Tolerance (Character Traits of the Spiritual Life)


Character Traits of the Spiritual Life:


Richard Hollerman

The English word tolerate has several meanings: “To allow without prohibiting or opposing; permit. . . . to recognize and respect (the rights, beliefs, or practices of others). . . . to put up with; endure.”[i][i]  There are aspects of this that we should embrace and other aspects that we cannot accept, as Christians.  We must “allow” or “permit” others—particularly unbelievers—to do certain things.  However, we cannot “respect” many of the beliefs and practices of others—since many of them are diametrically opposed to the truth of God and His moral standards.  We must “put up with” and “endure” certain things but not other things.  Therefore, there are elements of tolerance we should practice but other elements we cannot, as followers of Christ.

The Greek anechomai can mean “to hold up against a thing and so to bear with.”  Bastazo signifies “to support as a burden.”[ii][ii]  Richards says that “bear” and “bearing” “translate several Greek terms, most of which have the same flexibility of meaning we find in the English words.”[iii][iii]  Paul encourages us to show “tolerance for one another in love” (Ephesians 4:2).  The ESV has, “bearing with one another in love.”  In order for the believing community to “preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (v. 3), there must be a tolerance of allowable differences.

Some differences must be worked out to foster true unity.  The apostle makes this clear: “Now I exhort you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all agree and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be made complete in the same mind and in the same judgment” (1 Corinthians 1:10).  The disciples must all “agree” or all “say the same thing” (NET Bible, margin).  There must not be divisions.  The believers must have the “same mind” and the “same judgment” as they view life, beliefs, practices, and standards.  Thus, in some respects, there must not be a toleration of different beliefs, standards, and practices.  However, in regard to non-essentials, believers are to bear with one another and be tolerant of others.

In Romans 14, Paul states that there are allowable differences with regard to religious days (presumably Jewish days from the Law of Moses), and regarding food restrictions (presumably Jewish kosher laws from Leviticus).  Those who do not keep days or the food restrictions are to allow the others to submit to their conscience on such things, and those who do keep these restrictions are not to judge those who do not. There must be tolerance.  Paul then says, “We who are strong [who are not bound by the Mosaic restrictions] ought to bear the weaknesses of those without strength and not just please ourselves.  Each of us is to please his neighbor for his good, to his edification. . . . Therefore, accept one another, just as Christ also accepted us to the glory of God” (Romans 15:1, 2, 7).  We must tolerate such differences.  We must bear with those who see things differently, as they grow toward maturity in Christ.

Paul says that we are to “put on” various Christian virtues, “bearing with one another, and forgiving each other” (Colossians 3:12-13).[iv][iv]  Richards comments, “It is helpful to remember that while our brothers and sisters may be flawed, you and I are flawed as well.  The gracious, loving way with which God puts up with our faults is the model for the way we are to treat others.”[v][v]

We cannot tolerate false teachers and evil men.  Jesus Himself commends the Ephesian congregation by saying, “I know your deeds and your toil and perseverance, and that you cannot tolerate evil men, and you put to the test those who call themselves apostles, and they are not, and you found them to be false” (Revelation 2:2).  While commending them for certain positives, he also commended them for their “intolerance”—for they rejected those who were false.  In contrast, Jesus rebukes the congregation at Thyatira: “I have this against you, that you tolerate the woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess, and she teaches and leads My bond-servants astray. . .” (2:20). The one assembly was commended for not tolerating the false, while the other assembly was reproved for tolerating a false prophetess.

In order to have tolerance, there must be a standard of right and wrong, a means of determining the true from the false, the moral from the immoral.  That standard is the Word of God.  “To the law and to the testimony!  If they do not speak according to this word, it is because they have no dawn” (Isaiah 8:20).  The Scriptures provide the standard of salvation (2 Timothy 3:15) and the standard by which we must teach, reprove, correct, and train in righteousness (vv. 16-17).  “Tolerance presupposes a standard of conduct by which all other behavior is measured.”[vi][vi]

In a technical sense, tolerance is the amount of variation from a standard that will be accepted.  Tolerance presupposes a precise standard of thinking and conduct by which other ideas and behavior can be evaluated as right or wrong.  Such a standard must be based on truth and fact.  To form a conclusion or opinion before the facts are known is prejudice, and to tenaciously hold to ideas or behavior that disregards or is contrary to fact is bigotry.[vii][vii]

Although there must be a tolerance within the body of Christ (note Romans 14 above), there also must be a more complete conformity to the truths and moral principles of Scripture.  Paul says that those who commit such sins as sexual immorality (fornication, adultery, homosexuality, etc.), covetousness or greed, idolatry, reviling or slander, drunkenness (or alcoholism), or swindling, are to be totally excluded from fellowship until they repent (1 Corinthians 5:11-13; cf. 2 Thessalonians 3:6-15; 2 Timothy 3:1-5; etc.).  God didn’t tolerate even liars in the early believing community, for He killed them directly (Acts 5:1-11).

On the other hand, the Christian is to have a more tolerant attitude and practice toward the unbeliever who is not within the body of Christ.  He may and should have some contact with the immoral, covetous, idolatrous, drunkard and swindlers of the world, otherwise we would need to “go out of the world” (1 Corinthians 5:9-10).  We cannot have close contact with sinners of the world (Proverbs 13:20; 1 Corinthians 15:33; 2 Corinthians 6:14-17), but we need to have some contact or limited association to live a normal life and to win the lost to Christ.  We can allow the sinner to live in his sin and tolerate this to an extent, while at times being willing to expose and rebuke such sin (Ephesians 5:11-12).  This is a delicate balance to maintain.  And it is a balance that needs to be maintained within the body of Christ.  There must be a tolerance of legitimate differences and growth toward maturity, while an intolerance of known, willful, deliberate, unrepentant sin.  “There is an important distinction between tolerance of immaturity and our responsibility to reprove evil.”[viii][viii]

People of the world are often intolerant of people from different ethnic backgrounds, different nationalities, different colors, different origins, different genders, and different social classes. This must not be true of the followers of Christ.  God sees only two classes or categories of people in the world—believers and unbelievers, the righteous and the unrighteous, those in the light and those in darkness (cf. 2 Corinthians 6:14-18).  Within the body, there must be room for all kinds of differences (cf. Galatians 3:28; 1 Corinthians 12:13; Colossians 3:11).  We must be tolerant of all as we, together, strive to “attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ” (Ephesians 4:13-16).

Let’s ask a few questions: (1) Do you view each person as an individual rather than as a member of a race, culture, or group? (2) Do you evaluate ideas and behavior based on the laws of nature and God’s Law? (3) Do you make allowances for those who are not as wise and mature as they should be? (4) When you see faults in others does it motivate you to be an example of Godly living before them? (5) Do you make greater allowances for unbelievers than you do for believers? (6) Do you serve people regardless of their viewpoints and ask God to change those who need changing?[ix][ix]


[i][i] The American Heritage College Dictionary.

[ii][ii] W. E. Vine, Expository Dictionary.

[iii][iii] Expository Dictionary, p. 106.

[iv][iv] “Tolerance is a virtue within the Christian community, although Paul clearly does not want the Colossians to tolerate the false teaching” (ESV Study Bible note).

[v][v] Expository Dictionary, p. 107.

[vi][vi] The Power of True Success, p. 175.

[vii][vii] Ibid.

[viii][viii] The Power for True Success, p. 178.

[ix][ix] The Power for True Success, p. 179.

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