The Problem with Tolerance

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Aiming for mere human exceptionalism is a sure path to spiritual floundering (Matt. 5:20). A case in point is the call for tolerance. Tolerance, though a singular virtue in secular society, is destructive to the power and purity of the church.

The root meaning of tolerance is enduring pain. It implies no change or progress. It is live and let live. You do your thing, and I will do mine. The problem with tolerance is it settles for mediocrity and sidelines the transforming power of the gospel. Tolerance is the salt substitute to Christian discipleship.

Joining Jesus with Jezebel

Jesus had some sharp words for those who allowed sexual immorality and idolatry to go unchallenged in the church. “But I have this against you, that you tolerate that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess and is teaching and seducing my servants to practice sexual immorality and to eat food sacrificed to idols” (Rev. 2:20). A battle is raging in many of the historically evangelical denominations on whether to sanction homosexuality, same-sex marriage, and transgenderism. What the world chalks up to infighting between liberals and conservatives is actually a struggle to maintain our love for and fidelity to Jesus Christ, the Head of the Church.

love one another earnestly from a pure heart, since you have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God

1 Peter 1:22-23

Admittedly, evangelical churches are filled with people whose past includes flagrant acts of idolatry, sexual immorality, and corruption (1 Cor. 6:9-11). The Bible affirms that believers may continue to struggle and sometime fall into those same sins (1 Cor. 6:18-20; 1 Thes. 4:3-8; Col. 3:5). We are called to humbly and gently restore our fellow believer when he is “caught in any transgression” (Gal. 6:1). This involves patient, compassionate engagement and aims for mutual growth in grace.

Yet, God clearly calls the Church to pursue purity (1 Thes. 4:3-8), even to the point of expelling a member who will not repent of his sin (Matt. 18:15-17; 1 Cor. 5:11-13; 2 Cor. 12:20-13:2). Tolerating sin is not an act of love, but an act of indifference toward our brother’s spiritual well-being and toward the glory of Christ.

Heaping Burning Coals

As tolerance within the Church fails to love our brothers, mere tolerance toward unbelievers fails to love our neighbor. When faced with hostile, vigorous opposition to the gospel and its call to repentance, we need to respond with something greater than tolerance. On the Sermon on the Mount, our Lord commands us to love our enemies (Matt. 5:43). The apostle Paul commands us to “overcome evil with good” (Rom. 12:21). Proverbs teaches us, “If your enemy is hungry, give him bread to eat, and if he is thirsty, give him water to drink, for you will heap burning coals on his head, and the Lord will reward you” (Prov. 25:21-22).

Yet, we are not called to mere actions of love but also to words of love. The love that is “patient and kind” (1 Cor. 13:4) is also the love that “does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth” (1 Cor. 13:6). We are not free to tamper with the word of God to make the gospel more palatable (2 Cor. 4:2). Like our Master, we do not “call the righteous but sinners to repentance” (Matt. 5:32).

However, we must not get the cart before the horse by implying one needs to rid himself of sin before coming to Jesus. We come to Christ in our sin that he might free us from our sin. As fellow sinners, we connect with our neighbors humbly and compassionately, denying ourselves to love them and follow Christ. We do not affirm their sin, but the grace of God to sinners.

Holy Intolerance

Nevertheless, before engaging others with this holy intolerance, we must first direct it toward ourselves. “Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them. For it is shameful even to speak of the things that they do in secret” (Eph. 5:3- 12). What consumes our thoughts, our labor, our leisure? We must first remove the log from our own eye (Matt. 7:5). We call others to repentance as those who are characterized by repentance.

Destroying Strongholds

An underlying flaw of tolerance is reliance on human strength to accomplish a divine outcome. Christians fight a battle, but it is a spiritual battle. In the contest for souls, victory does not depend on our likability numbers. “The weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds” (2 Cor. 10:4). “Having purified your souls by your obedience to the truth for a sincere brotherly love, love one another earnestly from a pure heart, since you have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God” (1 Pet. 1:22-23). Similarly, as we rub shoulders with those “who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth” (Rom. 1:18), we lovingly proclaim the unadulterated gospel of grace, relying on it as “the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes” (Rom. 1:16).


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