The Origins of Christian Tolerance

by Edmund Mazza, Ph.D.

Many people who do not attend church view Christians as “judgmental” (87%), “hypocritical” (85%), and “insensitive to others” (70%), according to the Barna Group. However, the concepts of tolerance, freedom of conscience, and loving one’s enemies originated with Christ and flourished among His followers.

Before Christianity, one third of Romans were slaves, toiling in mines, fighting as gladiators, or laboring in households. Truth be told, except for the faithful who worshiped the one true God, before Christ’s coming most everyone was a slave—a slave to things of this world. But Jesus changed that by offering a new perspective: “Do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?” (Matthew 6:25, ESV) “And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matthew 10:28, ESV). Jesus revealed the truth of what it means to be human—body and soul, in time and eternity—and only this truth frees. His followers rejected all other ways of life as false and sinful, not because they were haters, but because they loved others so much they could not bear to see even one lost.

As Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI explained in his 2008 address to the Collège des Bernardins in Paris: “[They] did not regard their missionary proclamation as propaganda, designed to enlarge their particular group. . . . [T]he God in whom they believed was the God of all people . . . who had revealed [H]imself . . . in [H]is Son, thereby supplying the answer which was of concern to everyone. . . . The universality of God, and of reason open toward [H]im, is what gave them the motivation—indeed, the obligation—to proclaim the message. They saw their faith as belonging, not to cultural custom that differs from one people to another, but to the domain of truth, which concerns all people equally.”

Yet governments have historically rejected this notion. The first Christian leaders were put to death for refusing to place belief in Caesar on the same level as belief in Christ. Tertullian, an early Christian theologian, protested such government coercion, asserting individual liberty for the first time in history in a letter to Scapula, a proconsul of Africa: “It is a fundamental human right, a privilege of nature, that every man should worship according to his own convictions: one man’s religion neither harms nor helps another man. It is assuredly no part of religion to compel religion—to which free-will and not force should lead us.” This is not to say that people have a right to worship their way instead of God’s way, but it does mean that individual consciences should be respected to the fullest extent possible without harming the common good.

During the Middle Ages, roles were reversed, and Christians held sway over society. Regrettably, many offenses, especially against Jews, occurred. According to the Code of Canon Law of the Catholic Church (1235), however, Church lawmakers still officially promoted tolerance toward non-Christians, stating: “Jews and Muslims should be persuaded by authoritative texts, by reason, and by sweet words rather than by harshness. . . . They should not, however, be compelled to do so, for forced servitude does not please God.” Since all humans have reason, however, the university scholastics engaged in rational disputations not only with one another, but with Jews, Muslims, Mongols, Buddhists, and others. As St. Thomas Aquinas taught: “Fraternal correction is not opposed to forbearance . . . . For a man bears with a sinner, in so far as he is not disturbed against him, and retains his goodwill towards him: the result being that he strives to make him do better.”

Despite the historical failings of individuals and institutions, Christ’s Church has displayed a consistent theme of tolerance and compassion for those of other faiths and ideologies, while unapologetically standing for the Truth. Ironically, critics of Christianity no longer seek to debate with those who differ. They use labels rather than arguments. Indeed, in the name of equality, they have been trained to embrace diversity of beliefs and never challenge them, by pushing for a conformity leading to uniformity. Martin Luther King Jr. foretold this lamentable lack of conviction in a sermon he gave in the tumultuous ’60s:

At midnight colors lose their distinctiveness and become a sullen shade of grey. Moral principles have lost their distinctiveness. . . . [A]bsolute right and absolute wrong are a matter of what the majority is doing. Right and wrong are relative to likes and dislikes and the customs of a particular community. We have unconsciously applied Einstein’s theory of relativity, which properly described the physical universe, to the moral and ethical realm. . . . This mentality has brought a tragic breakdown of [objective] moral standards.

The objectivity of truth is vital, because without it, our treatment of one another becomes sentimental and, therefore, arbitrary. The traditional definition of love is to will the good for another. Reason, not emotion, predominates: We need to know the truth and what the objective good is, or else we are incapable of genuine love. That love and truth are inseparable should surprise no one. “For God [the Father] so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal Life” (John 3:16, ESV). But Jesus is also the logos (Greek for “reason” or “truth”) who was “in the beginning with God” (John 1:2, ESV). Logos, Truth, is not something, but Someone: “For this purpose I was born . . . to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice” (John 18:37, ESV).

Edmund Mazza, Ph.D., is a professor in the Department of History and Political Science. emazza@apu.edu