Clarity on Tolerance

(image credit to

(image credit to

The public school system in Fairfax County, Virginia is currently going through a storm of controversy. The disturbance is based on the school board’s recent vote to add gender identity education (and corresponding sex education) to their curriculum, starting as early as Kindergarten. Furthermore, the school board is attempting to move this portion of the curriculum from “Family Life Education,” which parents have the ability to opt out of in the state of Virginia, to “Health Education,” which they do not.

While this issue is perhaps isolated in Fairfax, Virginia at the moment, you can all but guarantee it will spread.

I personally would not be okay with my child receiving that specific education. But, for voicing my belief in God’s biblical design for marriage and a biblical sexual ethic, I might very well be labeled intolerant.

While I don’t mind being called names, what I don’t like is poor logic.

To not accept my position on something because you view it as “intolerant” is, in itself, intolerant. You’d be guilty of the very thing you’re accusing me of.

In social theories, this is referred to as the paradox of intolerance. Harvard philosopher John Rawls said that a just society must tolerate the intolerant. Otherwise, the society would itself be intolerant, and thus unjust (Rawls, A Theory of Justice, pg. 220)

On both sides of the debate, lost in today’s arguments of “You’re unloving for not supporting gay marriage” or “I shouldn’t have to provide these services for these people,” is the actual definition of tolerance – seemingly the one moral absolute that continues to exist in our society.

Screen Shot 2015-07-14 at 11.17.25 AM

So, says that tolerance involves showing kindness to those who differ from you. Furthermore, if you glance through the synonyms, you find additional insight.

Screen Shot 2015-07-14 at 11.18.14 AM

Tolerance apparently also carries the idea that you must endure something you don’t like. It means you don’t always get your way. In fact, the word civilization comes from the word civil and it means to be respectful and polite. The entire basis for civilization then is the idea of being gracious to someone with whom you differ.

So let me show you where I think many people miss the concept today:

Many Conservatives Don’t Understand Tolerance

I’ll say it again, tolerance means that you must endure something you don’t like.

Though some, cringing at the mere sound of the word, view tolerance as permissiveness towards sin (and it could become that in some cases), tolerance itself is nonetheless a fully godly trait. The Apostle Paul, writing to some (hypocritically) self-righteous and judgmental Jews, said, “Do you show contempt for the riches of (God’s) kindness, forbearance and patience, not realizing that God’s kindness is intended to lead you to repentance?” (Rom. 2:4) 

Within the premise of the gospel is the idea that God doesn’t merely send lighting bolts down upon me when I’m behaving wrongly. He’s patient with me. He stays with me. And he seeks to win my heart over to the truth. He doesn’t just shut me down and cut me off. If he did, while my behavior might change, there’s nothing to suggest that my heart would change. Instead, God tolerates me, guiding me to repent of my untruth, see the beauty of his mercy, and voluntarily conform to his will.

Many Liberals Don’t Understand Tolerance

You can’t force someone to like anything, let alone something they must endure.

Since the 1930s, political psychologists have argued that liberals are more tolerant. Thus, the grand irony in the gender identity and same-sex marriage movement is a seeming spirit of not only wanting people to accept it as law of the land, but to approve of the behavior. This is the impulse behind the recent wave of lawsuits against Christian bakers, florists, photographers, and adoption agencies. But are these lawsuits indicative of tolerant behavior?

Say, for instance, I was hosting an event which clearly revolved around core Christian beliefs like the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ – a baptism, a confirmation, a funeral, etc. – and I walked into a bakery owned by a Muslim and asked for a cake with a Christian cross and Bible verse on it. If he refused to provide service, I’d probably say, “I understand (that this puts you in a difficult situation, one which might conflict with your beliefs).” And I’d find another bakery.

Please note: I’m NOT saying that I think it should be legal to deny non-inherently religious civil services. That’s a dangerous avenue to go down. What if our country became a Muslim majority? Would it be okay for a gas station owner to deny me service because of my attachment to Jesus? What I am suggesting is that our nation would be a better place in which to live if we possessed a common courtesy that allowed us to not always get our way, grace that allows for some personal inconvenience – grace to go find another bakery.

