An ancient maxim reads, “About matters of taste, there is no disputing,” while another one advises, “About matters of truth, we should engage in dispute.” These two sayings nicely capture the essence of the solution to the contemporary problem of tolerance and truth.
On the one hand, we hear much in public discourse about the need for tolerance, usually presented as the non-judgmental acceptance of all perspectives. On the other hand, those who stand for truth are often branded as narrow-minded, intolerant and judgmental. Unfortunately, this is often the case when it comes to Christianity. All too often Christian beliefs are said to be matters of faith, not matters of truth. As a result, Christians are told tolerance must override faith. After all, with so many religious and non-religious perspectives in the world, isn’t tolerance to be desired over dispute? Are Christians really so arrogant as to think they have the corner on truth in certain areas? In reality, the matter of tolerance and truth is not as simple as it appears.
Historically, tolerance was defined as peaceful co-existence between those who hold different worldviews. Today it has come to be defined as uncritically accepting all worldviews. Are Christians meant to be tolerant? Let us suppose I stood in front of you today and said, “I am prepared to tolerate John Smith, sitting over here.” What am I saying about him and his opinions? I am insisting he is wrong, but that he is too stupid to know that he is wrong. I am, however, gracious, kind, and compassionate and out of my superiority of character I am prepared to tolerate him. If I say I respect John Smith, something vastly different is being communicated. Christians treat people with respect because the Bible commands us to (II Peter 3:15) and because that is the example Jesus taught and exemplified. We may disagree with someone’s ideas, what they say and what they stand for but we respect them as people.
Tolerance is one thing, but truth is another. Now if by tolerance one means being respectful of the beliefs of others, then Christianity is in full agreement. But to confuse tolerance with truth is not helpful. So respect is the better representation of Christianity’s view of tolerance, or perhaps one could say a respectful-love. Regardless of rank, race, or religion, a Christian is to love the individual. In fact, Christ taught a level of tolerance no other group to that point or even to the modern day has been able to surpass. The examples include the woman at the well (tolerated social outcasts), lepers (physical outcasts) and even Roman officers (oppressors of God’s chosen people). Jesus Christ did not merely tolerate, but went out of his way to love. Even the oppressive governments he could have destroyed in one simple word had he the inclination, yet Jesus chose a different way.