Many in society today want to view themselves as “tolerant.” By that they usually mean “I accept people for who they are without passing judgment on any action or lifestyle choice.” But the biblically informed Christian cannot, in good conscience, approve of all actions or lifestyle choices; the Bible clearly delineates some lifestyles as sinful and displeasing to God. When a Christian’s convictions clash with the standard of tolerance set by society, the Christian is often labeled as “intolerant,” “bigoted,” or worse. Ironically, those who claim to be the most tolerant are the least tolerant of the Christian worldview.
Sometimes the conflict between Christian convictions and secular standards of tolerance involves a Christian business being forced to photograph gay engagements, bake cakes or provide flowers for gay weddings, or rent rooms to gay couples. Other times, the conflict is not as public, involving personal acquaintances who disagree with a Christian’s conviction against getting drunk at a party, for example, or cohabitation before marriage.
A general principle that covers many issues was expressed by Peter before the Sanhedrin: “We must obey God rather than human beings!” (Acts 5:29). Whatever pressure society brings to bear, the follower of Christ knows who his Lord is and chooses to obey Him. In a sinful world that hated Christ, this will naturally lead to some conflict. The “tolerance” espoused by the world leaves no room for Christian convictions, but, for the redeemed who walk in the Spirit, Christian convictions are indispensable. The Bible says there is a right and a wrong, and no amount of sensitivity training or encounter group sessions can change that.
If we define tolerate as “to put up with something one does not like,” then we could say that tolerance does not require approval or support. In this sense, Christians ought to be as tolerant as possible, in order for our loving character to be visible to all (Matthew 5:16). We should be able to “put up with” a lot. In most cases, we should be able to control our impulse to resent something we find distasteful. The problem comes when tolerate is defined in a manner that implies an acceptance or even approval of what one finds offensive. A Christian with Bible-based convictions can accept the fact that people sin, but he must still call it “sin.” A Christian’s convictions do not allow approval of sin whatsoever.
No matter how it’s defined, tolerance has its limits: what message would be sent by a church holding “interactive” services with a witch coven? What if a judge decided to “tolerate” perjury—he allowed it in his courtroom, even though he personally disliked it? How much disrespect should a teacher “tolerate” in her classroom? What if a surgeon began to “tolerate” septic conditions in his operating room?
When a believer finds that his Christian convictions are in conflict with someone’s take on tolerance, he should immediately do the following things: 1) Pray for wisdom and for courage. 2) Examine his convictions to make sure they are based on what the Bible actually says, rather than personal preferences. Taking a stand against having a joint Hindu-Christian worship service is biblically supportable; taking a stand against serving ethnically diverse food at the church potluck is not. 3) Commit himself to loving his enemies and doing good to them (Matthew 5:38–48). 4) Purpose in his heart to engage the conflict “with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience” (Colossians 3:12). 5) If legal issues come into play, explore his rights under the law (see Acts 16:37–38; 21:39).
Even in the midst of a conflict between godly convictions and secular tolerance, Christians must demonstrate Christ’s love and righteousness, exemplifying how truth and love can coexist. In every situation, we should exhibit “deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom” (James 3:13). Our conduct should be such “that those who speak maliciously against [our] good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander” (1 Peter 3:16).