Historically, tolerance meant recognising another’s rights to have an opinion and to express it, even if you strongly disagreed with them. The saying “to agree to disagree” is in many ways a shorthand way of describing the situation where you choose to remain on amicable terms even though your disagreement remains unresolved.
More recently however, the understanding of tolerance has changed. Today it means that another’s opinion must be accepted as just as true and as valid as your own. No longer can you “agree to disagree” and leave it at that.
This places Christians in a difficult position. We are told we can no longer follow Jesus’ command to proclaim the “good news to all creation” but are expected to shut up and keep our views to ourselves.
So what do we do? For starters we can take time to understand how people understand tolerance today and learn ways to dialogue about it. This is important, for the underlying irony is that the newer understanding of tolerance is in fact, by its own definition, intolerant.
Not everyone is as tolerant as they think they are. Ask people whether they approve of big corporations exploiting our planet, or whether we should reintroduce smoking on aeroplanes and you will find if they are truly tolerant.
In fact, they are so convinced their view of tolerance is the correct one they want to ensure everyone accepts it. But in their endeavour to enforce their view of tolerance upon us they commit the very offence they are indicting us for. The reality is that the new tolerance is dreadfully intolerant. Those who hold to this definition of tolerance are very quick to judge views they disagree with.
What does this mean for our evangelism? Surely being a Christian does result in us being tolerant in the classic sense (after all it was Jesus who said to “love your enemies” (Matthew 5:44)), yet to follow Jesus means we will never be tolerant in the new sense. In fact, Jesus warned us that conflict with others is unavoidable (Matthew 10:34-36).
The message that Jesus is Lord to the exclusion of all others was as controversial in Paul’s day as it is in ours. Let’s not let being branded bigots and intolerant cause us to grow weary and lose heart.
Rather let us ask our Lord for insight and wisdom to know how and when to speak up and speak into the issues of our day.
Stephen L Baxter