The Intolerance Of Tolerance

It’s 4:00 pm on a warm, sunny Thursday afternoon. After ordering a caramel latte from my favorite coffee shop, I’m headed outside to find a seat and enjoy some “down time” after a long day at the office. Finally, an opportunity to relax and unwind before the day comes to a close. That vision of relaxation was quickly dashed as I overheard two young people engaged in a conversation that exposed the reality of the postmodern world we all find ourselves in. Rather quickly, I overheard a couple of young people speaking loudly. The young lady says to her male friend, “You are intolerant.” Soon the words, “bigoted,” “racist,” and “homophobic” followed. I could only imagine what started this conversation down this path prior to my arrival. While I didn’t interject, I began to think about the world these young people would grow up in where ideas are labeled in inflammatory language designed to silence any opposition to the most popular point of view. 

As I sat in the cool breeze with my warm latte, I began to wonder what happened to our culture that caused words like “tolerance” and “hate speech” to be so abused that they no longer reflect their traditional meaning? What happened to our educational system that allowed these words to be aimed as an assassin’s bullet to any respectable dialogue about controversial subject matter? While we may never be able to pinpoint the exact moment when this happened, I do think it is important as Believers in Christ for Christians to know why they believe what they believe and to confidently navigate the marketplace of ideas with a proper “classical” definition of “tolerance” in mind. 

Christians have been given the great commission (Matthew 28:18-20) and explicit instructions to always be prepared to give an answer to those who would question the reason for the hope we have in Christ (1 Peter 3:15). The Apostle Peter also provided us with instructions that we are to deliver our message with “gentleness and respect” (1 Peter 3:16). Unfortunately, far too many believers, having witnessed the reaction of the culture to our statements of faith have become timid and/or silent as a result. It’s with this reality in mind that it’s important to understand what classical tolerance is and how we can deliver our message of truth in love (Ephesians 4:15). 

Cultural View of Tolerance

 In our postmodern society many hold a “relative” view of truth. You can hear this in statements like, “Well, that may be true for you but it’s not true for me.” The rally cry of the postmodern is that “There is no truth.” This is quickly followed by an appeal for tolerance. Asking one simple question, “Is that true?” easily refutes the idea that “there is no truth.”

Philosopher and Apologist, Greg Koukl explains, “The tolerant person allegedly occupies neutral ground, a place of complete impartiality where each individual is permitted to decide for him or herself. No judgments allow. No ‘forcing’ personal views. That all views are equally valid is one of the most entrenched assumptions of a society committed to relativism; but it’s a myth!” 

Most who hold a cultural view of tolerance will agree that “all views are equally valid” until you begin to express a view that is in direct opposition to the one they hold. At this point, you’ll learn quickly that your opposing point of view is “intolerant.” Sadly, the education system has failed our culture to such a degree that the person making this accusation misses the self-refuting nature of their claim.  

Believing that all views are equally valid is a self-refuting statement.  In the world of the “post modern” the marketplace of ideas is sold out.

Classical View of Tolerance

At the heart of the classical view of tolerance, especially for the Christian, is the idea that we are all created in the image of God (Imago Dei) and deserve respect as image-bearers (Genesis 1:27). It is with this ideal in mind that we should always treat others with gentleness and respect (1 Peter 3:16). Our position is one in which we will be egalitarian regarding people while at the same time demonstrating elitism in the arena of ideas. Jesus was no stranger to holding this point of view. He told his disciples, “I am THE way, THE truth, and THE life” and added “no one comes to the Father but by me” (John 14:6). In this regard all people have an EQUAL opportunity to come to Jesus. However, Jesus make his position clear that HE is the one in whom salvation would come. 

Tolerance, therefore, applies to how we treat people we disagree with, not how we treat ideas we think are false. Greg Koukl explains, “We can respect those who hold different beliefs from our own by treating such people courteously and allowing their views a place in the public discourse. However, we may strongly disagree with their ideas and vigorously contend against them in the public square, but we still show respect to their persons despite our differences”

Classical tolerance requires that we have opposing points of view while showing respect and courtesy to one another. It’s a false notion to believe that all views have equal value. There are some views that are false, immoral, stupid, or just silly. To give all views equal value is to appeal to nothingness. The truth is most who espouse that notion that all views have equal value don’t really believe what they are saying when they say it. 

As Christians, we have a responsibility to stand on the Truth of God’s Word (John 17:17). We cannot back down simply because of an ad hominem attack.

Ad Hominem—Attacking the individual instead of the argument.

Christ made it clear that as His followers we would not be on everyone’s favorite guest list (John 15:18). However, as we share our message of hope, we do not have to be disrespectful. It is important that believers understand that the marketplace of ideas is a battlefield and our weapons are not physical but are powerful to demolish strongholds. Our desire comes from a passion to see lost souls get set free through the proclamation of The Gospel (Romans 1:16). 

While I don’t know if the young man at the coffee shop was a believer, I do hope for an opportunity to share with him what his conversation spurred in my own personal marketplace of ideas.