I always have to be careful when people ask me if Christianity is intolerant. Typically when the issue is brought forth, it comes associated with the pain of various hot-button topics.
Tolerance is a controversial topic.
One of the reasons we don’t find common ground is because we aren’t using a common definition. The word “tolerance” has shifted greatly in meaning over the years. The traditional, old-school definition of tolerance is to respect and value the other person regardless of whether his/her views differ from your own.
This is fully endorsed in the Bible. We are to live at peace with one another (Hebrews 12:14), to show love and compassion for one another (1 Peter 3:8), and to forgive as Christ forgave us (Ephesians 4:32).
In fact, there is no other worldview which places as much value on a human person, because only in the Judeo-Christian worldview do we believe every person is made in the very image of God Himself (Genesis 1:27). That is extraordinary!
But there is another definition of tolerance which I’m going to call the “new definition.” In some ways, it is similar to the old, but it changes the ending. It is to respect and value the other person by treating the other person’s viewpoints as equally valid and true as your own.
Notice that this new definition assumes that a person’s value is connected to a person’s beliefs. If you challenge the beliefs, you challenge the value of the person; and thus, you are considered intolerant.
Consider how this coincides with Scripture-Jesus and His followers had no problem challenging the beliefs of other people. So, by this new definition, the Bible is very intolerant! But is this the proper way to understand tolerance?
Does the New Definition Hold Up?
The modern idea of tolerance is not consistent with itself. When you engage with someone in a political debate, does that mean you are intolerant because you do not accept the other person’s beliefs about something?
If you condemn a religion because they are intolerant, does that mean you are also bigoted because you don’t tolerate their intolerance? Such a modern view of tolerance might look good on paper, but nobody really lives by those standards, nor can we, nor should we.
For these and other reasons, we should stick with the older definition of tolerance. I believe we can express real disagreement with other people and still value them as a person.
Disagreement does not equal hate.
I believe there is a way for us to speak truth in love. I think the real problem is that we have forgotten how to do so.
Nobody wants to be a bigot.
Let’s consider an example from Christian evangelism. If I am convinced that the Bible is true, and that Jesus is the only way to God as the Bible says He is (John 14:6), and I go up to my friend and say plainly, “Jesus is the only way to God,” I do so at great risk.
I am fully aware that this could damage our friendship. I’m fully aware that I could be perceived as intolerant. If I didn’t care about the person, why would I tell him that Jesus is the only way to God? Why the drama?
But I do care. I care very deeply. I am disturbed that this valuable human being, this image bearer of God, is living a life completely unaware of the joy of knowing the love and saving power of Jesus Christ. He may not like what I’m doing. He might think I am poking around in matters of opinion. But if he understands where I’m coming from, then at least we are able to engage and talk about these important issues of life.
On its own, the idea of “tolerating someone” doesn’t sound all that flattering. Biblically speaking, love is a greater virtue, and true love isn’t afraid to get into those difficult conversations for the sake of the other person.
So the next time you come across someone with a worldview that contradicts logic or facts, ask the Holy Spirit to give you the courage to speak truth in love. If you’d like to learn more about true tolerance, check out Modern Day Evangelism by Josh McDowell.