Gracious tolerance and tolerant grace

Faith & Inspiration

We live in the age of tolerance, that is to say tolerance is one of the primary values of the Western world. What's good for you is good for you and what's good for me is good for me even if they're mutually exclusive. Every man does what is right in his own eyes, and who am I to say it should not be so? From The Piers Morgan Show to The View to Modern Family this cultural value reigns supreme.

But Christians aren't called to tolerance. Tolerance isn't a biblical command or even a biblical value.

Rather, just like most biblical standards, Christians are called to something more than mere tolerance. Just as Jesus used the "you have heard that was said … but I say to you …" model, so it should be for Christians in this case. You have heard that it was said, "Be tolerant of all people and their values," but I say to you, "Be gracious to all people and value their souls."

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Mere tolerance (as it is espoused in Western culture) is an aimless, thoughtless reaction. In fact, in order to be the most tolerant person one can be, one must not think too carefully or else the many and varied contradictions would become evident. And we can't have that. Tolerance of this kind serves no purpose and has no goals other than avoidance of immediate conflicts. It serves nobody, blesses nobody, and accomplishes nothing.

Biblical grace, on the other hand, grows out of and aims toward a distinct purpose: the redeeming and sanctifying of sinners. When Christians show grace toward those with opposing views it is not mere tolerance, and it cannot be. We are called to uphold the Word of God, to express truth with clarity, and to do both with love (grace). This often means gracious disagreement and graciously refusing to participate in actions or beliefs that conflict with the Bible.

It also means that, for the sake of exemplifying the grace shown to us by God, we do tolerate things that are offensive or against our beliefs. But the tolerance is a means of grace, not an end in itself. It is not allowance to sin (sinning that grace may abound) but rather an understanding of humanity, of depravity, and of the need for redemption. It is in this way that Christians ought to be more than tolerant, but not less. We tolerate in order to show God's grace with the prayer that, in time, those things being tolerated will be changed.

We must not confuse our calling to show God's grace with the cultural pull toward absolute, mindless tolerance. And we must also show tolerance as it befits and furthers the efforts of showing God's grace.

Barnabas Piper
Barnabas Piper

Barnabas works for Lifeway Christian Resources and is the author of The Pastor’s Kid: Finding Your Own Faith and Identity and Help My Unbelief: Why Doubt Is Not the Enemy of Faith. He and his wife live in the Nashville area with their two daughters. Follow Barnabas on Twitter @BarnabasPiper.


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