Tolerance of People, Criticism of Ideas & Actions

How can we be uncompromising about truth, and yet be tolerant?

How do we show “tolerance and love to those who don’t believe in Jesus Christ?” Keyes asked. He mentioned first, legal tolerance. Legal tolerance by Christians for those they disagreed with developed slowly. The difference between church and state authority was a development of Jesus teaching of our different duties to God and Caesar.


Freedom has been a watchword of Western culture for generations, and Christians have found ways to make their faith and practice compatible with it, but as the wider culture increasingly focuses on finding value in freedom, it becomes increasingly difficult for Christian values to co-exist alongside secular freedom. One particular aspect of freedom, namely tolerance, or the duty we owe to others who disagree with us, has become increasingly problematic, as it very meaning has changed to become a concept incompatible with classic Christianity. This point was well made by at the annual conference of the L’Abri Fellowship in Rochester, Minnesota, on Feb. 3-4 by Dick Keyes, director of the L’Abri Fellowship in Southborough, Massachusetts.

Properly understood, tolerance is to “bear with or endure something or someone who is specifically different and objectionable to you or painful,” Keyes said. The word “tolerance” arose out of conflict over religious tolerance. But the definition of tolerance is “changing underneath our feet in ways we need to be aware of.”

Keyes said that there are three kinds of tolerance: 1) legal tolerance, which is government toleration of difference religions without “persecution … or favoritism.” The First Amendment is “a very good statement of legal tolerance,” he said. This amendment made “pluralism possible.” 2) Personal tolerance is “about how we treat other people personally who are different from us in their religious convictions.” Keyes said that these first two types of tolerance could be called “original tolerance.” These two meanings are the classic, centuries old concept of tolerance. They are concerned with the treatment of real people. However, 3) the third type of tolerance is sometimes called “the new tolerance,” or alternatively “worldview tolerance.” This means “accepting other people’s ideas and actions as equal in truth and value to your own ideas and actions.” This concept means we must “approve or celebrate diverse worldviews, ideas, and behavior of all other people.” This writer would add that it is this kind of tolerance what is involved in the current struggle over Christian sexual morality, in which moral condemnation, legal restriction, and eventually liberty of conscience against abortion, homosexuality (and now, transgenderism) is judged impermissible (as it was in the Supreme Court’s “animus standard”). Traditional morality is held to be an attack on persons, because people have been conflated with their ideas and behaviors. This third kind of tolerance is obviously incompatible with God as sovereign over all things and the absolute truth of his revelation. The question, Keyes then posed, is “how should Christians be tolerant … in a way that’s pleasing to God?”

Keyes said that pluralism is true in a descriptive sense, meaning that “there are a variety of religious options in America today that are really different from each other.” These differences are fundamental, although there may be areas of agreement between different religions, they are not fundamentally saying the same thing. “There are a lot of differences out there, and they don’t all match up in some ultimate unity.” We must make “uncomfortable choices between religious options.” By choosing, “we offend people,” and can even “get into personal trouble.” This is not a new situation, Keyes said. The apostle Paul faced as much, perhaps more, religious diversity on Mars Hill as contemporary Christians in America face.

Pluralism is not unique to religion, Keyes said. “There is pluralism in every other field of investigation … in which people argue with one another.” But religious disagreement and discussion of differences is intolerable to the new tolerance, according to Keyes. Nevertheless, believing that someone else is wrong on religious doctrine is not intolerant – it could be correct. What makes us intolerant is if we actually treat people we disagree with badly. This writer would note, however, that the new tolerance would insist that we are harming others as persons if we disagree with ideas or behavior that is important to them. It is vital to point out that this logically leads to anarchy. If ordinary logic is condemned as oppressive, then we must point out that the claim to harm as a result of condemnation of ideas or behavior is nothing more than an act of will, with no justification. “It’s impossible to believe, actually, that everybody is right, it just can’t be done logically, or morally, or psychologically,” Keyes said. Disagreement over deeply held beliefs is in fact respectful of others, since they are being taken seriously.

How can we be uncompromising about truth, and yet be tolerant? Keyes claimed that the understanding of religious freedom from the Enlightenment forward has been “a kind of see-saw relationship between confidence in Christian truth and tolerance.” As conviction increases, tolerance decreases, and vice versa, according to this view. There is thus a “zero-sum relationship between conviction and tolerance.” This may be true in many cases, but Keyes maintained that there is “no necessary [inverse] relationship between conviction of truth and tolerance.” The Baptist founder of Rhode Island, Roger Williams, for instance, held tolerance to be part of his religious conviction. In Biblical Christianity, Keyes believes, “truth and tolerance ride on the same elevator … the Christian gospel mandates tolerance.” This, of course, has often been set aside by Christians. But tolerance is “embedded” in the “love chapter” of the Bible, I Corinthians 13, notable especially in the words “bear,” and “endure.” On the positive side, the phrases “believes all things,” and “hopes all things” express enormous faith in God to change other people. Jesus’ admonitions to love our enemies and those who take advantage of us mandate more than tolerance, but certainly includes tolerance. This love is, however, “about people,” not necessarily their ideas or actions.

Keyes related the experience of Christians in communist Romania, in which they were severely persecuted. Immediately after the fall of the regime, massacres were impending, as the populace sought revenge against people associated with the regime. Christians had “moral authority” in the country, because they had been so badly persecuted, and their campaign for “forgiveness and love,” pressed in large meetings, was successful in averting a bloodbath. This toleration, however, was a toleration of persons, not ideas. Christians said that what was done to them was “evil and wrong,” but they forgave their persecutors “in the name of God who forgives us.”

Read More