I can appreciate that homosexuals have felt a great deal of social rejection and hate for a long time. But an attempt to force others to accept a behavior that they’re morally uncomfortable with would make you guilty of the very thing you supposedly despise in intolerant people.

Biblical Tolerance

Christians have to understand that theological tolerance is logically impossible. All beliefs CANNOT be equally valid and correct. Someone’s gotta be wrong about something here. Therefore, Christians who are compromising biblical truth regarding human sexuality (i.e. tolerating theological untruth) for the sake of societal peace are doing the Christian life incorrectly, because compromising God’s revealed will is never loving.

Nonetheless, while theological tolerance is impossible, civil tolerance is absolutely within reach.

Amazingly, Jesus’ teaching is not only that we be civil with those who differ from us, but he has the audacity to actually say that we should LOVE them!

“But to you who are listening I say: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you … you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.” (Luke 6:27-29, 35-36)

Because Jesus didn’t write you off, because he tolerated you while you were dead in your sins and offered the grace to bring you to life, you have the promise of forgiveness and salvation.

The gospel of Jesus – this is a great basis for civilization. And I think it’s possible for both believers and non-believers can see the wisdom of that.


9 thoughts on “Clarity on Tolerance

  1. Well stated, Pastor James. Tolerance (or lack of) is at the heart of our social tension and a key to getting along with those who see things differently. Both sides can and need to do better.

  2. John J Flanagan says:

    The reality today is that liberals and progressives are growing more politically correct in matters of free speech, viewpoint expression, and religious freedom, and intolerance is very evident. A casual and even inoffensive comment expressing your faith and opposition to gay marriage can get you fired from your job because the corporate world is now as politically correct as the government and the media. Any comment perceived as racist, or a Facebook post….will bring the new world order down on you…if you are a Christian. So we must realize that religious freedom is dying in our republic, and we as followers of Jesus must remember we are strangers and pilgrims on the earth…as millions of other Christians have known throughout the ages. In Vietnam, China, Africa, in Muslim lands…..look and see the reality, and place your faith in God. Pray for other believers.

  3. Adam Goede says:

    So let me throw this question of application out there to see what people think. Applying Christian tolerance at the public/govt. level, for example, (before it was settled)–should gay marriage be legal? So you have a near 50/50 issue. It may seem tolerant for a Christian to say, “We can’t force our beliefs on others; society is a secular realm; let them get married” (I often hear the saying “you can’t legislate morality”). However, the way our system works is, on whatever issue, the majority wins. I’d say then, in the political realm, you just have to vouch for and vote for the way you think is right and let the majority win. People may say you’re forcing your beliefs on others, but isn’t that just how our political system works?

  4. Your statements are nicely expressed and I agree with them. If both sides of the issue, in this case gay rights seekers, espouse a Christian, or even an open view of tolerance as you describe the world would work better. But because of their continued militancy and political activity things have become and are likely to become more one sided. Within the boundaries of civil society I think Christian views as you have written need to be expressed more often and widely. I think you have taught us what tolerance means and we need to make sure others get the message.

  5. What about Rawls going on to say in Theory of Justice “While an intolerant sect does not itself have title to complain of intolerance, its freedom should be restricted only when the tolerant sincerely and with reason believe that their own security and that of the institutions of liberty are in danger.”? The big takeaway is that “institutions of liberty” are seen as in danger here–the lawsuits are a result of everyone having the right to pursue happiness. If every bakery in the area refused to make you a cake, wouldn’t you feel like a second-class citizen? Part of the problem here is that LGBTQ are already treated as “not quite full citizens” in this country–the opportunities are just not the same. So there is a conversation about tolerance (the one Hein had), and the next conversation is about tolerance between different levels of privilege (which is what Hein should’ve had). While legally the US is ostensibly secular, our culture and institutions still default to Christian in a lot of places, meaning things are harder for non-Christians. That is not equality, and it’s not tolerant. So we have to make laws about it.

    Rawls’s quote also seems to say that if you are the intolerant sect, you can’t complain of intolerance, which is what this post is doing. I don’t have the full text, so I’m not sure if that’s accurate given the context. Either way, dumbing down what’s going on in these lawsuits to “tolerance/intolerance” takes away the nuance of privilege and oppression that are at play, which I mentioned above.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s