Defining Tolerance

Defining Tolerance

Defining Tolerance

Tolerance is a word that’s tossed around a lot these days. People are constantly accusing Christians of being intolerant, bigots, and closed-minded. Then, we in turn accuse the accusers of being intolerant based on their very definition of tolerance! If we are intolerant because we refuse to embrace their worldview as equally valid, wouldn’t that consequently make them intolerant of us as well? It seems like a vicious cycle doesn’t it?

Unfortunately, the word “tolerance” is abused in our current culture. It seems as if the problem lies in the definition of tolerance. So maybe if we start by defining what tolerance truly is and what it is not, we can come to some common ground.

What tolerance is NOT:

  • Agreeing with another’s belief system or opposing worldview
  • Acceptance of an idea, belief or lifestyle (especially if it opposes your own) as being true or equally true
  • Refusing to believe in objective or absolute truth
  • Conceding that somebody is right, when you believe that they are wrong
  • Believing that others’ opposing views must align with your own

What tolerance IS:

  • Allowing for differences, disagreements and opposition in a kind, compassionate and respectful way
  • According to the Oxford Dictionary, tolerance is defined as “the ability or willingness to tolerate the existence of opinions or behavior that one dislikes or disagrees with.”
  • Another definition listed is “the capacity to endure continued subjection to something such as a drug or environmental conditions without adverse reaction.”

Note the secondary definition. Taken from a relational perspective, this would mean to endure opposing conditions (or people) without reacting adversely or in a hostile way. 

My favorite take on tolerance

My favorite description of tolerance comes from an article by the Institute for Faith, Work and Economics where they included a quote from Pastor Rick Warren:

“Our culture has accepted two huge lies. The first is that if you disagree with someone’s lifestyle, you must fear or hate them. The second is that to love someone means you agree with everything they believe or do. Both are nonsense. You don’t have to compromise convictions to be compassionate.”

In his devotion, Focus On Reconciliation, Not Resolution, Rick Warren also incorporates another priceless snippet of wisdom:

“Can you have a loving relationship without agreeing on everything? Of course you can. If you learn to disagree without being disagreeable, that’s called wisdom. If you learn to walk hand-in-hand without having to see eye-to-eye, that’s called wisdom.”

Therefore based on Rick Warren’s take on diversity, we might be able to articulate tolerance in a different way. Tolerance means you can be compassionate without compromising your convictions. Tolerance means you can walk hand-in-hand without having to see eye-to-eye. 

More wisdom from others…

This article by J. Warner Wallace is a great read on how the definition of tolerance has been corrupted and redefined by culture. He demonstrates how to help people see and understand what tolerance really is.

I also especially like what Natasha Crain says on the topic:

“By definition, tolerance simply means to bear with ideas other than your own. However, most people use the word as if it means to accept those (often conflicting) other ideas as equally true. Christians are then labeled as intolerant simply because they don’t accept that all ideas can be true at the same time. But the fact that Christians believe objective truth exists doesn’t mean they’re intolerant.[1]

“…tolerance means bearing with ideas other than your own—not believing that those ideas are right.”[1]

Finally, I loved this statement that I recently read in a devotion by the One Minute Apologist. It stated:

“While it is important for Christians to effectively and lovingly relate to a plurality of people and to be tolerant of others in that we are patient, kindhearted, and gentle, we are not to be tolerant as in passive or pluralistic in that we fail to stand for the exclusive truth claims of Christ.”

Take Some Practical Steps to Practice True Tolerance:

  • Love your enemies or anyone who differs with, disagrees with, opposes, OR annoys you.

“But I say, love your enemies! Pray for those who persecute you!” Matthew 5:44 (NLT)

“But to you who are willing to listen, I say, love your enemies! Do good to those who hate you.” Luke 6:27

  • Don’t just affiliate with those who are like you.

    The Bible calls us to reach out and love our neighbor, not just the neighbor who is like us. In order to practice tolerance, there must first be some sort of difference or disagreement by definition. You don’t need to “tolerate” people you already agree with. OK, maybe sometimes! 😉

“A second is equally important: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” Matthew 22:39 (NLT)

“If you love only those who love you, what reward is there for that? Even corrupt tax collectors do that much. If you are kind only to your friends, how are you different from anyone else? Even pagans do that.” Matthew 5:46-47 (NLT)

“If you love only those who love you, why should you get credit for that? Even sinners love those who love them! And if you do good only to those who do good to you, why should you get credit? Even sinners do that much!” Luke 6: 32-33 (NLT)

  • Do not attack (or react adversely to) people who hold opposing beliefs.

    1 Peter 3:15 (ESV) says “but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect”. Notice it says “defense” NOT “offense”. Don’t go on the offensive, and don’t pick fights. It’s not your job to try to prove others wrong.

  • When you DO need to give a defense, follow these guidelines:

    • Like the previous verse (1 Peter 3:15) mentioned—do so with gentleness and respect, not hostility and in an air of superiority.
    • Don’t argue. DO be prepared to answer legitimate questions. Use discernment to determine if they are really curious and looking for what you believe and why OR if they are merely trying to cause a fight, be difficult, etc. If it’s the latter, disengage respectfully.
  • Do not compromise your convictions, but as much as possible, try to live at peace with everyone.

    As Christians we need to be very cautious that in standing for what we believe, we don’t become so “religious” that we alienate those we could potentially influence. God will place people in our lives with whom we can establish relationship. How we behave will make an impression. If we show a bad representation of Jesus, who would want to be a part of that? I’ve said it before…You have to win people to yourself before you can ever win them to Christ.

“If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.” Romans 12:18 (NIV)

  • Lastly, instruction on tolerance wouldn’t be complete without citing the Golden Rule!

“Do to others as you would like them to do to you.” Luke 6:31 (NLT)

In what situations have you been able to practice true tolerance? Tell us about it by leaving a comment below.

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If you know anyone that could benefit from this, please pay it forward!  Share this post via the sharing links below.  “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God.” 2 Corinthians 1:3-4 (NIV) 

  1. Crain, Natasha. Keeping Your Kids on God’s Side: 40 Conversations to Help Them Build a Lasting Faith. Eugene: Harvest House, 2016. 60. Print. There are affiliate links in this post (I may get a small commission at no extra cost to you if you make a purchase).
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