Yesterday I talked in this posting about tolerance’s virtues and vices. The world just gives “tolerance” a one-size- fits-all approach and tolerates everything, no matter how bad. But Christians are commanded to be tolerant about somethings and to refuse to tolerate other things. Sounds simple enough — except in the way that Christians are sometimes intolerant. You see, there’s a Christian way to be intolerant and a worldly way to be intolerant. So, how does a Christian not tolerate immorality, false doctrine, or the denominations in a good and proper way?
You see, sometimes intolerance is wrongly expressed in the form of persecution. Paul used to think that way: Acts 26:9 “So then, I thought to myself that I had to do many things hostile to the name of Jesus of Nazareth.” But the Lord taught him otherwise. Finding sinful behavior intolerable mustn’t lead to malice, hostility, harm, threats, reviling, slander, or persecution toward others. Paul, having learned from the Lord where the real battle is, wrote this, (2 Corinthians 10:3-6) “For though we walk in the flesh, we do not war according to the flesh, for the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh, but divinely powerful for the destruction of fortresses. We are destroying speculations and every lofty thing raised up against the knowledge of God, and we are taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ, and we are ready to punish all disobedience, whenever your obedience is complete.” It doesn’t tolerate the wrong, but it doesn’t persecute either — it appeals, seeks, and reaches out to change hearts and minds by genuine persuasion, not force.
But proper Christian intolerance will start with (gasp!) judgment. Judgment is a rather intolerable vice in a tolerance- focused world. But before we too quickly judge those who judge, let’s be reminded about the fact that there are two kinds of judgment. There’s the kind that Jesus condemns in Matthew 6:1-3, a harshly critical fault-finding attitude and kind of speech. And then there’s the kind that we are required to exercise as we discern right and wrong around us. It is this second sort of judgment that Christians must exercise regularly. It leads us rightly to be intolerant and reject sin, like our tongue might discern and spit out poison. It is trained by the inspired Scriptures which not provide commands, but principles and examples of what God accepts and rejects. Did you know that the Bible talks a lot about what God hates? And what God finds intolerable, Christians must also find intolerable. Now of course, this should never lead to burning crosses, or terrorist activity, or abuse, or violence, or unseemly behavior. But it does lead somewhere…
It will lead to speaking up. When Paul walked through Athens, he found himself (Acts 17:16) “…provoked within him as he was observing the city full of idols.” This intolerance led to him speaking up, which led to being invited to speak at Mars Hill to the Athenian philosophers. We sometimes tremble in fear at the thought of speaking up about some intolerable behavior, but here’s the simple truth: no one will ever know they’re doing wrong unless someone speaks up and says so — think of the tale of the Emperor’s New Clothes. When no one says anything, everyone concludes that wrong must be right — that naked is clothed. But it can’t be just any kind of speech: (Ephesians 4:15) “but speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in all aspects into Him who is the head, even Christ,” And it is here in the “speaking up” aspect of the question of intolerance, where patience, love, kindness, and yes even some tolerance needs to be exercised. It is the rare person who changes in a moment and never slips again; people usually “grow” in their godly changes. But the patience, love, kindness, and tolerance is exercised with an expectation that there really will be progress and growth.
But when progress and growth are not forthcoming, intolerance is sometimes rightly expressed toward wayward Christians in what is called withdrawal of fellowship (sometimes called in Scripture “handing someone over to Satan”). Paul was blown away by the Corinthian’s lack of action based on a sinfully tolerant attitude toward a particularly sinful behavior in their midst — someone had taken to living maritally with his father’s wife! Paul’s conscience prompted him to call for his immediate removal. It was in part because Paul was concerned about the sinner’s condition, and hoped to shock the sinner’s hardened heart to repentance. He also was concerned about the church’s understanding about sin, tolerance breeds the impression in the hearts of the tolerant that there’s nothing wrong with something. (This has been the agenda of gay activists for a long time — get people to tolerate and tolerate until it becomes OK and even legitimized by “marriage”.) The point here is never to simply hurt the sinner, but to win him/her back and make it clear to both the sinner and the church that such a thing is outside the pale of godliness.
And certainly Christian intolerance must also be shown by refusing to participate in deeds of darkness. This might seem like a “no-brainer” observation, but there have been a number of times in which worldly folks have had the gumption to invite me to get involved in something I don’t approve of “just to try it once” or alternately “How will you ever know whether it’s right or wrong unless you try it?” One fellow actually said, “I’ll listen to you about drinking, if you’ll come to bar and get drunk with me,” and he was serious. I know I can’t be the only one who has ever had to deal with such “invitations”. The Christian knows what is right and wrong; he need not experience it to know and he need not consult the latest polls. He know right and wrong because of what God has told us.
Tolerance is good, and intolerance is good. It all depends what we’re being asked to tolerate. But whatever you do, don’t learn to tolerate what the world presses you to embrace; love what God loves and hate what God hates — 1 Thessalonians 5:21, 22 “But examine everything carefully; hold fast to that which is good; abstain from every form of evil.”