Is Mutual Tolerance the Answer

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Society is changing. Actions and lifestyle choices that were once thought universally shameful are now demanding a pass of tolerance. “Intolerant!” is the label folks get who don’t give in and accept these as the new norm. Conservatives and Christians many times bear that label and are snubbed for being old-school.
Several years ago, a Christian baker in Colorado found himself in the middle of a high-profile clash between religious beliefs and anti-discrimination laws when he refused to make a wedding cake for a same-sex couple. More recently as the case was presented to the Supreme Court, Justice Anthony Kennedy made one particularly fascinating statement. He said, “Tolerance is essential in a free society, and tolerance is most meaningful when it’s mutual.” Many times, in cases of this nature, the call for tolerance becomes a one-way street, with one side insisting that the other show them tolerance while refusing to exercise the same grace.
So, says he, the answer to the tolerance dilemma is to make it mutual. Mutual tolerance. You accept me as I am, and I’ll return the favor. Perhaps that’s the missing puzzle piece to society’s problems? Is it the answer to differences among us as Christians?
The word “tolerance” suggests that there are differences. The differences could be as minor as a disagreement which direction is proper to pass the food around the table, or they could be much, much more significant. Different convictions. Different opinions. Different goals. Different perspectives. Many times, when differences arise, we feel forced to do something. After all, says Amos, “Can two walk together, except they be agreed?” (Amos 3:3). So we decide what issues are small enough to tolerate, and which are too consequential to tolerate?
There is a fundamental undergirding problem with tolerance—those who claim tolerance are assuming a position as superior. You see, we tolerate those we consider inferior.
Could it be, reader, that even as we think about those people in our lives with conflicting beliefs that we feel obligated to tolerate, we are really assuming a posture of pride and a sentiment of self-righteousness?
Think about it. Who would like to feel that they are only being “tolerated” at someone’s dinner table? What spouse would appreciate being told that his or her presence at home was being “tolerated?” What worker would not struggle to accept mere tolerance from his co-workers?
Consider differences we might face in church life. What church member gains satisfaction realizing he is simply tolerated because of his or her “non-traditional” upbringing? Would we consider a church healthy when it’s members lack appreciation for their ministry, but decide to stay around and tolerate them?
It is time we did away with tolerance and replaced it with God’s answer. “What is God’s answer?” we may ask.
Romans 12 is full of practical direction on relating to each other, particularly in the setting of a brotherhood, or a Body, as Paul calls it. The illustration of the body specifically highlights the assumption that we not only should expect differences but embrace and appreciate them. “For as we have many members in one body, and all members have not the same office: so we, being many, are one body in Christ, and every one members one of another. Having then gifts differing according to the grace that is given to us…” (Rom 12:4-6b).
Paul stated further in First Corinthians that God has arranged the members in the body, with intentional differences, each one of them, as He chose. (1Co 12:18). If all were a single member, where would the body be? We conclude, then, that some of our differences are God ordained. Diversity is our strength. Differences, when allowed, blended, respected, and appreciated, bring glory to the Head.
Read Romans 12 in this context. The teaching reveals the heart of God and has the potential to bring radical change into how we perceive and relate to differences among us.
The devil desires to pour us into his mold of tolerance, where sin is overlooked, and self is elevated. But God calls us to surrender. He teaches us to think soberly, or honestly, about ourselves, and the way in which we have been equipped to fulfill His will. His desire is for us to accept our gifts, and use them, while also accepting our brother’s gifts, though they be different, and blend with him and support him.
Further, love must be chosen and expressed without hypocrisy, or as Peter teaches, have fervent charity towards each other. Be kind. In honor prefer one another. Pray for one another. Be patient with each other. Serve each other. And, if it be possible, as much as lieth in us, live peaceably with all men, even those who are different than us.
God desires more than mutual tolerance from His people. Mutual tolerance, as good as it may sound, tears away at the very fabric that is meant to bind us together. Mutual tolerance paints our differences as an assumed negative.
Instead, He desires that we embrace and learn the purpose of our differences. “For the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ: till we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ” (Eph 4:12-13).