Public Square

What’s Wrong with Tolerance?

Standing against Sin While Loving Our Neighbors Is Becoming Increasingly Difficult. What Should We Do?
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You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.

 – Inigo Montoya, The Princess Bride

“Tolerance, not truth, is the new supreme virtue,” D.A. Carson writes in his book The Intolerance of Tolerance. He suggests that for two millennia, Western civilization viewed tolerance as a virtue closely connected to a moral code. Yet today, “tolerance has become independent, largely cut off from a larger moral framework.”

Carson suggests that in many respects, tolerance has evolved from an indispensable safeguard against tyranny into “the supreme virtue of Western society,” which is now “detached from any broad, culture-wide ethical system.” Today we are told to agree that all beliefs, values, lifestyles, and truth claims are of equal value, and we must affirm their validity. To deny this validity puts us at risk of committing the unforgivable cultural sin, “intolerance.”

Living with this “new tolerance” bears implications for our personal relationships and our work. In an interview with the Orange County Register, Rick Warren asserted,

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.

How do we live as believers called to impact a culture that has bought into these two lies? Arthur Brooks’s observation may point us toward an answer:

It’s not good enough just to tolerate people who disagree.

Scripture does not call us to be tolerant of our neighbors. It calls us to love them.

Who Are Our Neighbors?

Who are our neighbors? Jesus makes it very clear when he answers the lawyer’s question, “And who is my neighbor?” in Luke 10:25-37. The unexpected hero of Jesus’s story, the Good Samaritan, belonged to a group of people the Jews had hated for over 500 years. The Samaritans represented Jews who had intermarried after the fall of the Northern kingdom to the Assyrians. They rejected the Jewish faith and began worshipping foreign idols, and they vigorously opposed the Jewish remnant permitted to return from Babylon and rebuild Jerusalem.

Considering this story in our current context, we must realize that our neighbors are not limited to our families or even the family of believers. Our neighbors are also those whose beliefs, values, lifestyles, and truth claims conflict with God’s design and desire for his creation. They are also those most likely to label us as bigots for adhering to our Christian beliefs.

What do we do?

Some Christians believe the answer is to retreat to their own Christian ghetto and, as much as possible, avoid any interaction with those who are different. Another approach is to confront people head-on, demanding they repent before it is too late. Neither strategy has positively impacted our culture.

Instead, it might be instructive to look at another event in Jesus’s ministry. In John 8:1-11, we read about the woman caught in adultery. She is about to be stoned for her transgression, but Jesus intervenes.

Nothing in the story suggests this woman was innocent. She was caught. She was clearly guilty. Yet Jesus showed compassion by sparing her life. Did he just ignore her sin? No. His final words to her were, “Go now and leave your life of sin” (John 8:11). Jesus loved the woman and had compassion on her, but he did not accept her sin.

The love Jesus demonstrates stands in contrast to the “new tolerance.” It’s different than how most of us would handle the problem. Jesus did not ignore what was happening. He waded into the situation knowing he could have a positive impact. The more subtle point in this story is that Jesus declines to join the leaders in condemning the woman. He only speaks to her sin after everyone else has left, after he has earned the right to speak into her situation by first demonstrating his love for her.

The Difference between Love and Tolerance

Apologist and author Josh McDowell describes the differences between love and tolerance in his book The New Tolerance:

  • “Tolerance says, ‘You must agree with me.’ Love responds, ‘I must do something harder: I will tell you the truth, because I am convinced ‘the truth will set you free.””
  • “Tolerance says, ‘You must approve of what I do.’ Love responds, ‘I must do something harder: I will love you, even when your behavior offends me.'”
  • “Tolerance says, ‘You must allow me to have my way.’ Love responds, ‘I must do something harder: I will plead with you to follow the right way, because I believe you are worth the risk.'”
  • “Tolerance seeks to be inoffensive; love takes risks.”
  • “Tolerance costs nothing; love costs everything.”

Christ calls us to stand against all sin while showing great love to our neighbors. This is the way we make a difference. We must earn the right to do this by living lives that demonstrate the work Christ has done in us. Remembering that “God showed his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8), Paul’s words to the Ephesians are a helpful reminder of how to live out this difficult but important calling:

I therefore, a prisoner of the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility, gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace (Eph. 4:1-3).

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  • Joe

    Thanks Hugh, timely. Always good to hear your voice!

  • Michael Stevens

    This is an okay article by I’m wondering if it is code for something that you aren’t saying (hate the sin love the sinner)? I’ve heard this before and it does not hold water with the totality of scripture…the denouncing tolerance part. The love your neighbor part is clear. What conservatives consider sin may not be sin then you are wrong on two fronts this includes D.A. Carson.

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