By Joe Barnard
There was a time when to tolerate something meant to endure pain or hardship with self-restraint. This virtue had useful applications, especially when thinking about human relationships.
Tolerating another person was the willingness to let him or her think and act independently despite disagreement—even if the disagreement was fierce.
Thus, for example, for a passionate Republican to tolerate a passionate Democrat, or for a passionate Presbyterian to tolerate a passionate Roman Catholic, was to treat the other person with respect and dignity without feeling the need to compromise firmly held convictions.
Sadly, postmodernity has radically changed the concept of tolerance.
The concept has been redefined to the extent that modern usage of the word bears only a faint resemblance to its original meaning.
To tolerate someone today means not only to bear with him with patience and respect, but to affirm, accept, and even celebrate values and choices that may be irreconcilable with one’s own.
The result of this disfigurement of meaning is that a lot of Christians today are wary of any talk of tolerance.
This is unfortunate because the older meaning of the word is something much needed at a juncture in time when secular and religious politics threatens to tear apart the seams of brotherly love.
The Christian Roots of Tolerance
There is a fascinating history of how tolerance developed into a political virtue in modern society. Yet the goal here isn’t to explore the alleyways of the past, but rather to show how the virtue of tolerance is a product of Biblical truth.
First, the willingness to tolerate someone is the fruit of recognizing his or her intrinsic worth as an image-bearing creature.
One risk of a judgmental attitude is the temptation to reduce the value of a person to their opinion on a particular topic.
Suddenly, I begin to feel anger toward you simply because I can’t detach your politics, or spiritual preferences, from your person.
We need to realize that something is twisted in the heart if our love for one another is diminished because we can’t see eye-to-eye on a given issue.
A great protection against this warped attitude is the truth that each person is made in the image of God.
Seeing the sheen of God’s glory in the face of another human being is a useful reminder that people are more than the sum of their opinions.
We’re spiritual creatures, and we must treat each other with the dignity that our common nature deserves.
A second fundamental building block of tolerance is the role of the conscience in living a life of faith and obedience before God.
Paul warns us “not to quarrel over opinions” (Romans 14:1). He goes on to say, “Why do you pass judgment on your brother? Or you, why do you despise your brother? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God” (Romans 14:10).
The idea behind these exhortations is that each Christian is personally responsible before God and must work out his or her own salvation, not just corporately, but individually.
In fact, in Romans and elsewhere, Paul assumes that Christians will have to figure out how to stay united in love and purpose despite trenchant disagreements.
Whether the topic is eating food sacrificed to idols or wearing masks to worship on Sundays, Christians must allow for a sufficient degree of difference so that each worshiper can preserve a pure heart before God.
Interestingly, this means that unity and conformity aren’t identical within the body of Christ. We must learn to tolerate our differences so that each person can hold fast to deep convictions without restricting the channels of love.
The Contemporary Need for Tolerance
The COVID-19 crisis is a reminder of the degree to which a classic understanding of tolerance needs to be recovered within the church.
There are any number of issues that could very easily ignite and divide the unity of congregations.
These range from the theoretical debates regarding public health versus political freedom to the more practical topics surrounding online worship or wearing masks to church gatherings.
How can Christians learn to not just coexist but to love brothers and sisters with whom they passionately disagree? Tolerance is a key part of the answer.
It’s for good reason that Paul included bearing with one another (1 Corinthians 13:7) as a core component of love.
Such self-restraint is necessary if we are to make sure that personal convictions don’t begin to threaten the sacred fellowship and shared mission of the people of God.
Over the next weeks and months, all of us would benefit from pondering the words of our Savior anew: “By this all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35).
JOE BARNARD is the author of The Way Forward: a Road-map of Spiritual Growth for Men in the 21st Century (Christian Focus Publications). For eight years, he pastored a church in the Highlands of Scotland. He’s now the director of a men’s discipleship program, Cross Training Ministries.