
Other religions will continue to exist, and new ones will
continue to emerge. There will always be misinterpretations of
Scriptures. Issues such as homosexuality aren’t going to go away
just because we may object. Abortion and racial prejudice won’t
disappear just because a law is written prohibiting them.
Today’s kids and youth live in a culture where many are grazing
through religious institutions. Like a buffet, kids are picking out
an eclectic assortment of tidbits that appeal to them — a little
Christ, a little Buddha, some Hindu, and some New Age appetizers.
Create your own religion, they think. The questions they encounter
in life demand more than our plateful of religious morals and
Our kids will always be faced with these issues and probably
even more issues in the future. It’s important that we help
children develop personal convictions and core beliefs based on
God’s truths. Otherwise they’ll become the kind of people James
wrote about: “like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the
We need to help children know the truth. Read it, study it,
meditate on it, pray with it, discuss it, and live it. We need to
guide them to know that God doesn’t promise us all the answers, but
he does promise us wisdom and his full attention.
Talking About It
There’s an urgent need to provide for our children the truth
that’ll give direction. Our relativistic culture leads them to an
amoral place of “I have my truth and you have yours,” but God’s
truth never changes. Use these principles to guide children.
- Treat all questions with respect. Even if the question or
answer is complex or inconsequential, it’s important for kids to
know they can ask anything. Use age-appropriate language when
you’re talking to children, and don’t be afraid to tell them you
don’t know. Then take time to explore answers to their
- Discuss cultures. Understanding different groups and faiths
gives kids awareness and alleviates fears. Equip kids to have a
simple conversation regarding differences and similarities in
family histories and customs.
- Give perspective. Direct kids to the Scriptures so they form a
biblical perspective. Kids may live in a culture of relativism and
pluralistic beliefs, but they’re looking to us to direct them to
find God’s truth.
- Clarify misconceptions. Children will watch the differences
between people, such as sexual orientation, religious choices,
socioeconomic lifestyles, educational levels, special needs, and
disabilities. Address kids’ already-established stereotypes and
oversimplified generalizations about a group of people without
regard to individual differences. Watch for judgmental statements
- Be a role model. If you want children to value diversity and
respect differences, you have to model that approach to life
yourself. Educate parents, teachers, and adults in your
congregation that the truth this generation needs to know will only
be validated through the lives the adults lead.
Kids are watching and learning from you. Will you show them the
truth in the Scriptures by living out biblical tolerance? Will you
model for them tolerance as Christ did through grace, compassion,
and conviction? Will they know that Jesus is the only way?
As children’s roots grow deeper into truth, they’ll be given
opportunities to extend compassion and grace, showing patience and
true tolerance for others who disagree with them. Share these
tolerance tips with kids.
- Never argue. Arguing with people who have differing views
rarely — if ever — works. In fact, arguments convey intolerance
and alienate people.
- Ask questions. Use Jesus’ method of asking questions to help
people think. For example, ask, “Why do you think God would allow
his Son to die if there were other ways to get to heaven?” or
“Would you be willing to explore more about what Jesus said before
you totally discount that he’s the only way?”
- Quote Jesus. Tell kids to share with friends the very words
that Jesus used. Say something like, “All I know is what Jesus
said. He said that he is the way, the truth, and the life. And that
no one comes to God but through him.”
- Love people. In the end, kids need to be taught to love and
respect all people — no matter what they believe. That’s what
Jesus did, and that’s what he calls us to do.
Sharyn Spradlin and Cyndie Steenis are co-founders of New
Re-sors-es, a Seattle, Washington, consulting and training
ministry. Please keep in mind that phone numbers, addresses, and
prices are subject to change.