In the last decade there has been a seismic shift in how we view and define tolerance. Tolerance used to mean that while I disagreed with you, I respected your right to believe what you wanted. This old definition of tolerance was generally regarded as a virtue. Today, this isn’t enough-not even close. In almost all contemporary diversity, equity and inclusion language, and in our secular society as a whole, tolerance is used as a pejorative term. It is no longer acceptable to simply tolerate someone’s beliefs, now you must celebrate them. If you do not, you are labeled as intolerant. 

How did we get here? And what are some of the philosophical and theological underpinnings of this ideological shift? Although the following is only meant to serve as a cursory introduction, my hope-to borrow and build on a thought from the great poet, philosopher, and literary critic, Samuel Taylor Coleridge-is that our passion wouldn’t blind our eyes, and instead of the light which experience gives, serving only as a lantern on the stern that shines on the waves behind us, that it would also shine brightly off the bow, guiding our way forward.

Why Tolerance? 

The new definition of tolerance is not only logically incoherent-for tolerance presupposes that you disagree with what you’re tolerating, otherwise you wouldn’t tolerate it-it’s also biblically irreconcilable. Today, both inside and outside the church, we view love and this new understanding of tolerance as synonyms, when in fact a more faithful understanding of each of these terms as defined by Scripture would make them antonyms. 

One of the great benefits of thinking critically about what we believe and why we believe it is that it aids in clarification. We live in an age of information, where we are constantly bombarded with new terms and concepts. Some are straightforward, but an ever-increasing majority, according to Dr. Mark Foreman are, “subtle or deeply embedded in our culture and comprise what sociologist Peter Berger calls the ‘plausibility structures’ of society.” Therefore, it is imperative we clarify what we mean when we use a term. Far too often we begin a conversation about important subjects and neglect to define terms and concepts. When you combine this with the pervasive influence of late modernity on an individual’s right to redefine terms according to his or her own preferences, with the rejection of objective truth, you have a recipe for confusion. 

For example, most of you may be thinking to yourself that love and tolerance according to Scripture aren’t mutually exclusive but are inexorably linked to each other, and you would be absolutely right. But that’s not the claim being made. The argument here is that our new understanding of tolerance is antithetical to biblical love. 

Biblical Definition 

A biblical definition of tolerance assumes the intrinsic worth or value of the other person being created in the image of God (Gen 1:27). This causes us to look away from ourselves (an idea contrary to the worldly definition of tolerance) to the other person as we consider their interests and needs over and above our own (Phil 2:3-4). Moreover, a biblical understanding of tolerance should guide all our interactions with others as we recognize the patience, grace and love that has been shown to us (Rom 5:8; Eph 2:4-5;1 Pet 3:15; Col 4:5-6). It is this kind of tolerance, one that is rooted in love, that we’re to show to each other. 

Worldly Definition

The new worldly definition, or should I say redefinition, of tolerance says, “you are not right or wrong. I am not right or wrong. Because there is no such thing as objective truth, we must celebrate each other. The logical outworking of this type of worldview manifests itself in speaking out against anyone who holds views that don’t affirm your own. For the Christian, this type of tolerance is impossible because the Bible clearly teaches that a holy God has set an objective standard of living as well as consequences for violating that standard. If you’re a Christian and you believe someone’s choices are putting their eternal soul in jeopardy, and you continue to tolerate/celebrate them, then you don’t really love them. You have only revealed that you care far more about what that person thinks and feels about you than you do about their eternal standing before a holy and just God. It’s not loving to tell people what they want to hear if you’re putting their lives at risk by withholding what they need to hear. 

Why Do You Tolerate? 

The Bible paints a painstakingly accurate picture of the real condition of our hearts which reveals our need to repent (Acts 2:38, 3:19; Matt 4:17; Luke 5:32, 13:3; Rom 2:4; 2 Peter 3:9; 2 Tim 2:25). The new tolerance not only says that you’re fine and to keep doing what you’re doing, but that you should also celebrate it. 

Does that sound Biblical? If repentance is necessary for a Christian, how can a view be biblical if it denies the need for it? Today, there is this idea that since God is a loving God that he must be tolerant as well. Is that what we see in Rev 2:20 when Jesus is confronting the church at Thyatira? Look at his words, 

I know your works, your love and faith and service and patient endurance, and that your latter works exceed the first. But I have this against you, that you tolerate that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess and is teaching and seducing my servants to practice sexual immorality.

Today, what the Bible considers sexually immoral is not only tolerated, but also celebrated and affirmed in places that call themselves churches. The biggest objection to biblical Christianity, which is the only kind of Christianity there is, is that the historical, orthodox understanding of sexuality is intolerant and judgmental. It suppresses basic human desires and the freedom to live a fulfilled life. 

Whenever the subjects of religion and basic human rights are addressed, this issue of tolerance arises because tolerance is not merely a disagreement, but according to Clark and Corcoran, “an element of caring or deep commitment to the beliefs or practices in question.” The act of tolerance recognizes that the other person has value and intrinsic worth. And while this reveals how we ought to treat each other, it does not answer the question of why such an expectation exists.

Why should we treat each other this way?  From a naturalistic point of view, if we’re merely a random collection of atoms or the product of time, plus matter, plus chance, how do we arrive at intrinsic value?  It would seem the only logical conclusion to be reached from this point of view would be that the value of each human is different because that value is derived from things outside the individual.  Christians on the other hand affirm that each person has intrinsic worth because they are created in the image God (Gen 1:26).  

