Tolerance or Intolerance?

IntoleranceTolerance has become the Great Religion of America.

Webster defines tolerance as:

“sympathy or indulgence for beliefs or practices differing from or conflicting with one’s own; the act of allowing something” [1].

In other words, if you don’t agree with me or don’t believe the same thing I believe, I will indulge or allow that difference and still accept you as being “OK”. I am not required to change my belief system in order to be tolerant. I simply allow for the fact that your belief system isn’t the same as mine.

I think that is a good definition of tolerance, and constitutes a healthy and realistic approach to life … most of the time. I also believe, however, that there is an appropriate time for intolerance. Let me give you a couple of examples in an attempt to help you understand what I mean.

I firmly believe that Scripture teaches that a person must be baptized (immersed in water) for the forgiveness of his own personal sins (not the sins of his father or grandfather, or of Adam and Eve) in order to accept God’s offer of eternal salvation [2]. To me (because it is what Scripture clearly teaches), this is non-negotiable.

I have lots of friends who, in contrast, believe that all a person must do to be saved from his sins is “accept Jesus into your heart as your personal savior”, often accompanied by saying a “sinner’s prayer” … no baptism required. I believe such a doctrine is incompatible with Scripture. However, I still love and respect, and enjoy the company of, those friends who don’t agree with me. I would love to convince them to understand Scripture the same way I understand Scripture, but I will not treat them with contempt if they don’t. That is tolerance.

But what about intolerance? Is it ever appropriate? If so, when and why?

From a biblical perspective, homosexuality is clearly wrong [3]. It is a sinful lifestyle which draws the ire of Almighty God. If a person is seeking to live life in accordance with Scripture, homosexuality is simply not an option.

Over the course of my lifetime, I have known a number of people who are (or were) homosexual. Some of them were members of my own family. I loved them deeply. I count among my current friends a couple of people who are self-proclaimed homosexuals. I love them as friends. I have a great deal of respect for them as professionals in their respective fields. But my love for these people does not translate into a tolerance of the “homosexual movement” in America.

I despise, from the very depth of my being, any attempt to foist on our children an acceptance of homosexuality as a “healthy lifestyle”. There are even documented cases of the “homosexual agenda” manifesting itself in the actual teaching of homosexual methods to innocent children, on the taxpayer’s dime! [4] That is a disgusting perversion of the highest magnitude, and is worthy of complete, utter, active intolerance on the part of all people who believe in the Bible as the infallible Word of God.

(An interesting side note: Not all “homosexuals” are the same. I know of a guy, we’ll call him George, who is homosexual, and believes completely in God and Jesus and the Bible. George is not a practicing homosexual, but simply struggles with homosexual tendencies, much like someone else might struggle with heterosexual desires that would be inappropriate to act upon. George does not support the “homosexual movement” or “homosexual agenda” that has become so prevalent in America. He is committed to living a life that honors God even while struggling with homosexual tendencies. I have a great deal of respect for George, and pray that God will help him learn to find peace in life without succumbing to the homosexual temptations that are part of his daily struggle as he strives to walk with God.)

As another example of appropriate intolerance, let’s say that you decide to engage in self-destructive behavior that you know is wrong. I cannot and will not accept or condone your behavior. It is not “OK” that you have chosen to act in such a way; and, quite frankly, YOU are not “OK” as long as you continue on that path.

Will I still love you? Yes.

Will I do whatever I can to help you leave your self-destructive lifestyle? Yes.

Will I welcome you back with open arms if and when you realize the error of your ways and return from your sinful lifestyle to a God-honoring lifestyle? Yes.

But as long as you choose to live in sin, I will not tolerate your sin. I will not pretend that “everything is OK” while you continue making wrong choices. And if your self-destructive sinful behavior results in pain and suffering for the innocent people around you, my intolerance for your behavior will only intensify.

