Morality Ch. 17: Conversion or Tolerance?

The Bible appears very intolerant of other religions, urging their followers to convert. Actually, it only condemns dangerous and destructive aspects of other religions. Admittedly, Christians want everyone to find Jesus.

Jews often joke that they don’t want to convert you to Judaism: “You probably have enough problems already.” Behind the humor is a serious point that makes me avoid converting Jews to the religion of Christianity. That is, I don’t want them to adopt a new set of religious practices and institutional structures to replace ones they are used to. But I do want them to find Jesus and worship him as their Savior and Lord. It doesn’t really matter whether they then join a traditional church or, like Messianic Jews, choose to continue most of their old Jewish observances. The important thing is that they know Jesus and trust him for forgiveness of sins.

Is this wishy-washy nonconfrontational tolerance? Actually, it’s the same attitude that New Testament Christians had. They were zealously evangelistic and, at the same time, tolerant of other religious lifestyles among converts. So long as converts followed Jesus, it didn’t matter whether they followed a Jewish lifestyle or not.

This tolerance wasn’t due to cowardice. Paul preached Jesus at every opportunity, even while he was on trial or when facing a hostile mob (Acts 21:2-22:24; 25:23-26:32). Tolerance wasn’t adopted for the sake of an easy life. If Christians had wanted to escape persecution, they could have pretended that being a Christian was simply a form of Judaism, and then the Romans couldn’t have persecuted them because Julius Caesar had given Jews the right to practice their religion. By pointing out that practicing Judaism was not sufficient for salvation, they got themselves persecuted by Jews and Romans alike. Despite these problems, they continued to point out that while Christian beliefs were different, continuing Jewish practices didn’t matter much.

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Relationship, not rites

Christianity wasn’t a new “religion” in the sense that it had a host of new rites, rituals, or ceremonial procedures. Christianity was something very different – neither a set of religious practices nor a set of philosophical beliefs but a relationship with God through Jesus, the risen Christ. Unlike most philosophies, Christianity transformed people’s lives and morals. Unlike most religions, it didn’t introduce a new set of religious practices. Early Christians had no ceremonies or festivals of their own – unless you counted the special way they ended their meals and their once-only cleansing ceremony (baptism), both of which were adapted from Judaism.

Christians were, of course, very concerned about spiritual realities and morality, so they utterly rejected idolatry and immorality, but they didn’t ask converts to give up any religious customs that weren’t sinful. So long as their customs didn’t conflict with God’s laws, the normal practice for new believers was to live out their faith within their own culture and worship via their old ways of “doing” religion. Christianity transformed their inner life and morals, leaving their Jewish culture intact.

Because the first Christians were Jews, their lifestyle already excluded idolatry and immorality. They continued to worship on a Sabbath, heard sermons, and ate kosher food. They even frequented the Temple – not only because it was a good venue (Acts 2:46; 3:1), but because they brought sacrifices. This sounds to us today as though their adherence to their newfound Savior was somewhat lacking, but Jesus himself assumed they would still bring Temple offerings (Matt 5:20, 23). They followed these old practices long after Jesus’ death.

Paul, for example, even made Jewish vows, which included shaving your head and bringing an offering to the Temple (Acts 18:18; 21:23-26). He also circumcised his Greek convert Timothy for the pragmatic reason that this helped get him into places where he could evangelize (Acts 16:3). This later caused trouble because people thought this meant he taught circumcision as part of salvation – he denied this by pointing out that Titus (who was also a Greek convert of his) wasn’t circumcised (Gal 2:3). The point was that these practices could be followed or not, because they weren’t needed for salvation.

Even Gentile converts often didn’t need to change their lifestyles. Many of them already frequented synagogues rather than the Roman temples and followed Jewish morals. Such Gentiles were referred to as “Godfearers,” often translated as “God-fearing Gentiles” in Acts (13:16, 26), and several ancient inscriptions in synagogues refer to them. Many of them heard the gospel in the synagogue and became Christians.

Not surprisingly, some Jewish converts misunderstood and thought that Christianity was merely a form of Judaism. So when Gentiles wanted to become Christians, they told them to convert fully to Judaism first. But Paul rejected this very firmly. He allowed anyone to follow Jewish religious customs, but he vehemently forbade anyone from requiring Jewish practices such as eating kosher food or being circumcised (Gal 2:3-14). Jesus, similarly, criticized Pharisees for persuading Gentiles to follow their religious practices (Matt 23:15).

Gentile Christians could still use the baths and libraries even though they were dedicated to various pagan deities. Rabbi Gamaliel pointed out that a statue in the baths wasn’t the same as an idol in a temple. He said that he urinated in front of Aphrodite’s statue (because it stood in the urinal), so he could hardly be accused of worshiping it!1

Paul even allowed Gentiles to eat meat that might have been offered to a god, so long as they recognized that the god was nothing. However, some believers thought this was wrong, so he urged people in his churches not to do it if such believers were present (1 Cor 8:10). This implies that the tolerance was not a militant stance of people standing on their rights, but an attitude of harmony whenever possible. Paul’s maxim was: “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone” (Rom 12:18). If Paul had his way, there would be no interfaith violence or even antagonism.

