Tolerance is a Christian virtue.
I would venture to say, many (if not most) of you, respond to the above statement with incredulity or even outright scorn. And, I can understand why.
In recent years, tolerance has become associated with the "secular" swing of Western society. In some ways, this has resulted in positive change. It is a good thing that our Muslim and Hindu friends (and other religious minority groups) can and should expect to be shown respect and deference in the public sphere. In other ways, the tolerance bandwagon has resulted in silliness. Concluding that a junior high student wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with "John 3:16" is engaging in "intolerant" and religiously offensive behavior is more than a little exaggerated. (In fact, I think it undercuts the instances in which true intolerance is taking place.)
All this is to say, I understand why many of you would initially disagree with my opening statement. And, I would be standing alongside of you, I think, until just a few weeks ago. In my religious upbringing and theological education, while others were singing "Kumbaya" and "Give peace a chance," I was taught to spit the word tolerance like a loogie from the mouth. Tolerance was for the ACLU (grrr...) and "San Francisco liberals" (gasp!), not real Christians who aren't afraid to speak their mind and stand up for what they believe in.
Today, however, I see it differently. Tolerance is for real Christians--especially for those who aren't afraid to speak their mind and stand up for what they believe in. I think SBC leader, Paige Patterson's favorite descriptor for Christians like this is "green berets." I would venture to say, that tolerance, therefore, is for Christian green berets.
How did I come to this conclusion? Dr. Fisher Humphreys visited Liberty Heights Church a few weeks ago and taught on a number of spiritual life topics: virtue, prayer, forgiveness, and discerning God's will. In the first session, he spent quite a bit of time in Colossians 3 and he spoke for several minutes on the matter of tolerance. Allow me to quote verses 12-14, which contain the scripture most relevant to our present discussion:
Therefore, as God's chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.
The words I have bolded above translate a Greek word that appears a number of different ways in English translations. Most will translate it as the NIV has done: "bear with each other" or "bearing with one another." The CEV translates it rather bluntly, "put up with each other," while the good old King James (and Young's Literal) says is quite beautifully, "forbearing one another." Any way you read it, however, the contemporary English word for all this is tolerance. If you are bearing with someone, putting up with someone, or forbearing someone, you are tolerating them (along with their ideas, habits, etc).
If we are to understand tolerance rightly as a Christian virtue, however, there are three vitally important things we must observe from Col 3 (see also the parallel in Eph 4). First, Paul is not speaking about tolerating (forbearing with, putting up with) sin. Indeed, the basis of his admonition to "put on" Christian virtue is that his audience has already begun to "put to death" whatever belongs to their "earthly natures" (v. 5):
...sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry. Because of these, the wrath of God is coming. You used to walk in these ways, in the life you once lived. But now you must rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips. Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator. Here there is no Greek or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all.
Do you see? Paul speaks of putting on Christian virtues, including forbearance/tolerance, only after exhorting them to put away sinful practices that are a part of their sinful nature, which is now dead in Christ.
So, from this we can address the most common objection to tolerance, "Well, tolerance is certainly not a Christian virtue because it is not acceptable for us to tolerate sin in the church." To this I say, "You are correct that we must not tolerate sin. There is a real place for correction and rebuke in the church, along with biblical directions for how to do so. But, we're not talking about that now. We're talking about your tendency to demonize those with whom you disagree. More often than not, the contemporary evangelical community errs on the side of intolerance, not indulgence. It is not necessary to embrace the former in order to avoid the latter."
The second important thing to note about Paul's promotion of tolerance is that it is grounded in five Christian virtues he lists one verse previous: "compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience." All of these play a role in one's ability to forbear with a brother or sister in Christ, but I think a focus on humility is the most important. Humility, rightly understood, is a matter of knowing one's place in relation to God and others. That is to say, you are aware of the fact that you are not God and live in light of this truth in relation to others. When properly situated in relation to God, one is properly situated in relation to your fellow Christians (and everyone else, for that matter): on the same level of worth.
If this is the case, and you have become the kind of person who is constantly aware of your absolute dependence upon God, then your relationship to others becomes what God intends it to be: compassionate, kind, gentle, patient....and, yes....tolerant. Not because you are a lilly-livered, yeller Christian who can't stand for anything. But, because you are a child of God who has confidence in God's ability to be God without your help.
By putting on the genuinely Christian virtue of tolerance, therefore, you are able not to bring up over and over again, that minor difference of doctrine that "just sticks in your craw," every time you speak with your pastor after church. Christian tolerance enables you to loose your grip on the volume level of the sound system in the sanctuary. And, perhaps most importantly, Christian tolerance allows you to let go of the need to assume the worst of those with whom you disagree: that they must either be ignorant (of the truth--your version of it, of course!) or evil (they're clearly not really a Christian if they believe that!).
If God is God without you, then you can trust him to deal with your brothers and sisters in Christ, just as he deals with you: with kindness, patience, love, and yes, tolerance. Your pastor may be wrong and the volume may be too loud. But, because you follow Jesus, you know you are not God. And, that means you do not have to get your way and not everyone has to agree with you. This is a beautifully simple truth that is tremendously liberating in the long run.
Finally, the third thing we must recognize about the virtue tolerance is that, in the context of Col 3 (and Eph 4), the primary place of its exercise is the Christian community of faith. This is quite an interesting truth, I think. Sadly, many Christians, and even those simply exploring Christianity, would say that the church is probably one of the least tolerant places on earth. I can bear witness to this impression. The most cruel, hateful, and soul-haunting things ever spoken to me have been spoken to me by Christian "brothers" and "sisters."
What shall we say about this? This reality is yet another reason for us to finally take seriously Paul's admonition that we "bear with one another," based upon our intentional "putting on" of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience. Certainly, if we cannot bear to put up with our brothers and sisters in Christ, with whom we have the most in common (in terms of faith, at least), how then shall we begin to put up with (and even cultivate genuine love for), those not of our number, with whom we have so little in common? Let us learn tolerance for one another so that we may also show the world we are disciples of Jesus.