Redefining Tolerance In a Defensive Culture

Today’s culture is tremendously sensitive toward the word “tolerance”. When it comes to Christians and churches engaging in society, about the worst thing you could be seen as is “intolerant”. Christians are expected to tolerate behaviors, policies and lifestyles that differ from their own, in some ways so profoundly against foundational Christian beliefs that according to the Bible they would be classified as sin and wrongdoing. “Intolerance” has become a banner word waved at any Christian who dare publicly speak out in opposition or disagreement to those around them.

As a church leader, your role is, in part, to help your congregation navigate the waters of engaging their culture for Christ. Primarily, engagement is accomplished through meaningful relationships with others, through which a life surrendered to Christ serves as an example and the Word of God taught and preached serves as a call to submit to God’s authority and plan for living. So how does a person live, as Paul admonished, “in the world, but not of it?”

Certainly we do not lock ourselves away in “sanctuaries” and bury our heads in the sand. Though that is what some churches endorse. Through insulated, Christian programming we often shielded our lives from the negative influences around us. These fenced-in practices have, in part, created outright fear in Christ-followers of being labeled “intolerant”. The word “intolerant” is batted about today like the word “racism” and is often followed by the word “bigot”. In this energized and percussive environment, it’s important to know what intolerance really is, and how to instruct our congregations to engage the real sources of intolerance in our society.

Viewpoints Differ. Nobody denies that various groups of people, including Christians, hold differing viewpoints. Sometimes these viewpoints can be polar opposites of one another. A key indicator of intolerance is one who holds their own viewpoint as the only legitimate or acceptable viewpoint. This will often be expressed in statements like, “Person X, who has made statements disagreeing with Y, shows himself to be intolerant of Y”. In determining tolerance, a statement like this is always untrue, because it redefines the very core of what tolerance is.

To be tolerant is to hold “a fair, objective and permissive attitude toward opinions and practices that differ from one’s own.” Notice here that being tolerant does not mean that one agrees with an opposing position or practice; only that he is permissive toward it–a “live and let live” attitude. Likewise, a bigot is a person who “is utterly intolerant of any differing creed, belief or opinion”. Therefore one can disagree with a given opinion or practice without being intolerant, and it follows that a tolerant person is also not a bigot. To merely disagree, to voice that disagreement, and to live fairly with others that you disagree with is being, well, tolerant.

Acceptance and Approval Differ. If you are a Christ-follower in the United States today, you will be labeled by some individuals or groups as intolerant. The views a Christian holds, rooted in the Bible and consistent with God’s instruction contained therein, are incompatible with many people’s ideas concerning lifestyle, beliefs, opinions and practices. Note, however, the difference between acceptance—or, tolerance—and approval.

Certainly Christians accept lifestyles and practices that differ from their own. We accept different religious beliefs by Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, agnostics, atheists and others. We accept differing sexual practices by homosexuals, polygamists and others. We accept differing socio-economic views from socialists, communists, capitalists and others. The key word here is accept, which is, that we acknowledge their right to express differing beliefs, that we try to live “at peace with all men” as Christ instructed.

Acceptance is not the same as approval, however. Because some beliefs according to the Bible are sinful, a Christian would choose not to engage in those practices or lead others to do the same. We would not teach those to our children. Further, we may also voice those opinions in a public forum, work toward policies that are in harmony with our viewpoint, and teach or espouse those viewpoints to groups and individuals over which we hold influence or have an amicable relationship.

Civility Before Hostility. As a pastor, one clear response to calls of intolerance is to teach your congregation how to live in a civil manner with those around them. In an age of sharp barbs traded on social media and email, and calls to boycott everything from chicken sandwiches to Wall Street banks, Christians must learn how to be a part of the conversation without losing our temper or resulting to name calling.

And this is difficult, because there is quite a bit of name-calling going on out there. The “intolerance” label has put Christians on the defensive in so many areas of society. So much of what we read in the media expresses differences of opinion or practice in a manner that is designed to engender “shock” and “outrage”. We use the word “outrage” far too often. Very little in terms of opinion is deserving of the term “outrage”.

Now there are nut cases to be sure. There are intolerant, racist, bigoted individuals throughout our culture. Whatever the issue, both sides of it will have their collection of crackpots. We must teach our congregations how to recognize pot-stirring gossip and inflammatory speech when we see it, and to graciously step out of its way. I am convinced that Christians’ and others’ propensity to take out their silent anger from the comfortable anonymity of their computers and cell phones in the blogosphere and on social media is a key cause of uncivil behavior in our nation. We say things today online that we would never, ever even consider saying to someone’s face. We spew hatred and intolerant tones with a keyboard that 20 years ago was simply unheard of in society–because there was no anonymous place to vomit out such trash. And because every view has a group of “followers” clicking “like” buttons, this poor behavior is not rejected, but rather reinforced.

God’s Word As the Standard. Where does a Christ-follower “draw the line” in terms of being tolerant? I would put God’s Word forward as the standard, as the Bible is usually very clear on issues related to a Christian’s behavior and sin. The Bible also clearly acknowledges the challenge of living in a world that contains sin, and wrestling with the sin nature that we are born with and keep during our time on earth. Often the temptation is to go to the extremes of either slapping sinners on the head with the attack of the Bible verses, or re-interpreting Scripture to suit our sinful desires (for example, “The Bible never really talks about this or that”…so it must be okay, or “A loving God would never…”).

When we go to the Bible as an authoritative source, we must ask, what is God’s desire, and ultimately what is pleasing to Him in this situation? Certainly sin does not please God. But at the same time, harboring ill-will towards others and speaking in anger or hate is not godly behavior either. God’s Word implores us, both in our own personal lives, and with respect to how we treat others, to take the high road. As the old saying goes, we are to love others just as they are. But we can also gently remind, in kind tone, that God does not want us to stay that way.


Author: Eugene Mason, Communications Director for Cross Pointe Church under the leadership of Dr. James Merritt