Spirit of Grace Ministries
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The Limits of Tolerance


by Dennis Pollock

Tolerance has sometimes been raised to the highest place among virtues espoused by American society these days. All forms of moral discrimination or expressions of disgust at immoral lifestyles are met with the mantra of "judgmentalism and intolerance!" Evangelical Christians are particularly branded as intolerant for their stubborn refusal to approve of homosexuality, sex before marriage, and abortion. "Why can't we all just get along?" has morphed into "Why can't we all accept all people, all behavior, and every lifestyle?" "Just because it doesn't work for you, who are you to say it should not be for your neighbor?"

 Toleration has its place, of course. Without tolerance, no marriage or even friendship would last for long. To refuse to tolerate anything and everything we dislike or find distasteful would turn us into obnoxious little despots, and would make us and everyone around us miserable. Our relationships would be as brittle as icicles, breaking at the first sign of stress. And while the Bible does not always use the word tolerance or tolerate (depends on your version) the concept is easily found in the Scriptures. The reality is this: in many respects God expects and even commands His people to be a kindly and tolerant people, putting up with things and people they do not like and enduring with grace situations they find extremely unpleasant. But in other situations we are called to be extraordinarily intolerant. Wise is the man who knows the difference

Biblical Tolerance 

Nowhere is tolerance more important than in the arena of human relationships. God is very much desirous that His children would walk together in love and forbearance, and we find this theme hammered home again and again in the Scriptures. Paul writes, "Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God" (Romans 15:7). When men and women enter the kingdom and family of God, they do not arrive having been cut out with a cookie cutter. We come in all kinds of different sizes, shapes, and flavors and with all sorts of flaws, levels of immaturity, and annoying mannerisms. If we were all called to live on separate islands minding our own business and relating to no one but God, these flaws might not be so significant. But no sooner do we get into the kingdom than Jesus calls us to be actively involved in a church and to form close relationships with other believers. And with all our newfound faith, zeal, and love for the Lord, people still manage to get on our nerves. 

When we find ourselves in continual close proximity with people whose habits and behaviors we dislike, we have essentially three options: separate ourselves from them, try to fix them, or ecide to put up with them. Guess which option the Lord encourages us to take? You guessed it – in most cases we are asked to put up with our brothers and sisters who annoy us, and to show them love and forbearance. It is a fact of human nature that we normally consider our style, our ways, and our values superior to all others. When we see people who operate in styles and ways that are polar opposites to ours, our tendency is to despise them, or at the least look down upon them as being less advanced than us. We would love to fix them, to shape them into our own image. But running around trying to fix everybody of all their bad habits would be an impossible task and would put everybody in a constant state of tension. In order to combat the friction that would arise should we all be constantly attempting to fix everybody else, we are commanded not to judge our brothers: "Judge not, and you shall not be judged. Condemn not, and you shall not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven." (Luke 6:37).

As Christians it is not a part of our job description to fault find, criticize, and rebuke all our brothers and sisters of all their faults (just as it is not for them to do so toward us). For Christian fellowship to thrive, we must tolerate habits and ways and dress and all sorts of things that we have little use for ourselves. Indeed our toleration must go beyond merely putting up with people whose ways we find annoying; it must reach as far as love and fellowship. Remember when you were in high school? At lunchtime there was complete segregation. I'm not talking about racial segregation – this was a separation based on personality, ability, and interest. The socially cool kids sat at one table and the athletes at another. The geeks had their table where they could talk about gadgets, and the nerds had theirs. And woe to that student who mistakenly sat at the wrong table!

Families are so different. In a family you may have brothers and sisters that are as different as day and night. Two brothers or two sisters may be so radically different that, if they had been separated at birth and never known each other, and then happened to meet on the job or at school, they would never become friends. And yet because they are family, and because of their many shared experiences they may become very close to one another over time. So it must be in the family of God. Tolerance and forbearance are like oil which keeps the engine of the church running smoothly. In Colossians we read: 

Therefore, as the elect of God, holy and beloved, put on tender mercies, kindness, humility, meekness, longsuffering; bearing with one another (practicing tolerance), and forgiving one another, if anyone has a complaint against another; even as Christ forgave you, so you alsomust do. (Colossians 3:12,13)

