In the current lexicon the word “tolerant” is about as loaded as a pub-hopping Irishman on St. Paddy’s Day. It’s the brave new litmus test that discerns whether one is an enlightened and understanding citizen, or an outdated bigot who deserves to be branded with an “ic” or “ist” tacked onto the back of some culturally untouchable word. Because of this, I need to take a moment to unpack how I’m using the word. I will do this by differentiating between new and true tolerance.
The “new tolerance,” as DA Carson christened it, is the pervading cultural pressure to affirm the beliefs and behaviors of others, provided those beliefs and behaviors are legal, consensual and/or harmless to the majority. Now, much of this definition I am prepared to live by, with the exception of the pivotal word, “affirm”. See, I expect my culture to engage in things that I sometimes find to be wrong. Equally, I expect my culture to look upon some of my beliefs and behaviors the same way. That is the nature of a democratic and multicultural society. But to impose the added requirement of affirmation is a game changer.
Lexically the idea of affirmation is an artificial addition and has nothing to do with the “true tolerance.” The Oxford Dictionary defines “tolerant” as, “Showing willingness to allow the existence of opinions or behavior that one does not necessarily agree with.” Based on this, tolerance is actually what is required of a person when they specifically do not support something. At best, tolerance asks us to respectfully co-exist with differences we do not affirm for the sake of civility and discourse.
Thus for the evangelical, true tolerance does not require unfiltered affirmation of beliefs or behaviors the Bible calls sinful, but it does require a relational acceptance of all people in the hope that the transforming grace of the gospel will penetrate their lives. In this sense evangelicals must rise up as the most truly tolerant group in culture for seven reasons:
1. Because We Must Compensate For Our Crazy Drunk Uncles.
Do you have a crazy uncle? He shows up at Thanksgiving wild-eyed, outspoken,a bubble off center and guzzling Pabst Blue Ribbon like a camel on empty at a desert oasis. In the media it seems they often manage to find evangelicalism’s crazy drunk uncle to give airtime to. The result is that many who are not evangelicals think the crazy evangelical who made it as a sound bite on “The Daily Show” is how all evangelicals think and act.
I recently experienced this firsthand when a group of people automatically assumed that since I am an evangelical pastor I hate the president, despise the gay community, watch Fox News, listen to Rush Limbaugh and carry a gun. That last point is true; the rest is not. I don’t tune in to Fox News or Rush Limbaugh. I believe the president to be a well-intended man in a very difficult position. I care about the gay community as I do the rest of my culture. And as to the gun I carry, I don’t do it to make a point at Target, and I am not a member of the NRA. This doesn’t mean I agree or disagree with everything on Fox News, from Rush Limbaugh, by President Obama, in the gay community or about gun rights, but in the spirit of true tolerance I don’t need to. Rather I need to know how to graciously relate Jesus to all the views that swirl around me even regardless of whether I agree or disagree.
Only by going out of our way to establish caring friendships, so as to show people something beyond one-dimensional caricatures, will they begin to see real life evangelicals differently than our crazy drunk uncle TV pundits.
2. Because We Are To Be Tolerant, Just As God Is Tolerant.
Romans 2:4 says, “4 Don’t you see how wonderfully kind, tolerant, and patient God is with you? Does this mean nothing to you? Can’t you see that His kindness is intended to turn you from your sin?” (NLT). Every day that Jesus does not return is another massive global tolerance campaign. If it’s good enough for Jesus to be tolerant it’s good enough for those of us who follow Jesus. And the reason for the tolerance is profoundly missional; it’s intended to see people turn from their sins. Therefore, sitting on the other side of a cultural fence lobbing condemnations and frustrations will never be as effective as crossing the fence in the spirit of godly kindness in the hopes of seeing someone we love come to repentance.
