Something I’ve always been grateful for is to have friends and family members who love me and stick with me through thick and thin. If I blurt out something that doesn’t go over well or don’t handle a situation the way I should, they don’t write me off. If I express a strong opinion on something that they don’t agree with, or maybe they see some of my shortcomings, they’re not going to stop caring about me.
The term for this way of relating to others is tolerance. Dictionaries generally define tolerance as the acceptance of opinions, beliefs, behaviors or practices of others that one does not necessarily agree with or like. Tolerance is often linked with civility and respect, meaning we still treat others courteously when they express ideas that are opposed to our own.
Tolerance can also entail having to endure suffering or unpleasant circumstances. That might mean putting up with a friend’s personal foibles or idiosyncrasies that annoy us, like not being punctual, dominating conversations, or always needing to be right. Tolerance may also be called for with strangers we encounter in public, such as an incompetent store clerk or an over-talkative person sitting next to us on an airplane.
A biblical virtue
There is a lot in the Bible about tolerance and it is definitely portrayed as a virtue, although it is usually labeled by other terms. In the King James version, words like patience, forbearance, longsuffering and compassion are used instead of tolerance.
The biblical teaching on tolerance encompasses the standard dictionary definition, but goes further than just “putting up” with annoyances. Biblical tolerance also involves maintaining a genuine concern for people when they rub us the wrong way, letting go of anger and resentment towards others, and staying committed to relationships.
Sometimes what troubles us about another person is more than just personality differences. The person might espouse an idea or be doing something that goes against God’s laws. In these situations, biblical tolerance does not ignore or condone the infractions, but rather is a matter of being supportive and patient with others as they go through their Christian journeys and God helps them see what they need to see about themselves.
These are all concepts found throughout the Bible. Colossians 3:13 (New Living Translation) tells us to “Make allowance for each other’s faults, and forgive anyone who offends you.” Ephesians 4:2 (New International Version) says we should “be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love.” 1 Thessalonians 5:14 (NIV) says to “encourage the disheartened, help the weak, be patient with everyone.” 1 Peter 4:8 explains that when we truly love others, that “love will cover a multitude of sins.” By “covering sins” that is generally understood to mean than we don’t overreact to the perceived wrongs of others or harshly judge people for their offenses, nor do we spread gossip about others’ faults.
We can read of many positive examples of people in the Bible who were tolerant. Jesus Christ was the supreme model of this, showing unparalleled patience to those he encountered during his earthly ministry, to the degree that he was called “the friend of sinners” (Luke 7:31-34; Matthew 11:19). Other examples include Abraham’s willingness to work with Lot (Genesis 13:8), Job’s continued devotion to his friends when they falsely accused him (Job 2:10), and David’s commitment to Saul even when Saul persecuted him (1 Samuel 24:6-7; 1 Samuel 24:26).
The Postmodern definition of tolerance
Today we often hear the rally cry for tolerance when we turn on the TV or go on social media, in the workplace and at school, and from civic leaders and religious organizations. Just about everywhere we go, we’re bombarded with messaging telling us that we need to be more tolerant. The trouble is, what’s usually being promoted is a radically different kind of tolerance than what we read about in the Bible.
This counterfeit version of tolerance asserts that all views, perspectives, belief systems and lifestyles have equal merit, and that none are “more right” than the rest. We’re told not to question others about their beliefs or impose any kind of objective moral standard on them, but just to give our blind approval to what others say and do. There are no such things as “wrong ideas” or “sin,” the reasoning goes, as people are free to decide for themselves what’s true and acceptable.
In his book, A Primer on Postmodernism, Stanley Grenz explains that this new kind of tolerance is a byproduct of the postmodern worldview that has gained foothold in Western society in recent decades. Postmodernism is characterized by the belief that there aren’t absolute or eternal truths, but rather all truth is relative.
For the postmodernist, Grenz notes that “truth is relative to the community in which a person participates. And since there are many human communities, there are necessarily many different truths” (ibid, p. 14). In other words, what’s considered true or right for one person or culture may not be true or right for another. Therefore, those who claim to have the truth or voice objections about what others say or do are seen as trying to “dominate” or “force their narratives” on people, and are labeled as intolerant.
This is quite a shift in thinking. Historically, Western culture emphasized tolerance of individuals, similar to the biblical definition: that tolerance meant showing patience and concern for people, even if we couldn’t excuse their behavior. But today, society’s view on tolerance has morphed from being longsuffering with people to being accepting of all behavior, without judgment or reservation. That includes what in days-gone-by would have been considered sins, like premarital sex, adultery, same-sex marriage, sex change operations, abortion, and dishonesty, to name just a few vices that society no longer sees as vices.
Usually the only situation where postmodernists say it’s okay to be intolerant is when it comes to confronting those who hold a biblical worldview. Believing the Bible holds absolute truths that are universally applicable to all people and all cultures, and that it delineates behaviors that are and aren’t acceptable, is unacceptable to postmodernists. For that reason, postmodernists often attach demeaning labels on Christians, to try to intimidate and ostracize them.
Why tolerance is important
There is another significant way the postmodern version of tolerance diverges from biblical tolerance. The new version that society is embracing sees tolerance as the end goal. There aren’t any larger reasons for being tolerant beyond that. People just want to be left alone to be able to do and believe as they choose. They don’t want to be told that they should change, that their views are flawed, or that they should live their lives any differently than what they’ve chosen to do.
But biblical tolerance doesn’t stop with just being patient and longsuffering with others. While tolerance is important, it’s not the end goal. Overcoming and growing in Godly wisdom is. God wants us to address our personal shortcomings, and He wants us to be concerned for our fellow human beings as well, even watching out for those who lack maturity, understanding or wisdom. Being tolerant helps accomplish this goal.
God wants us to be tolerant of each other’s imperfections (perceived or actual), not so people can feel free to do whatever they want, but because doing so leads to harmony, keeps potentially tense situations calm, and helps us maintain relationships. Keeping connections intact is important, because we can’t “spur one another on toward love and good deeds” (Hebrews 10:24, NIV) if we give up on people or disconnect ourselves from others just because we see some of their humanness or because they have an opinion that is in opposition to ours.
We need to bear with one another, so we’ll be in the position to show support and concern. We should be willing to get involved when we see those who are close to us making serious mistakes—not to be intrusive or meddle—but to help them persevere in God’s way of life. That might entail letting them talk and listening to them to try to understand their perspectives, gently correcting them in love, offering up intercessory prayers on their behalf, or reminding them that we care about them and will not give up on them.
Never forget that tolerance is a two-way street. As big as other people’s flaws seem to us, we have our own flaws that they likely see. There will be times when we need others to extend this same kind of Godly tolerance, support and concern to us.