Consequently, the general idea of equality (Deut 10:17; Eph 5:21; Heb 12:14) and human rights (John 13:16; Mark 12:31; Lev 19:33-34), derive from and are inherent in Christianity.  Tim Keller echoes this saying, 

Where did the thought come from that some things are owed to all person, regardless of their social status, gifts, or abilities, just by virtue of their being human? While it is popularly thought that human rights were the creation of modern secularism over and against the oppressiveness of religion, the reality is that this concept arose not in the East but in the West, and not after the Enlightenment but within medieval Christendom.  As Horkheimer in the 1940s and Martin Luther King Jr. in the 1960s recognized, the idea of human rights was based on the biblical idea of all people being created in God’s image.

Therefore, human rights and the “freedom to live fulfilled lives” should be recognized, not as values contrary to Christianity but values that exist because of Christianity.  

Freedom

While all of us can identify with basic human desires and the freedom to live a fulfilled life, we must ask ourselves if the reckless pursuit of pleasure (hedonism) is tenable.  If what we are looking for is meaning and fulfillment, is this really the best way to get there? 

In a landmark sociological study of American culture, Robert Bellah concluded that for Americans, the most important value is freedom. What was once considered important is now ultimately important. It is the one truth that relativizes all other doctrines and beliefs, according to Tim Keller. However, our modern view of freedom, which has come to mean the absence of any restrictions, is impossible. There will always be restrictions on what we can and cannot do. 

For example, you might be free to eat whatever you want, but if you have an underlying health condition, you must choose the loss of certain freedoms to enjoy other more important freedoms. In the event you were a diabetic, eating certain things would be the difference between life and death. Similarly, you might be free to do what you want here on earth, but if there are real, eternal consequences to those choices, are you really free? 

Sacred

Human sexuality is a sacred gift from God, but when society redefined sex as a merely physical act, it severed it from the proper meaning, purpose and context. Writing on the effects of hedonism, Vince Vitale suggests, “The results have been largely contradictory to human flourishing, and have included drastic rises in divorce, addiction to pornography, marital unfaithfulness, abortion, and sex trafficking.”  The pursuit of pleasure in hopes of finding meaning and fulfillment has never worked. Look at Oscar Wilde, who celebrated this pursuit, only to state at the end of his life, “I was no longer captain of my soul, and did not know it. I allowed pleasure to dominate me. I ended in horrible disgrace. There is only one thing for me now, absolute humility.” 

It is this posture of humility that separates the new tolerance, which has personal fulfillment as its primary focus, from a biblical definition of tolerance, which is rooted in love for those created in the image of God. Contrary to popular belief, only Christianity affirms true freedom (2 Cor 3:17; John 8:36; Gal 5:1; and Eph 3:12), fulfillment (1 John 5:14-15; Phil 4:19; Romans 8:37-39), meaning (John 11:25-26; Prov 14:27; Rom 5:10;), tolerance (Rom 14:1; 1 Cor 8:8-13;), and sex (Gen 2:24; Heb 13:4; Mark 10:6-9; Song 7:6-12), within the confines of marriage between a man and a woman.  The laws that God has given us are often viewed as restrictions on our freedom, but the laws were given to us for our own protection (Duet 6:24). 

Grace and Love

There’s a popular saying that if you throw mud at others, not only do you get your hands dirty, but you lose a lot of ground in the process. As Christians we must exemplify the same grace and love that we’ve been shown and realize that only God can change a person’s convictions. Might I lovingly suggest, if you’re so insecure in your beliefs that you need the approval of others to legitimize them, then you probably need to reconsider your convictions. There is no amount of affirmation from others that will ultimately satisfy the longing in your heart because, as St. Augustine said, the Lord has made us for himself and our hearts will remain restless until they rest in Him. 

In closing, just as love and the worldly definition of tolerance are antithetical to each other, so too are love and autonomy. When you are in love, you are, in one sense, freer than you have ever been because of the trust and security that comes from knowing the other person has your best interest at heart and puts your needs before their own. But in another equally real sense, you are less free than you have ever been. You have committed yourself to one person and one person only, and that one person is worth more than all the others combined. It is the same with Christ.  

C.S. Lewis says it best, “look for yourself, and you will find in the long run only hatred, loneliness, despair, rage, ruin, and decay. But look for Christ and you will find Him and with Him everything else thrown in.”

Leave your thoughts, questions, and suggested followups in the comments below.


Bibliography

Chatraw, Joshua, and Mark Allen. “Preparing to Engage (not Spin) in Late Modernism from the Inside Out,) in Apologetics at the Cross, 10. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, forthcoming. PDF.

Clark, Kelly James, and Kevin Corcoran. “Pluralism, Secularism, and Tolerance.” Rhetoric and Public Affairs 3, no. 4 (2000): 627-39. http://www.jstor.org/stable/41939634.  

Foreman, Mark. Prelude to Philosophy: An Introduction for Christians. Downers Grove, IL.: InterVarsity Press., 2014.

Keller, Timothy. Making Sense of God. New York, NY.: Penguin Random House LLC., 2016.

Lewis, C.S.. Mere Christianity. New York, NY.: HarperCollins Publishers., 2007.

Wilde, Oscar. “De Profundis,” The Collected Works of Oscar Wilde (Hertfordshire, UK: Wordsworth Editions, 2007), 1071. 

Vitale, Vince. Jesus Among Secular Gods. New York, NY.: FaithWords., 2017. 


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