Author Greg Koukl once said, “There is one word that can stop a follower of Christ in his tracks as he seeks to ‘give an account for the hope’ that is in him. That word is ‘tolerance.’”1

If you listen carefully to the voices on social media, in popular culture, and even in churches, you’ll conclude that tolerance is the highest ideal in our culture. But tolerance is also the most misunderstood word in our culture.

In today’s world, when people say, “I am tolerant of something,” they mean, “I believe that belief or behavior is just as valid as mine.” In other words, tolerance is aligned with relativism, which says everything is right sometimes and nothing is right all the time.

What concerns me is how relativism has affected Christians. In Matthew 5, Jesus said Christians are salt in the world, a preservative against moral decay. But when Christians embrace relativism, they lose their distinctiveness. They have no motivation to be restrainers of evil because they no longer believe certain behaviors are evil. Jesus said it this way in verse 13: “If the salt has become tasteless, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything.”

Jesus also said we are light in the world, pointing people to the gospel of Jesus Christ. However, when Christians believe that all religions are equally valid paths to God, they lose their evangelical zeal. They put their light “under a basket,” as Jesus said in verse 15. Why risk offending somebody if you believe their religion is just as valid as yours?

The way our culture defines it, tolerance is a vice that smothers our witness. But correctly understood, tolerance is a virtue that enhances our ability to impact the world for Christ.

The Historical Understanding of Tolerance

To properly understand tolerance, let’s look at the definition of tolerate according to Webster’s New World College Dictionary:

1. to not interfere with; allow; permit

2. to recognize and respect (others’ beliefs, practices, etc.) without sharing them

3. to bear, or put up with (someone or something not especially liked)2

The most overlooked truth about tolerance is that you can only truly tolerate something you do not like or accept. Koukl summarized tolerance as allowing something you disagree with or dislike while respecting the other person in the process.

Let’s say I go to a friend’s house for dinner, and the host serves Häagen-Dazs vanilla ice cream with chocolate sauce, which happens to be my favorite dessert. Would it be accurate to say I “tolerated” that dessert when I practically licked the bowl clean? No.

Now let’s suppose that instead of ice cream, my friend serves key lime pie. That is my least favorite dessert, but I nibble at it to be polite. This time, to say I “tolerated” my dessert would be an accurate description. I permitted the pie to be served to me, even though it was something I disliked, and I respected the person who served it to me—I didn’t call them names or throw my plate across the room. True tolerance is permitting something you disagree with or dislike while respecting the other person in the process.

The Tenets of Pseudotolerance

In our culture, the concept of tolerance has undergone a radical transformation. I call this new, perverted idea of tolerance “pseudotolerance.” Today, when people say, “You must be tolerant,” they mean, “You must accept all beliefs and behaviors as equally valid.” For example, the pseudotolerant person would say, “Hinduism and Christianity are equally valid belief systems,” or, “Cohabitation and marriage are equally valid options in a relationship,” or, “Key lime pie and Häagen-Dazs vanilla ice cream are equally delicious desserts.”

This pseudotolerance is radically different from the historical understanding of tolerance in three distinct ways.

Pseudotolerance Rejects Absolute Truth

An absolute truth is something that is true in every circumstance. For example, the statement “7 x 8 = 56” is an absolute truth. There is no situation in which 7 x 8 does not equal 56. On the other hand, the statement “Seventy-two degrees is the perfect temperature” is a relative truth because everybody’s idea of the perfect temperature differs.

Proponents of pseudotolerance say that every moral and spiritual principle is relative rather than absolute.

Therefore, according to pseudotolerance, instead of saying, “Abortion is wrong,” we can only say, “Abortion is wrong for me.” Instead of asserting that homosexuality is a perversion, we can only say, “Homosexuality is not my preferred lifestyle.” Instead of proclaiming Jesus Christ as the only way to heaven, we can only say, “Jesus Christ is the way to heaven for Christians.”

Pseudotolerance Is Intolerant of Other Points of View

Ironically, by rejecting absolute moral and spiritual truth, proponents of pseudotolerance become what they say they despise: intolerant. G. K. Chesterton put it this way: “The people who are most bigoted are the people who have no convictions at all.”3

Let me give you an illustration of that. Years ago, I was invited to join a panel discussion about the separation of church and state in the classroom. One of the other panelists asked me, “Dr. Jeffress, why are you so opposed to the teaching of evolution in the classroom?”

I said, “I’m not opposed at all to teaching the theory of evolution in the classroom. I want to know why you are so opposed to also allowing the alternative theory of creationism to be presented along with evolution.”

Those who worship at the shrine of pseudotolerance are often some of the most intolerant people in the world. That is the hypocrisy of pseudotolerance.

