The Intolerant Label


Sometimes Christians are labeled "Intolerant." Jesus doesn't call us to be tolerant, He calls us to love.

It's lunchtime. You're hanging with a friend, and you have 15 minutes to kill before the bell rings for fifth period. And your conversation takes a turn—to religion. Your friend says, "There are lots of ways to find God." "I don't know about that," you say. "You know, Jesus says He's the only way. That's what I believe." Your friend looks irritated.

"How can you say that?" your friend says. "People can find God any way they want. As long as you find God, that's all that matters, right? Sometimes you Christians think you've got all the answers. You're so intolerant." Before you can say anything, your friend walks off in a huff. And you feel the sting of those last two words rings in your ears: "so intolerant."

You're angry and sad at the same time. Angry that your friend wouldn't give you a chance to respond. Angry that, once again, you've been misunderstood. And sad that your friend just doesn't "get it." But you've heard the accusation before: Intolerant. You just sigh, pick up your backpack, and head for your locker to get ready for English class.

"Tolerance" is in these days. At one time, that would have been a good thing, at least when people understood what "tolerance" really means—recognizing and respecting other people's beliefs, even if you don't agree with them. One thesaurus says that "forbearance," "mercy" and "patience" are synonyms for "tolerance."

Unfortunately, that's not how most people view tolerance today. To many people, the "politically correct" definition of "tolerance" means to consider everyone's beliefs, values and lifestyles as equally valid.

Obviously, this definition goes a few steps too far: Not only does everyone have an equal right to his or her beliefs, but all those beliefs are equal. Today's "tolerance" even goes so far as to say that all "truths" are valid. That's why, if you say "Jesus is the only way," many people will label you "intolerant"—because you're essentially saying that only one truth, the truth of Christ, is valid.

There are a lot of problems with today's definition of tolerance. First, it's illogical, because it says all "truths" are equal. If you believe 2+2=4 and your friend believes 2+2=5, one of you is wrong—no matter how much you argue that you both know the "truth."

Second, today's "tolerance" assumes people have a right to not be offended. But something isn't wrong just because it offends people; it's also wrong because it offends God. For example, lashing out in anger isn't wrong simply because it hurts people; it's also wrong because God says so (Ephesians 4:31).

Here's how you can practice true tolerance:

1) Choose your battles. There may be tons of things happening around you that offend you. But you can't speak out on every issue; you'd get exhausted, and besides, you'd earn a reputation as someone who's always criticizing something. Choose a couple important issues to take a stand on, and certainly, take a stand whenever your faith is attacked. But don't think you have to protest everything that isn't "Christian."

 2) Build relationships first. You've heard it before, but it's true: People don't care how much you know until they know how much you care. No matter how true your beliefs and how good your arguments might be, people aren't often "argued" into the truth. It's much better to talk about truth and faith in the context of loving relationships. Show genuine concern for others, even those who don't agree with you. People will be less likely to call you "intolerant" if they know you care.

3) Know what and why you believe. Be prepared to intelligently answer questions about your faith. The Bible tells us to "always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give a reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect" (1 Peter 3:15). Pay special attention to that last part: "with gentleness and respect." Losing your cool won't get you anywhere. (Josh McDowell's book Evidence that Demands a Verdict will help you clarify what you believe—and why you believe it.)

4) Don't make it personal. Yes, it's people who promote wrong thinking and sinful behavior. But to be effective in taking a stand, you should challenge principles, not people. A humble spirit that stands firmly for principles is much more effective than someone who attacks people with judgmental words. Right before the apostle Peter told us to "always be prepared to give an answer," he told us to be "sympathetic, compassionate and humble" (1 Peter 3:8).

If you can do these things with tact and grace, you'll be well on your way to practicing the true meaning of tolerance.

Third, today's "tolerance" assumes people should keep their beliefs to themselves and not try to "force" them on others. But as Christians, we wouldn't be true to our faith—or to our God—if we didn't share our beliefs with others. After all, Jesus told us to (Matthew 28:19).

Speaking of Jesus, he was the perfect example of what it means to be truly tolerant toward people. He accepted enemies (John 4:1-26). He treated sinners with dignity (Luke 7:36-50; Luke 19:1-10).

At the same time, Jesus did not tolerate sin; he confronted it everywhere and told people to repent. He never compromised his message for the sake of "tolerance," or to be politically correct. His message was always presented in a loving way. We are commanded to follow Jesus' example and "do everything in love" (1 Corinthians 16:14). So how does love react in this current attitude about tolerance? 

When tolerance says, "You must accept me and approve of what I do," love responds, "I must do something harder; I will treat you with respect even if your lifestyle or beliefs offend me."

When tolerance says, "You must agree that all truths are equal," love responds, "I must do something harder; I will tell you the truth, because I am convinced 'the truth will set you free'" (John 8:32). When tolerance says, "You must allow me to have my way," love responds, "I must do something harder; I will plead with you to follow God's way, even if it makes you mad at me."

Tolerance seeks to be inoffensive; love takes risks. Tolerance costs nothing; love costs everything. As Christians, we don't have to agree with everything our friends say or approve of everything they do. Jesus doesn't call us to be "tolerant," at least not by today's definition of the word. Jesus calls us to love.

So when you're talking to your non-Christian friends about faith, don't be surprised if they call you "intolerant." Just continue to speak the truth. And, yes, always speak it in love.

Written by Bob Hostetler


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