Home Voices The Exchange Public Evangelism in an Age of Relativism

Public Evangelism in an Age of Relativism

evangelism and tolerance

I think it was D.A. Carson who coined the phrase “the intolerance of tolerance.” It is certainly apropos. One of the great ironies of our so-called tolerant age is just how intolerant it can be. Whereas the great legacy of classic toleration was the mantra, “I may disagree with you, but I’ll die for your right to say what you believe,” political correctness has generated a culture of suspicion and fear.

Some of this is understandable: when online forums can spew out and radicalize Islamic terrorism, it is conceivable that certain forms of manipulation need to be monitored. But that is quite different from a nanny state interfering with every whim and whisper of our conscience.

It is good news then that Chicago has decided that is allowable to evangelize in public in Millennium Park. What is astonishing is that was ever up for grabs at all! 

What is a Christian view of public free speech in secular societies? I’ve always liked the phrase a “free market of ideas.” When we were evangelizing at Yale University, we advocated for our right to tell college students the gospel, and also that other philosophies and religions should be able to have their say too.

That doesn’t mean that we earnestly campaign for the validity of other faith positions; far from it. We advocate for their illogical inconsistency, falsehood, and devilish failure, if truth be told. We love sinners but do not agree with sin, whether in our own lives or in the lives of others. We must contend earnestly for the faith once for all delivered to the saints. Our prayer is that, as the apostle instructed Timothy, we might live quiet lives and that the gospel might flourish.

There is no such thing as a neutral ideological vacuum. We must stand for something. And what the new kind of relativistic tolerance is showing is that it is not really tolerant at all. 

The alternative is a society that is built upon the best of Christian values: to render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s, to love our neighbor enough to confront him or her with the truth of the gospel, as well as to do their grocery shopping and mow their lawn. 

I’ve recently been reading again in Tertullian, the great father of the Latin church. While his later works have often fallen under suspicion because of his flirtation with Montanism, his earlier apology in particular is well worth reading—along with the general greatness of his genius—because of the fresh need for us to advocate for the overall good of Christianity for society.

Non-Christian, if you are reading this, you want there to be more Christians in your society. We will take care of the poor. We will visit the sick. We will send relief to the next flood or hurricane disaster. You might not like our music (or you may, who knows), and you may not like our taste in movies (or maybe you do)—but what we are, we Christians, is salt and light in the world. We tend to make our communities places of peace and thriving. We seek the good of the city, and your good too. What you don’t want, non-Christian, is to get rid of us, hate us, spurn us, stop us from evangelizing. 

The whole thing is extraordinary. I live in the Chicago area. Once, when a family member came to visit me, he was mildly astonished at the brazen advertising on the highways for strip clubs while he drove in from the airport. And, really, Chicago had to debate whether it was okay to evangelize in public about Jesus when you can proselytize about so-called “gentlemen’s clubs”?

To be clear, I am glad that Chicago has made the right decision. But let it be noted that it had to be fought for. Well done to those Wheaton College students for sharing the faith. And the more Christians there are—yes, evangelizing in public—the better it will be for Chicago, and everywhere else too for that matter.