Redeeming Words: Tolerance

In Uncategorized by Robin Maguire

In our post-Christian context, the words Christians use might not mean the same thing to us as they do to our unsaved friends. As believers, if we come to adopt a cultural understanding of certain words, we open ourselves up to confusion and even false ways of thinking about the Gospel. That is why we have been looking at some of these words like Truth, Faith, and Heaven.

As we have seen, these words can be barriers or bridges to understanding, depending on whether we take time to make sure we’re speaking the same language. If we are not careful, confusion will prevail. The reality of such confusion is highlighted when we contrast our cultural view of Tolerance with a Biblical worldview.

While “tolerance” is not a word we read about much in the Bible, it has been a cultural value in the West since the time of the Greek philosophers. At the heart of this long-held value was a specific idea: We should tolerate people even when we disagree with their perspectives.  

Such a view has strong resonance with the Bible’s teachings on hospitality and love. For example, Jesus told the parable of the Good Samaritan (see Luke 10), emphasizing a love and hospitality that transcends nationality or creed. In this story, conveyed to a group of his fellow countrymen, Jesus makes the Samaritan foreigner—a despised people—the hero who shows what it really means to be a neighbor. His message was shocking and convicting. At the heart, it said that we should show love, no matter who needs it. This kind of love is expressed when we tolerate those with whom we disagree.

At the same time, this view of tolerance in no way denies the importance of truth-claims. In John 4, we see Jesus sitting with a Samaritan woman. He is showing a “Good Samaritan” kind of tolerance, for such an interaction would have been avoided by many Jewish Rabbis in Jesus’ day. Just as he is showing such grace, Jesus does not hesitate to bring correction to the woman when she attempts to blur biblical teaching on proper worship or obscure the facts about her own ethical life. Instead, Jesus speaks words that confront and convict. He does this because he knows that there is no true freedom without true truth! For Jesus, truth and tolerance are good dance partners, not mortal enemies.

Our culture has redefined this notion of tolerance. Instead, it teaches that we must tolerate all perspectives even if it means vilifying people. The old view of tolerance said, “You need to be nice, even if someone holds a view you hate.” The new view says, “When someone says something you don’t like, they are aggressively acting in hate.” Strangely, it seems we are living in a culture that is increasingly willing to pick up sticks and stones, break some bones and become downright intolerant when certain perspectives are articulated or defended. This is especially true in matters of religion, gender, and sexuality.

I will never forget my own experience with a group conversation that involved several college students and professors. We had been instructed by the event leader to hold a group discussion on a particular topic, expressing our views of the matter. Specifically, we were talking about the kind of language that is appropriate to use about God. One of the group members, a professor of education, articulated a view that, to my understanding, seemed out of step with Scripture. Her view was shared by others in the group. When my turn to speak came around, I simply shared my own perspective and concluded, “From my perspective, we should let the Bible, not our own perspectives, govern how we talk about God.”

I was surprised by the professor’s response. Her face grew red. She was visibly shaking. Her voice was quivering with what I first thought might be sadness but realized later was rage. She said, “I feel like I’ve just been attacked.” Of course, I did my best to back off and cool down the situation.  

Looking back, I can honestly say that my words were gentle and non-confrontational. I am convinced that what was so angering was one thing: I shared my perspective and asserted that there was a standard, an authority that meant one of us was right and the other was wrong.

In our post-Christian world, many people assume that “tolerance” means never suggesting that another person can be wrong about something. In fact, some people even seem to think that if two people disagree on something important to each of them, then one of them is intolerant and therefore incapable of true friendship.

Friends, we must learn to identify this trend in our own conversations. On one hand, we must have a loving, hospitable spirit like Jesus. No matter what someone else believes or what kind of lifestyle they choose to live out, we must be open to them as people loved by God and made in His image. At the same time, we must beware of adopting the cultural attitude that insists that we can only truly show tolerance when we endorse other people’s beliefs or behaviors. That view is simply not true.

Here are a few pointers:

  1. Lead with Love: Some people find it natural to highlight and confront areas of disagreement with others. This usually sends the signal, “We cannot have a relationship unless you agree with me.”  
  1. Speak without Fear: Sometimes, in the course of relationship, we become aware of an area of disagreement. Such awareness can tend to make us nervous. If or when it becomes a topic of conversation, we can convey a gravity to the disagreement that is unwarranted. Instead, we should practice humbly sharing our perspective, especially if a matter of biblical truth is at stake. When we remember it is not our job to change another person’s mind, we adopt a new kind of approach. We simply become representatives of a truth that we did not invent! If our belief is rooted in God’s Word, then we are just fellow travelers trying to be faithful.
  1. End with Love: It is hard to overstate this. In an increasingly polarized world, people need to hear a basic message: It’s okay if we disagree. We can still love each other!

Adam T. Barr (MDiv, ThM) serves as senior pastor at Peace Church near Grand Rapids Michigan. In addition to his work in the local church, Adam speaks and writes on Christianity and culture, helping followers of Jesus understand and apply God’s Word in an increasingly post-Christian society. His most recent book, Compassion Without Compromise, is available through Bethany House. Adam is also a contributing writer and adjunct teacher on the Organic Outreach International team, serving as the Director of Cultural Apologetics and hosting our Organic Outreach Podcast (available through iTunes).