By Paul Copan

Unless we’re talking about language development, it’s a good idea to understand words before we use them, especially when they may be emotionally charged.  One commonly used—and abused—word describing Christians is intolerant.  Of course, some prickly, pugnacious persons call themselves Christians but deny this claim by their lives.  True Christianity shouldn’t be equated with abuses committed in Christ’s name.  Think of Mother Teresa, not the Inquisition!  Without compromising their convictions, all Christians should—as much as possible—live at peace with everyone (Rm 12:18).

Today people assume tolerance means “accepting all views as true.”  And because genuine Christians don’t do this, they are charged with being intolerant.

Whenever you hear Christians criticized as intolerant, ask, “What do you mean by ‘intolerance’?” True tolerance doesn’t mean accepting all beliefs—the good and the goofy—as legitimate.  After all, one who disagrees with Christians doesn’t accept Christianity; he thinks Christians are wrong!  Historically, tolerance has meant putting up with what you find disagreeable or false.  You put up with strangers on a plane who snore or slurp their coffee. Similarly, you put up with another person’s beliefs without criminalizing him.

Tolerance differentiates between beliefs and persons. While disagreeing with certain beliefs, we can show respect to persons holding those beliefs, since all humans are made in God’s image and inherently deserve respect.  Furthermore, Christianity’s truth doesn’t imply that non-Christians are 100 percent wrong.  Christians can agree with non-Christians about, say, certain ethical truths and scientific findings.  All truth is God’s truth.  Truth is more basic than tolerance since tolerance itself presupposes belief in truth.

Tolerance operates at different levels. What can be tolerated in one area may not be tolerated in another.  I’ll tolerate certain behaviors in other children that I won’t tolerate in my own.  Christians shouldn’t tolerate adultery within the church (ecclesiastical intolerance), but this doesn’t mean we seek to have the adulterer imprisoned (legal intolerance).

Condemning arrogance, Christianity emphasizes grace and humility. Some “Christians” think they’re superior to non-Christians.  But this violates the spirit of the gospel. We gratefully receive God’s gift of salvation, being like beggars telling other beggars where to find bread.  Unlike the manager of some exclusive country club, God lovingly invites everyone to participate in His family—and not at the expense of truth.

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