As it relates to "tolerance" a few questions pop into my mind: How do we as Christ followers function in a world that does not believe that there are any absolute truths? Are there times when we have a duty to demonstrate "tolerance" and are there other times when we must stand by our convictions that may be interpreted as non-tolerant? If so, how do we know when and how would one know the difference between the two scenarios? Is all intolerance bad? Should we be tolerant of every life choice or are there boundaries to work within? In 2003, John Stott who is a highly regarded theologian from the UK wrote an article in Christianity Today that might help us understand how to function more effectively in our culture and our personal circles of influence. He provides the concepts of three forms of tolerance. Let's unpackage each one. Legal Tolerance
First is Legal Tolerance that relates to striving for equal rights among ethnic and minority groups. It is critical that those of us in the Christian community fight for and seek to gain or preserve the civil and human rights among people groups. This also means opposing those who hate, oppress and seek to force or subjugate people on the basis of their ethnicity or race. Far too often, human beings are cast aside in nearly every culture where minorities and ethnic groups are preyed upon because of their birthright. As believers we must strive to be legally tolerant to all people groups regardless of their race, ethnic or social status.
Second is Social Tolerance that corresponds to believers striving to cross social barriers to befriend and learn about people who come from different faiths, cultures and belief systems. Scripture tells us that God is not a respecter of persons and he does not show partiality because of their status, race or culture (Acts 10:34-35). It is critical for us to learn what people believe because it is important to understand what views the person holds and it is vital and necessary to build the relational bridge to them. Jesus frequently went to the disenchanted, the forlorn and social outcasts but he also went to others in elite circles of the intelligent and social upper class. At times, building bridges or tolerating people who hold to differing faith systems can be challenging. Exercising social tolerance requires patience and a genuine interest in the person and what they believe.
Third is Intellectual Tolerance. This is the belief and practice that would see all religious and belief systems are equally valid. This type of tolerance requires one to hold to the perspective that no belief system is to be invalidated or believed to be wrong no matter if there is evidence contrary to the fact. In essence, intellectual tolerance demands that all ideas or views hold equal weight and validity. Even if those ideas or views are contradictory or objectively in error, intellectual tolerance would require one to give all perspectives equal weight of legitimacy. This is the one kind of tolerance that believers cannot embrace. Not all ideas are valid or true nor should the be treated with the same weight. Truth is ALWAYS narrow. If someone says that 2+2=5 it can be an answer but the answer is false. It cannot be given the same validity as the correct answer that 2+2=4. So it is with world views and religious views.
Practical Tolerance in Everyday Life
While it is important and critical for people of faith to exercise legal and social tolerance, Christ followers cannot embrace or practice intellectual tolerance. All belief systems are not equally valid and we cannot accept them to be true. It is critical and even imperative that we continue to respect the individual even thought the world view that they have adopted is flawed, contradictory, or outright false. Operating within our current cultural environment can be difficult because others may not reciprocate in tolerating a Biblical perspective. Further - it can also be challenging because others may not be tolerant of the biblical view! But God calls us to function skillfully in all worlds or cultures (1 Corinthians 1: 20-25).
Those who identify themselves as "Christ followers" and fail to exercise legal and social tolerance are actually not genuine followers of Christ because they misrepresent the very person they claim to follow or represent - Jesus Christ. Remember, don't allow your personal biases or prejudices to mar the image of Christ or others who seek to truly reflect Him.