Summary: What Christian tolerance is, what qualifies for tolerance, and why God views it as significant.
In our culture, tolerance has been exalted as the highest virtue to be embraced and pursued. In a recent article about tolerance in "Christianity Today," Christian author Daniel Taylor suggests that intolerance is the only serious sin left in our culture. Taylor says, "America is sick of intolerant people, and it’s not going to tolerate them anymore" (1). But Taylor asks whether it’s really authentic tolerance that our culture is embracing. According to Taylor genuine tolerance assumes that you first object to something, and then make the choice to tolerate it. Taylor says, "You do not have to tolerate that which you [already] accept or affirm" (2).
According to Christian author Chuck Colson, what our culture really insists on isn’t tolerance but what he calls "forced neutrality," that is, not every voicing disagreement or objection to anything (Colson 2). For example, when followers of Jesus look at the increasing popularity of Buddhism in American culture, what does genuine tolerance really look like? Daniel Taylor would say it’s Christians saying, "Well, we think the main ideas of Buddhism aren’t true because they are in conflict with the Christian faith, but we certainly affirm the right of Buddhists to practice their faith freely and without hindrance." But the "forced neutrality" Colson observes simply won’t accept that, but instead it insists that Christians say, "Well, you know, Buddhism is just as true and valid way to know God as any other religion is, including the Christian faith."
It’s because tolerance is defined as this "forced neutrality" that our culture views followers of Jesus as intolerant. This is why Daniel Taylor says, "Intolerance is our society’s greatest sin. The intolerant person is the one thing that cannot be tolerated, the one person who must be shamed or silenced" (4).
What should we make of our culture’s obsession with tolerance? G. K. Chesterton called tolerance the virtue of people who don’t believe anything anymore (Taylor 3). Some Christians suggest that tolerance isn’t a virtue at all, that Christians should proudly wear the badge of intolerance because it shows that we’re strong in our convictions. Yet I hesitate to go that far, because I think, although tolerance has its limits, tolerance is a virtue in its proper context.
Today I want to talk about "Ending Christian Intolerance." I’m not talking about intolerance toward Christians, but I’m talking about intolerance within the Christian community. Specifically I want to talk about how tolerance should function within the Christian community. We’re going to see that tolerance has an important role to play in our quest to live as an authentic Christian community, and that perhaps our failure to embrace the principle of tolerance within the Church is one reason why our culture views Christians as so hateful and mean-spirited. We’re going to look at what the principle of Christian tolerance is, what qualifies for tolerance, and finally several reasons why tolerance is important.
We’ve been in a series through the New Testament book of Romans called Good News for Our Times. The last month we’ve been in chapters 12 through 16, looking at "The Good News About God’s Community." In this section we’ve been seeing how the implications of the Christian message are to be lived out and embodied in the Christian community. It all starts with each of us realizing that the proper response to God’s good news about Jesus Christ is to surrender ourselves fully to God, as living sacrifices, and only then will we be able to understand how to live as God’s community in our culture.
1. THE PRINCIPLE OF TOLERANCE (Romans 14:1)
Let’s look at v. 1 together. We learn here that there were two basic groups in the Roman churches, those Paul characterizes as "weak in faith," and those who he views as "strong in faith." Now just by phrasing it that way, obviously Paul viewed being strong in the faith as preferable, and he counts himself as part of those who are strong in faith. We’ll look at how these two groups differed from each other in a few minutes.
But for now, notice that Paul wants all the followers of Jesus to "accept" those who are weak in their faith. The Greek word "accept" here means "to welcome," "to receive someone into a relationship and to treat that person as a genuine Christian brother or sister." This means more than just smiling and shaking their hand, but truly embracing them and welcoming them into your life.
Paul wants this acceptance to be genuine, with no hidden agenda or strings attached. He warns us not to accept someone for the purpose of changing their mind in these "disputable matters." What Paul is calling for here is genuine tolerance, not just putting up with someone. If tolerance assumes we disagree or object to something, Paul is telling us to accept people we have these differences of opinion with without trying to change their mind.