It is common to hear many in our culture say that Christians are intolerant, ignorant, bigoted and close-minded—the chief of those sins being intolerance. But should Christians be tolerant? Well, that depends on what one means by tolerance. There’s a lot of confusion out there because ‘tolerance’ is being defined in two very different ways.
The traditional understanding of tolerance means that you (1) extend to others the right to disagree with your opinions or beliefs (2) treat others with respect, fairness, and dignity even though you disagree with them and (3) recognize that all ideas and beliefs are not created equal (i.e., some ideas are better than others). Philosopher Paul Copan sums it up well, “if disagreement didn’t exist, then tolerance would be unnecessary….It is because real differences exist between people that tolerance becomes necessary and virtuous.”
The new definition of tolerance isn’t found in a textbook. It is more of a mood; a cultural background belief. But it is the default view for most people on the street and in the classroom. Disagreement itself is now what is intolerant. Today, someone can be treating another person with respect but arguing against what they believe and be labeled intolerant. This is especially true when it comes to ethics and religion; everyone’s deeply held beliefs must be validated regardless of how irrational they might seem.
So what happened to the traditional view of tolerance? Quite simply, truth was removed. If there is no truth, no fact of the matter then you can believe whatever you want. All views can be equally right because they are not describing anything real. They are not actually talking about the way things actually are. And one of the reasons truth is so unpopular is that it’s frustratingly and painfully exclusive. Reality is what we bump into when our beliefs are false.
Let’s illustrate how this plays out with an example: Jesus is the only way to God (cf. John 14:6). Now Judaism, Islam, and Christianity all disagree on this. As Christians, we should tolerate our Jewish and Muslim friends by doing our best to represent their views fairly and treat them with respect. But there is a fact of the matter. Either Jesus was not the Messiah (Judaism), was the Messiah (Christianity), or was a great prophet (Islam)—but not all three. They could all be false, but they can’t all be true!
Suggesting this kind of conversation is extremely unpopular and seen as the height of intolerance today. How dare you or anyone else say that someone else’s private beliefs are false? Unfortunately, this response may be unavoidable if we are faithful to what the Bible clearly teaches. But we are also called to love our neighbor, and loving others—willing their highest good—means telling them things they may not want to hear at the time (Luke 10:27).
A word of caution is needed here. If you or I come off as arrogant, condemning, or mean, then shame on us. That is not being a good ambassador for Jesus Christ (2 Cor. 5:20). We need to give an answer for the hope we have, yet always with gentleness and respect (1 Pet. 3:15 cf. Col. 4:6).