But not only must we be tolerant concerning our brothers and sisters in Christ, we must also practice forbearance toward those outside of Christ. Jesus certainly did not approve of sin, but He tolerated sinners and in fact seemed to enjoy spending time with them. We are told He accepted an invitation to a party that was comprised almost entirely of "tax collectors and sinners." While it is not told us all that He said or did at the gathering, it seems pretty unlikely He spent the entire evening telling them what rotten, filthy sinners they were. He showed them love and interest that touched their hearts. Many years ago I was talking with a woman about a pastor friend of mine that she knew as well. This lady was quite poor, without much education, and not very attractive – not the sort of person in whom most people took much interest. She made a statement that I have never forgotten, which seems to me to sum up, in a simple sort of way, the nature of love. She said of this pastor, "He's real nice. He always talks to me." Because the pastor showed enough interest in this lady to stop and talk with her, she sized him up as being "real nice." I think these tax collectors must have felt similarly about the Lord Jesus. He cared enough to spend time with people with whom most of the respectable folks of His day would have had nothing to do. 

Biblical Intolerance 

Key in lock

In spite of what we have seen about the need for tolerance, it is not the whole story. For just as the Bible clearly teaches tolerance, it just as plainly teaches intolerance. Most virtues, if pushed to their utmost extremes, become vices, and so it is with tolerance. Even in secular matters our world would become totally dysfunctional if everybody tolerated everything all the time. Imagine the chaos of a classroom where the teacher tolerated any kind of behavior and the sloppiest, most poorly done assignments. Who would want to have heart surgery performed by a surgeon who graduated from a medical school where any and every applicant was accepted and given a diploma, regardless of performance, character, or even attendance? In spite of our desire to be caring and accepting, we all instinctively realize that there is a time and a place where the only appropriate response is a forceful: "I will not put up with this!"

In spiritual matters, the Bible teaches us several different situations where we are called to beintolerant. One area has to do with flagrant sin among those professing to be Christians. In the rough and fast-paced game of basketball, fouls are always going to occur. You'll never see any basketball game at any level where the players don't go to the free throw line to shoot "foul shots." Someone has pushed them or bumped into them or jumped up and landed on their back. If any player could go an entire game without fouling someone he could hardly be said to be playing basketball. Fouls will occur. But "flagrant fouls" are different. These are violent, purposeful infractions of the rules that are so blatant and so unnecessary that they fall into a special category and receive a much more severe penalty.

In the Christian life, every Christian is going to make mistakes, say stupid things, and at times hurt people's feelings. About the only way to avoid this would be to hide by ourselves in our rooms all day long and never interact with anyone (which would be the biggest mistake of all). Though in the eyes of our holy God these things are sins, they do not disqualify us from God's service or result in severe judgments. If we do them too often God may discipline us for them, but it is the discipline of a loving parent toward His child. The blood of Jesus Christ cleanses us from all sin. But there are certain sins which are so brazen and presumptuous, God calls for his children to take action when they see their brothers involved in such things. Sexual immorality seems to top the list. Paul strictly warned the Corinthians that if they found in their assembly someone professing Christ but living in sexual immorality (drunkards and swindlers also made this list) they must put this person out of their fellowship and must not even have a meal with them.

In another case in Corinth there was a man who was sleeping with his stepmother. Paul was outraged, and couldn't believe the church had not taken action here. This was tolerance that went way too far. Paul insisted: "when you are gathered together… deliver such a one to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus." In the Book of Revelation the Lord Jesus commends the church in Thyatira for all their good works and service to God, but then goes on to tell them He has something against them. They are allowing (tolerating) a woman to seduce the other believers into sexual immorality. And He is not at all pleased with this show of tolerance! 

Another area where we are commanded to be intolerant (and Jesus led the way in this) is in the means of salvation. Jesus was adamant that He was the only means God had provided or would ever provide for men and women to gain acceptance with their holy Creator. He declared:

  1. "I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me."
  2. "Unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God."
  3. "If you do not believe that I am He, you will die in your sins."

Door locks are built to be intolerant. You may have a key ring with one hundred keys on it, but only one will open that lock. You try key after key but the lock remains obstinate. It will not open. You try silver keys, bronze keys, large keys, and small keys. Yet still the lock will not yield. Finally you try the key that was designed for that lock. Amazingly the lock opens easily and smoothly and gives no resistance. The lock was made to tolerate one and only one key!

 God has declared that He is a longsuffering God. He can endure a lot of foolishness from His creation. But when it comes to our attaining acceptance in His sight and being given the privilege of living with Him in Heaven forever, He is most intolerant. The only way He will tolerate is the way of the cross of Jesus Christ His Son. The key to the door of heaven is not the key of positive thinking, charitable giving, meditation, philosophy, yoga, or even church attendance. The key is Jesus. "The wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord" (Romans 6:23).

For a full listing of all devos (written and audio) go to our Devos Catalog Page.


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