A couple of biblical examples come to mind that help me better understand this whole concept of “appropriate intolerance”. In 1 Corinthians chapter 5, Paul chastised the church in Corinth because of their tolerance! There was a man in their midst who was openly living in sin. He was having a sexual relationship with “his father’s wife” (apparently his stepmother). The Corinthian Christians were proud of how open-minded and understanding they were in their tolerance of this situation (sounds kind of like 21st century America!). Paul told them that they should be ashamed of their foolish pride and should throw the man out and “deliver him to Satan”. That doesn’t sound very tolerant. But notice the motivation Paul gives for being intolerant of this man’s sin: “that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus”. Sometimes love demands intolerance!

In the Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-20), the son defiantly insisted on his portion of the inheritance from his father and went his way. His father gave him the inheritance and let him go. The son proceeded to “sow his wild oats”. The New International Version says that he “squandered his wealth in wild living”. He was practicing a self-destructive lifestyle, the kind that we are not to tolerate as Christians.

But the story doesn’t end there. Realizing what a fool he had been, and understanding that he had been living in sin, the young man repented and returned home to his father, begging for mercy. He didn’t storm back in, demanding to be reinstated. He didn’t make excuses for his stupid decisions or try to justify his sinful lifestyle. He repented of his wrongdoing, and humbly pleaded for his father to simply take him back as a hired servant.

There is an important lesson there for us. Defiance leads a person into sin. Demanding satisfaction for one’s own selfish desires and pleasures, and in the process ignoring or de-emphasizing the needs and feelings of precious family and friends, is in itself sinful, and invariably leads a person into a state of spiritual squalor (often accompanied by self-imposed physical squalor as well, as in the case of the prodigal son). The only solution to this miserable condition, the only way out of this state of self-destruction, is to empty oneself of all pride and arrogance, to lay aside all selfish desires and pursuits, and to come crawling back to the very One (and ones) into whose faces we have previously spit, begging for undeserved mercy. Unfortunately, for too many people, pride will never allow them to do that.

And what is to be our reaction to one who has chosen such a self-filled, sinful, destructive lifestyle as that chosen by the prodigal son? As in the case in 1 Corinthians 5, we are to “deliver him to Satan”. We are to wash our hands of him (or her), so to speak. In practice, this is often referred to as “Tough Love”. It may look heartless to someone on the outside looking in, but the very purpose of such Tough Love is to help the sinner realize the horribleness of his sins and turn away from them. It’s Tough Love, after all, and a genuine love for the person demands a tough intolerance of his sinful choices.

But it is love, and love never gives up. When the prodigal son came to his senses and began the long, arduous, humiliating journey back home, something amazing happened. His father saw him coming from a distance, dropped what he was doing, and ran to meet his son! He hugged him and kissed him … and hugged him and kissed him … and hugged him and kissed him!

The father had never given up on his son returning home. He could not control his son’s decision to turn to a life of sin, but his Daddy’s heart always held out hope that his son would come back home some day. And when the son did return, Dad didn’t sit him down and lecture him about what a horrible decision he had made, or how much he had hurt his family. The son already knew all of that. And Dad certainly didn’t take his boy back as merely a hired servant. The only emotion Dad could muster was unspeakable joy, and the only appropriate response to his son’s repentance and homecoming … celebration!

It’s all about balance. Tough Love has balance built into its very name. Tough means intolerant of wrong. It signifies behavior toward the sinner that leaves no doubt about the seriousness of the sin. But the second half of the whole, the part that provides balance to the toughness, is love. Love means an unconditional desire for the other person’s best good. It carries with it a willingness to drop any resentment or hard feelings when someone repents. It is ready to offer genuine support and comfort, and provide a safe place to return from sin.

So, tolerance is good. But sometimes intolerance is better. And love is always the necessary constant.

One final thought: It is interesting to note that those who preach the Religion of Tolerance are willing to tolerate everything except intolerance. In other words, they will accept me as being “OK”, as long as I believe in the same ideals of tolerance that they hold dear (which means to accept anything and everything and don’t call anything “sin” or “wrong”). But they will not tolerate me if I don’t believe the same thing they believe. Wait a minute! Isn’t that intolerance? Just a thought!

Paul O'Rear Signature

Photo credit:


  1. Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary
  2. Scripture references: Acts 2:36-38, 1 Peter 3:18-22, Acts 22:12-16
  3. Scripture references: Romans 1:18-31, 1 Corinthians 6:9-10
  4. The FISTGATE Report