Why Tolerance is not a Christian Response

“You have heard that the law of Moses says, ‘Love your neighbor’ and hate your enemy. But I say, TOLERATE your enemies!” Matthew 5:43 – 44

“Honor your father and mother. TOLERATE your neighbor as yourself.” Matthew 19:19

“I command you to TOLERATE each other in the same way that I TOLERATE you.” John 15:12

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I have four children, ages seven, six, three and one. Having them around the house is a hoot. Even this morning as I write, the two youngest have managed to climb over the sofa and wedge themselves between the wall, the sofa and the coffee table. And now they’re stuck.

My kids love each other. Don’t get me wrong – they fight and scratch and claw like any other kids. They have their selfish moments, their irrational outbursts. But at heart they are great friends and enjoy each other’s company.

They love each other. I do everything in my power to keep it that way, because they’re my kids and I want them to love each other as much as I love them. Experiencing moments where they genuinely care for one another can be some of the most moving times of my life.

Would I ever want them to get to a place where they were only tolerant of each other? No way.

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In case you didn’t realize it, I altered the verses above, substituting the word “love” with the world “tolerate.”

We are not called to tolerate people, although in the current world system tolerance has become a virtue of sorts. See, tolerance is a superficial action that has little power to bring about actual change. When we tolerate people, our goal is strictly modifying our external behavior. I can tolerate someone in public and still talk about them when they’re not around. I can tolerate someone and still end up perpetuating stereotypes.

Love is so different from this.

I think turning to tolerance is a natural response in the face of conflict or injustice. I can understand why we call for tolerance, when so many people treat each other with such incredible hate. While tolerance might be part of a process, it can never be our end goal.

Perhaps at some point tolerance can be helpful in bringing two people into the same room, but it is not a long term solution for conflict, inequality or misunderstanding. Tolerance alone cannot change societies or transform hearts. Tolerance cannot keep the peace for an extended period of time.

Only love can do that.

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What do you think? Is tolerance a virtue? Am I off on this one?

13 Replies to “Why Tolerance is not a Christian Response”

  1. I think you’ve hit on something really important here, Shawn. When we refer to “tolerance” our culture has made that term sound even pleasant in connotation, but when we change it into a verb – “tolerate” – suddenly it becomes the word we use when we talk about standing up against severe pain . . . surely God does not want us to think of other humans as things we simply bear up under.

    Thanks for this.

    1. That’s it, isn’t it Andi? The word tolerance has a smooth ring to it. But tolerate? No one wants to be tolerated.

  2. I really tolerate the way you worded this post! No, the substitution doesn’t work at all, does it?

    The position of the so-called “tolerant” really equates, in my view, to what you might call the sin of pride: “Look at me, I’m awesome. I didn’t slap that gay couple/man who looks Middle Eastern/other person who somehow offends my tender sensibilities.” The unspoken corollary is often, “Of course, I’m certainly not going to sit down and have a cup of coffee with them, either. At least not without trying to get them to be less gay, Middle Eastern, or otherwise offensive.”

    It’s also lying, really. If you tolerate me to my face, but talk bad about my category or uniquely offensive quality behind my back, that’s more dishonest than flagrant bigotry. (Not that I’m advocating open anti-gay/anti-Muslim/whatever behavior in public; the result of that is often making people’s day worse, whether or not they belong to the target group — Westboro Baptist has already worn out that schtick.)

    1. I was wondering what you might think of this Gwyn. I like your comparison of tolerance with pride – you’re right. When I tolerate someone I am automatically putting them on a lower plane.

      Love the phrase “uniquely offensive quality.” I may have to start using that.

  3. Good stuff. To tolerate implies doing the bare minimum. Okay, I’m not going to kill you but I’ll hold bad feelings against you . . . in my heart of course, where no one can see them. Or I’ll just let them leak out in subtle sarcastic comments. To love speaks to me of the extra mile Jesus asks us to go. It’s a whole new ball of wax. It falls in line with this “third way” thing that I keep pondering.

  4. I understand what others are saying when it comes to the idea that tolerance doesn’t go far enough, but it seems to me that most Christian virtues exist because we are not always able to reach the ideal. I need courage because I am still going to be afraid. The ideal would just be to not be afraid but that’s unrealistic. A virtue is something that we need because we are imperfect. It is not letting our imperfections stop us. When it comes to tolerance, I think it is most definitely a virtue. Is it the ideal? No, but we are imperfect creatures and to miss that reality is not helpful. This is why political correctness is a joke. It’s phony. Sometimes you are just not going to be able to “love” your neighbor, but can you withhold your sinful nature that gives way to anger and hatred, and tolerate them? I’m not making excuses for settling, but there is a reality here. Also, you are just not going to love everyone. I would like to know the actual word that Jesus used because it makes no sense to love an enemy. Love comes from my feeling attached, safe and secure in a relationship. I can have compassion for my enemy, but to love them? That flies in the face of what allows us to love in reality. Sometimes we are going to have to agree to disagree on even some of the most major issues and arguments, but it is important that we can tolerate the fact that others are different.

    When our ability to love is challenged due to our nature, we need the virtue of tolerance to keep us stable.

    1. Jay, a few random thoughts:

      – the love Jesus spoke about had less to do with emotion and more to do with action. This is what makes loving everyone possible, when it’s not rooted in “liking,” but in a determination to treat everyone as you would want to be treated.

      – you mention that “political correctness is a joke.” Perhaps this is where this post came from, because I see tolerance as being rooted in political correctness.

      – you make a good point about not being able to reach the ideal. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t strive for it. When love is our ideal, we may occasionally fall short and end up tolerating people. When tolerance is our goal, we may end up falling short and hating them. I’d prefer the first option.

  5. I’ve had the same thought for YEARS. Tolerance is like the lowest you can set the bar for peaceful interactions with people. Love is much more difficult and requires much more on the part of the offended party.

    It becomes even more interesting when you think about all the things in this world we are told to be intolerant of. Where’s the line? When do you need to speak up and stand up to something?

    The people we look up to in history were all very intolerant people. And their intolerance was fueled by love for both the people they stood up for and the people they stood up to. I feel like this could turn into a whole post by itself.

    Good thoughts Shawn.

  6. May I repost this blog on my own for my church (giving you full credit of course). It’s just too good to repost in small portions. I think the whole thing carries the message excellently.

    -Rev BD

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