Outside of the church, the idea of tolerance is almost universally celebrated and championed in America. The idea of accepting the diversity of other lifestyles, beliefs, and choices and allowing them to coexist in the same space with peace and harmony sounds like a dream.
In its most ideal state, tolerance is a way of thinking that allows people to live free of judgment, persecution, and most especially hate. Nevertheless, the conversation around tolerance is so much deeper than addressing its intentions or highest ideals. I think even someone who is passionate about tolerance would agree that massive issues in execution persist.
Oftentimes, those championing tolerance have the tendency to exemplify its opposite. In the name of tolerance, you campaign for others to not shame or persecute you for your religion. But you openly persecute or desire to regulate the practices of another religion. In the name of tolerance, you want to freely express your opinion on controversial issues, such as same sex marriage or abortion, but then you want to boycott or cancel a company that supports these things.
Both Christians and non-Christians alike want to enjoy the benefits of tolerance when they’re on the receiving end. But we call someone intolerant when they speak out against our personal views.
It often seems like the carrying out of tolerance becomes a masked form of tribalism. You are tolerant when you agree with me and intolerant when you don’t. The cultural phenomenon of tolerance has many ideals we should desire to see in our society, but it’s also a double-edged sword.
The hope of making space for a diversity of thought, lifestyles, and beliefs sounds beneficial to everyone. The trouble is we can’t live in silos apart from communities, neighborhoods, governments, and other people.
The notion of “you live your life and I will live mine” isn’t always realistic. To operate in life apart from any other person is just about impossible. God actually wired us to be dependent upon communities and other people. Thus, the very idea of tolerance must be looked at through the scope of an entire community or group of people.
So for the Christian, is tolerance even a worthy goal?
Should Christians Pursue the Cultural Value of Tolerance?
Some Christians believe that Jesus actually doesn’t want us to be tolerant, because we are bound by his teachings and not the culture around us. So in their eyes, intolerance is a badge of honor, because “we are the defenders of the faith.”
Some tend to drive a hard and fast rule that they are not tolerant people—and, to them, that’s a good thing. To the world, this stance seems hateful and judgmental. But to the Christians who hold this view, they think of themselves as just being faithful.
So as we step into the conversation of a Christian’s role in the cultural call for tolerance it’s important to make sure we are all talking about the same thing.
To be tolerant means you have the ability or willingness to allow for something, in particular the existence of opinions or behaviors, that you don’t necessarily agree with. Tolerance allows people to continue to disagree but makes space for them to voice their views and even for opposing views to exist alongside one another.
Based on this understanding of tolerance, yes, Christians ought to be tolerant.
The trouble comes when tolerance and relativism are seen as interchangeable. To be tolerant does not mean the truth of right and wrong are unattainable. Christians should not support a relativistic mindset.
No society can operate without an agreed upon set of basic moral standards. For example, we can’t “agree to disagree” with our neighbors on whether murder is wrong. Our communities would crumble.
Intolerant of Sin
Scripture is clear about how Christians ought to view sin. It’s not something to take lightly. What is most interesting about much of the scriptures within the New Testament regarding judgment of sin or identifying sin in other people is that it’s the sins from Christians toward Christians (Matthew 18:15-17). This also means there is an understanding that Christians are operating by the same moral beliefs and worldview to which they can hold each other accountable.
We shouldn’t turn a blind eye to the unrepentant sin in the life of a fellow believer. To take on the philosophy that truth is different for everyone is actually not a biblical understanding of the world.
The people of God are called to be set apart. This has always been the case. The Israelites were rebuked for allowing sin to exist in their midst. We can read the same in the New Testament as the church was being established.
However, being intolerant of sin within the body of Christ is not a pass to be harsh or unkind. As difficult as it is to talk about sin with in the body of Christ, it is something we are called to. We shouldn’t shy away from.
I’m not sure we are called to do the same in our non-believing communities. For believers, the Holy Spirit has revealed the truth to you and this is what we are called to live out. For those who are not believers, it makes perfect sense that they would operate by the way of their flesh, because they haven’t seen the truth.
It is for God to judge the actions of non-believers. From a governmental and policy standpoint, living in a free nation, we have the right to vote based on our Christian beliefs and ethics. In our minds we must separate this freedom from the expectation we place on the world.
We are Actually Called to be More Than Tolerant
One author said that Christians are called to do more than tolerate their neighbor. We are called to love them.
Even in our disagreement with others we can exercise respect and gentleness. Jesus does not call us to agree with or be promoters of all the diverse thoughts, lifestyles, and beliefs that are around us. But we are very clearly called to love others. Championing ourselves as the intolerant people for the sake of defending the Gospel has done far more harm than good.
We should most certainly hold ourselves to the lifestyle God has called us to live. When it comes to the way we view the lifestyles of others, we ought to err on the side of gentleness and love. Jesus interacted with many people who did not live according to his will. He met with prostitutes, arrogantly religious leaders, and people who swindled others out of money. I can assure you, he did not support the way they were living, but that did not stop him from interacting with them.
As we understand our role in the conversation of tolerance and intolerance, we have to allow for more nuance. It is possible for us to be intentional about loving another person even as their beliefs and lifestyle choices remain in conflict with biblical teachings. Is this not what we ourselves do every day? This is the very reason we are in need of the Gospel. You and I can’t get it right. We need a Savior.
We don’t have to fit the world’s definition of tolerance, because they don’t have it figured out either. Instead, we ought to ask for the Holy Spirit to continue to make us more like Jesus in our own actions and to give us the ability to love those actively living in sin as Jesus does.