Pseudotolerance Refuses to Separate People from Their Beliefs and Behaviors

According to proponents of pseudotolerance, to disagree with someone’s beliefs or behaviors is to reject that person. In other words, to reject Islam is to reject Muslims. To oppose same-sex marriage is to hate homosexuals. To lobby for the repeal of Roe v. Wade is to despise every woman who has ever had an abortion.

As a result, many Christians don’t dare to speak against abortion or homosexuality for fear of being called hate-mongers. Do you see how insidious that is? By equating people with their beliefs and behaviors, proponents of pseudotolerance stifle all discussion.

Modeling True Tolerance

For us to be salt and light as Jesus commanded, we have to reject every vestige of pseudotolerance. However, instead of rejecting the concept of tolerance altogether, we need to return to the historical understanding of tolerance. By modeling true tolerance, we can enhance our preserving influence in this world and boost the brightness of our witness for Christ.

How does true tolerance differ from pseudotolerance?

True Tolerance Requires Making a Judgment

Remember, you can only tolerate those things you disagree with (such as abortion) or dislike (such as key lime pie). That means you have to make a judgment. Yet proponents of pseudotolerance have convinced us that it is unloving, unkind, and even un-Christian to make any kind of moral or spiritual judgment. After all, they argue, didn’t Jesus say, “Do not judge so that you will not be judged”?

Let’s look at the context of Jesus’s words in Matthew 7 to understand what He meant:

Do not judge so that you will not be judged. For in the way you judge, you will be judged; and by your standard of measure, it will be measured to you. Why do you look at the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, “Let me take the speck out of your eye,” and behold, the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye. (vv. 1–5)

In this passage, Jesus was criticizing the Pharisees, who condemned other people while ignoring their own shortcomings. He was saying, “Don’t judge people to make yourself look better.”

But Jesus was not opposed to making judgments. Notice He did not say, “Never remove the speck from your brother’s eye,” but, “First take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye” (v. 5). In other words, you should help your fellow Christian remove the sin in his life, but before you do, you need to make sure you are not blinded by sin in your own life. And to confront the sin in somebody else’s life (or your own), you have to make a judgment that their behavior is sinful in the first place.

That is what Jesus was saying in Matthew 7. He was not saying we should never make any judgments at all. True tolerance requires making a judgment.

True Tolerance Is Grounded in a Genuine Concern for Others

According to pseudotolerance, if we say somebody’s beliefs or behaviors are wrong, then we are being hateful. But the truth is, remaining silent when a person is engaging in something that will ultimately cause him harm is the most unloving thing we can do.

In 1 Corinthians 5, Paul chastised the Corinthian church for allowing a man who was involved in immorality to remain in the church. Paul said they ought to remove that man from the church not out of hatred but “so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus” (v. 5). Blithely allowing a Christian to engage in sin is unloving, Paul said. Instead, you need to correct that person, even if it causes temporary pain.

Don’t fall for the lie that making judgments about another person’s behavior is hateful. True tolerance shows a genuine concern for others.

True Tolerance Allows for Preferences

Proponents of pseudotolerance have convinced us that tolerance necessitates neutrality. But to be truly tolerant of others, we need to express our preference for certain beliefs and behaviors.

Several years ago, I was interviewed by the late Fox News commentator Alan Colmes. He accused me of being “hateful” toward people of different faiths because I had publicly suggested that Christian voters ought to give preference to Christian political candidates. He said, “So, you want to keep Jews, Muslims, and Hindus from running for office?”

“I didn’t say that,” I responded. “I said that Christians have every right to prefer to vote for Christians over non-Christians as our leaders.” True tolerance allows for preferences.

Conviction with Compassion

When we demonstrate our preference for life over abortion, heterosexuality over homosexuality, or Christianity over other religions, we need to follow the example of Jesus Christ. He was not some Caspar Milquetoast shyly picking daffodils and eating birdseed. Jesus was tough when it came to His beliefs. In Mark 9:43, He said, “If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life crippled, than, having your two hands, to go into hell.” Or consider Luke 14:26: “If anyone comes to Me, and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be My disciple.” Those are tough comments!

Jesus was tough in His convictions yet tender when it came to people. If we are going to be effective as salt and light in our culture, we have to find that same mix between conviction and compassion. We have to learn to say, “I respect your right to believe what you want to believe and to behave as you want to behave, but I also love you too much to remain silent about it.” That is true tolerance.

1. Greg Koukl, “The Intolerance of Tolerance,” Stand to Reason, January 1, 2006, https://www.str.org/w/the-intolerance-of-tolerance.

2. Webster’s New World College Dictionary, 4th ed. (1999), s.v. “tolerate.”

3. G. K. Chesterton, Heretics (New York: John Lane, 1909), 295.

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