In Christian circles, the word “tolerant” can have a lot of negative connotations. For many years, Christians were asked to compromise their convictions and principles in the name of tolerance. However, there is not only a time and place for Christians to be tolerant, it is actually a very important virtue for Christians to cultivate. So, let’s spend a little time thinking about the situations in which Christians should practice tolerance.
Tolerance is Not Agreement
The Apostle Paul told the church in Ephesus to live “With all humility and gentleness, with patience, showing tolerance for one another in love, being diligent to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:2-3, NASB 1995). The word translated “tolerance” can also be translated “bearing with” (ESV) or “making allowances for” (NLT).
Even within this passage, it’s easy to see that whenever we discuss tolerance, disagreement is typically implied. We don’t use the word “tolerate” for things we agree with, like, or enjoy. When we say we are tolerating something, we are saying, “I don’t necessarily like this, but I’m putting up with it.” Tolerance is about enduring something uncomfortable or unpleasant.
Of course, there have certainly been times when people have asked for tolerance, but what they were really seeking was agreement. If we are talking about agreement, let’s use the word agreement. But if we are talking about tolerance, enduring something uncomfortable or unpleasant, then let’s redeem that word.
When asked, should Christians be tolerant? Someone will usually reply, “We shouldn’t tolerate sin!” But is that always true?
Certainly, we should not agree with or celebrate sin. But sometimes tolerating sin is all we can do. Suppose you notice your next door neighbor subscribes to pornographic magazines. You could boldly confront him and demand he either stop subscribing to those magazines or else move out of the neighborhood. You could break into his mailbox in order to steal and dispose of them. Or you could love him, pray for him, and look for opportunities to introduce him to Jesus. You are not endorsing sin when you tolerate unbelievers living as unbelievers (Listen to our recent podcast on “Cancel Culture.”).
The sin we most definitely should not tolerate is our own sin. Unfortunately, we are often intolerant of others’ sins, but tolerant of our own. Jesus asked his disciples, “Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye?” (Matthew 7:3). We must notice and deal with our sin before we do anything about the sins of others.
We also should not tolerate sin in the church. It’s not our place to discipline our unbelieving neighbors, but it is our place to admonish brothers and sisters in Christ (see 1 Corinthians 5:12-13). We must do so with humility, kindness, patience, gentleness, and love, but we must say something when we know a brother or sister is actively sinning. We don’t shame people because of past sins, or present temptations, but we do say something when we know someone is on a dangerous path. The Apostle Paul had very strong words for the Corinthian church because they tolerated sexual immorality in the church (see 1 Corinthians 5:1-2).
That said, most of the things that make us uncomfortable or uneasy are not sinful. We are simply uncomfortable because others have come to different conclusions, have different customs, or see things in different ways. This is why it’s important to remember, the only person in the whole world who has your exact frame of mind and exact frame of reference is you; everyone else sees things somewhat differently than you.
We usually find it pretty easy to tolerate people who are mostly similar to us, even if we have a few differences. However, the more differences we have, the more uncomfortable we tend to grow. Many times, we know exactly why we have made the choices we have made, so it seems strange (or even foolish) to us when we see someone else doing things differently. Other times, we may not know exactly why something makes us uncomfortable, we just know we disagree with their method or approach.
When someone else’s choices make us uncomfortable, we have a few options:
- criticize them until they change
- criticize them until they separate themselves from us
- separate ourselves from them
- endure the discomfort (practice tolerance)
There are so many passages in the New Testament that deal with this idea of enduring the discomfort of cultural differences in order to maintain the unity of the Spirit. Paul’s entire ministry was devoted to bringing Jewish and Gentile followers of Jesus together into a unified multi-ethnic church family. They had countless differences and even strongly held beliefs. When Paul says, “not to quarrel over opinions” (Romans 14:1), he is not talking about things like the color of the carpet; but rather, firmly held religious beliefs, like which days were sacred holidays and whether or not certain foods could be eaten.
Why should Christians be tolerant? Because Jesus tolerates us. Of course he expects us to be transformed, but he also puts up with us being very, very different than himself. He loves us even though we are very, very different. Which is why we’re told, “Welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God” (Romans 15:7).
If you are going to be a follower of Jesus, being part of his incredibly diverse family, you are going to have be ok with being uncomfortable. In fact, love for others demands that if there is a question as to whether you will be uncomfortable or force someone else to be uncomfortable, then you should gladly place yourself in the uncomfortable position (see Romans 15:1-7; Philippians 2:1-4). Or, to say it another way, as you have the opportunity, choose to be tolerant of others rather than forcing them to be tolerant of you.
I love you and God loves you,