Bible Answers: Tolerance might have different meanings

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By Chuck McCullough

“I hear the word ‘tolerance’ tossed around a lot — but I think it has different meanings to different people. Does the Bible tell me to be tolerant?” — Kristin

The distilled dictionary definition of “tolerance:” “Showing understanding or sympathy for conduct or ideas that conflict with one’s own.”
The conventional use of the term is reflected in this statement: “I disagree with your conduct or ideas, but I value you as a person and respect your right to your convictions. I will not compromise my convictions, but I will not demean you for yours.”
The negative form of the word appears in contemporary vernacular in another way, as reflected in this statement: “If you disagree with my conduct or ideas, you are intolerant.” This usage, a significant divergence from the first definition, is neither very useful nor honest.
The Bible leans more toward the first one. Jesus hung out with sinners, but did not refrain from declaring His ethical values (Mt. 5-7; 9:11; 11:19). He listened carefully to some whose lifestyle differed from His own (e.g., Jn. 4:1-30) while sensitively engaging their heart and mind, seeking to convey life truths.
Peter instructed Christ-followers to share their faith but to do so with respect and gentleness (I Pet. 3:15). Paul admonished them to lift up a brother who has fallen while resisting self-promotion (Gal. 6:1-5).
Scripture is not relativistic; i.e., it is the antithesis of “anything goes.” It inveighs against egocentrism, moral laxity and distortions of truth. But it does not disallow hearing a different position, weighing its merits and/or engaging in useful dialogue (which may be a good description for “tolerance.”)
Simple disagreement does not make for “intolerance.” Our challenge is to allow for disagreement while maintaining and articulating our core beliefs and treating each other with respect in the process.
If I am truly “tolerant,” I may attempt to persuade you to adopt my view but I will not seek to coerce or belittle you.