3. Because We Need To Be Understanding To Reach The Unbelieving.
I think about Paul at Mars Hill. His first reaction upon reaching Athens was nothing short of disgust. It says in Acts 17:16 that when he saw the sheer scope of idols flocking the city “his spirit was provoked within him.” (ESV). The word “provoked” really doesn’t cut it here. The original Greek word paroxyno is where we get paroxysm, “a sudden attack or violent expression of a particular emotion or activity.” When people looked at Paul that day he had a gag reflex kicking in with a nervous twitch flapping over one eye. That is, until he recalled that this city didn’t know any better. They were doing exactly what they knew how to do because no one had shown them anything different. From this Paul downshifts and begins to relate to the people of the city. He begins to compliment them, speak their cultural language, and even quote from one of the very altars that caused him to flip his phylactery a few days earlier. In doing so he has no intention of selling out (as verses 31-32 eventually shows with the words such as repent and judgment), rather he is pressing in. Ultimately Paul chose suffering long, in the hopes of seeing others rescued from suffering forever.
4. Because We Have To Model What Actual Tolerance Is.
The new tolerance is as hypocritical as a chain-smoking dad busting his kid for sneaking a cigarette. It’s a selective acceptance that tolerates only what it affirms and stands rigidly intolerant to those who disagree. And those who advocate the new tolerance are not spending a great deal of time encouraging one another to love those who disagree with them. Just follow some of the recent trends in the media and you will see exactly how the new tolerance treats those who hold a different vision of the world. The exercise of true tolerance is branded as intolerance, which in turn solicits, even demands, banishment or shaming as the appropriate response.
For evangelicalism, however, part of our core command is to love our neighbor. We are reminded perpetually of the need to love people right where they are. To invest in those whom we may disagree with, to turn the other cheek when provoked and to even do good to an all out enemy. I realize we have not always done this well. Far too often we have slipped into imposed morality or personal offense, but we must continue to encourage one another in what the Bible commands of us toward those who don’t believe or behave as we do.This is true tolerance; it is the tolerance that evangelicals are the best at displaying and we must continue to model this more than ever in a culture that is losing the spirit of true diversity.
5. Because We Already Acknowledge Our Own Sinful Short Comings.
Evangelicals believe they are saved, grown and completed by gospel grace alone. It is a faith of walking shoes, not work boots. Thus when evangelicalism begins to sound chiefly like a religion of morality, we missed a turn somewhere. We know we don’t earn our standing before God; rather we follow the One who earned that standing for us – Jesus. Because our salvation is only by the grace of God, we should humbly be aware of our own sins, our various faults and our continued weakness. This is exactly why tolerance is necessary. Paul himself even says in Colossians 3, “12 Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, 13 bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.” (ESV). True tolerance doesn’t excuse sin, but it understands the struggle with sin, comes alongside in gentleness and points to the grace that can free and refresh. A good, honest look at the sinner in the mirror, coupled with gratitude for God’s grace, helps us to love the sinner across the street in true tolerance.
6. Because We Are The Ones Who Can Maintain The Importance Of Both Tolerance And Repentance.
The new tolerance seeks to free people from their sins by telling them their sins are not sinful. It is humanities’ attempt to save itself from its sins through the gospel of anesthetization. Yet the only road to abundant life passes through the door of repentance and grace. This is where evangelicals have the perfect combination. In true tolerance we can connect with people in a way that displays legitimate acceptance and love, but not at the cost of sharing the enduring message of God’s love that can forgive people of their sins and produce in them the life that excusing sin will never produce.
7. Because We Believe Only The Gospel Can Change People.
Culture wars are not for evangelicals. Every culture war has a deeper root that is the real war, and that root is sin. Not sins, but the actual cause, the nature of sin itself, Original Sin. Therefore to think that culture is the war is like battling the fever to cure the cancer. The real conflict is internal, supernatural, generational and trans cultural. It is a war that invades every layer of life in every person’s life, thus nothing done through the means of this world can change our deepest problem. Only an invasion from outside this world can change the sin of this world…
Which is why God sent Jesus.
Which is why Jesus received the Cross.
Which is why the Spirit raised Jesus.
Which is why Jesus sent the Spirit to testify of Himself and God.
God invaded our broken sphere in the person of Jesus to bring true transformation through the Spirit. Therefore…
Only the Gospel can confront our cultural sins.
Only the Gospel can restore our cultural soul.
Only the Church carries the Gospel that can change the culture we are called to love in the true tolerance of God.