At first glance, the Old Testament is completely intolerant. It bans special haircuts and tattoos simply because they were used by followers of certain cults (Lev 19:27-28). Kings are praised for destroying pagan altars (2 Kgs 23:1-25), and Elijah even murders all the priests of Baal (1 Kgs 18:40). However the attitude of one’s heart was more important than religious practice. For example, after Naaman decides to follow the God of Israel, he still has to accompany his king when he worships in Rimmon’s temple. He asks what he should do, and Elisha says this is OK so as long as Naaman doesn’t actually make any offerings (2 Kgs 5:17-19).

People with other religions were allowed to live inside Israel and had full protection of the law, just like those who practiced Judaism. A non-Jew who lived in Israel had equal protection under Israelite law: “The same law applies both to the native-born and to the foreigner residing among you” (Exod 12:49; Num 15:16, 29). They were encouraged to become Jews by circumcision because they could then join in with the festivals (Exod 12:48). But even if they remained in their own religion, their employer couldn’t make them work on a Sabbath (Exod 20:10). Although they had these benefits, they weren’t constrained by food laws (Deut 14:21). So in some ways they were better off than Jews, because they had all the protection of the law and none of its religious constraints.

Not all tolerance is the same

Some kinds of toleration are very different from that in the Bible. Roman society expected everyone to be tolerant of all religions by actually worshiping all the gods. When Romans conquered a land, they supported and embraced the religions practiced there. In Judea, for example, Emperor Augustus initiated an annual subscription to pay for sacrifices in the Jerusalem Temple. Romans made friends and business partners by eating meals in each other’s temples, and a wife was required to add her husband’s gods to those that her family worshiped.

Roman tolerance meant that everyone had to join in with worship; Christian tolerance meant that no one should be forced to do this. The Romans simply couldn’t understand why Christians wouldn’t even offer a drop of wine or say a few words of worship to the divine emperor. They misinterpreted Christians’ stand against idolatry as disrespect for all gods, so they were condemned as atheists – a major crime in Rome.2

Another form of tolerance that is often advocated today is letting everyone believe whatever they want without trying to persuade them otherwise. This is certainly different from what we find in the New Testament, where Christians enthusiastically share the good news they have discovered even when people don’t at first want to believe it. Paul evangelizes continuously: “Every Sabbath he reasoned in the synagogue, trying to persuade Jews and Greeks” (Acts 18:4). Very often he continues long past his welcome and is thrown out (Acts 9:20-25; see also 13:42-50; 14:1-6; 17:1-5; 18:4-6; 19:8-9).

Tolerance – within limits

All this means that tolerance with regard to different religions is a timeless command in the Bible. The Old Testament commands that non-Jews must have the same civil rights without being forced to follow Jewish customs, and the New Testament teaches that even Christians shouldn’t be criticized for following the religious rites of a different religion. There is, of course, a line: both the Old and New Testament say that no offerings should be made to an idol. But Naaman is allowed to go into the temple of Rimmon, and Christians continue to worship in the Jewish Temple. This law is countercultural because most countries in the ancient world gave special status to those who followed their religion – as Daniel and his friends found out (Dan 3; 6). And Roman society claimed to be tolerant but was actually the opposite.

Unfortunately, Christianity soon became just as intolerant. In the fourth century, when Constantine gave Christianity legal status, it started to be corrupted by power. It lost its unique emphasis on a relationship with God through Jesus and became just like other religions, emphasizing rituals and rules.

Today most Christians have rediscovered the Bible’s teaching on tolerance for practices from other religions. New converts are encouraged to worship Jesus within the culture they are used to. If people want to wear hoodies or short skirts to church, or worship in the function room of a pub, that’s OK.

One interesting development is that some converts in Islamic or Hindu cultures, where conversion is illegal or sometimes dangerous, have decided to worship Jesus within the rites of their cultural religion. It will be interesting to see what such believers will do if their society eventually becomes tolerant enough for them to worship openly as Christians. Will they decide to keep praying to Jesus five times a day in Arabic, kneeling with foreheads to the ground, facing Jerusalem?

If they do, I hope they are welcomed, because this is very similar to what Messianic Jews do and what the first Christians converts did in Jerusalem. And Paul defended their rights to do so.

1^ Mishnah Avodah Zarah 3:4 (
2^ See William R. Schoedel, “Christian ‘Atheism’ and the Peace of the Roman Empire,” Church History 42, no. 3 (September 1973): 309-19 (

This was previously published in a similar form in Christianity magazine

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