Dr. James Emery White Christian Blog and Commentary

It's All About Tolerance

  • Dr. James Emery White

    James Emery Whiteis the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and a former professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he…

  • 2012 Jul 30

Have you scratched your head over the last few weeks and thought, “What in the world is going on?”

Take the Chick-fil-A affair. Why such a cultural firestorm and, clearly, a divide that runs deeper than just gay marriage?

What’s going on is a massive divide about what is meant by “tolerance.”

“Toleration is one of the most attractive and widespread ideals of our day,” writes Alan Levine. “It is ... the predominant ethos of all civilizations in the modern world.”

The degree to which this has become ingrained within our culture was evidenced by Allan Bloom’s observation in his critique of higher education, namely that students have been taught to fear that the great danger is not error, but intolerance.

But this is where the cultural divide is critical to understand. 

What, precisely, do we mean by tolerance?

1. Legal Tolerance. The first application of tolerance is legal tolerance. This has to do with basic first amendment rights to believe what we want to believe. 

Cries against the legislation of morality, often directed against the infamous “moral majority” of the 1980s, spoke to this aspect of tolerance. Of course, all laws involve the legislation of morality, but the concern is valid – there should be great tolerance for diverse viewpoints and beliefs, as opposed to the stifling of opinion or the freedom to worship as one chooses. 

And, of course, nothing in Christianity would advocate the refusal of legal tolerance. Indeed, the Bible is a great advocate of legal tolerance, providing the philosophical basis for much of democracy’s contours of thought. 

2. Social Tolerance. The second application of tolerance is social, or cultural, tolerance. This is accepting someone regardless of what they believe. Social tolerance seeks to love others, care about them, and remain open to them relationally regardless of such things as their views, ethnicity or sexual orientation. 

Of course, the great ethic of the Bible, not to mention the life-model of Jesus, would espouse this form of tolerance without reservation. If Jesus stood for anything, it was open, loving acceptance of others as people who mattered to God. 

Despite their sin, lifestyle or philosophical moorings, Jesus was so relationally welcoming that it earned him a rather bad reputation as being, well, one of them (“friend of sinners,” “drunkard,” “glutton”).

3. Intellectual Tolerance. The third form of tolerance is intellectual tolerance, which is accepting what someone believes as right regardless of what you believe or think is right. Or affirming a lifestyle as good when you do not believe it is good.

And it is only in this sense -- intellectual tolerance -- that Christianity would be considered intolerant. 

Jesus did not believe that everything and everyone was right. He did not muddy the waters between acceptance and affirmation. The Bible holds that there is right and wrong, true and false, and is wildly intolerant in saying so.

And it is precisely at this point that the cultural divide is both wide, and superficial.

Not only do many confuse acceptance with affirmation, but they confuse intellectual tolerance with legal or social tolerance.

Even though, in truth, no one believes in intellectual tolerance.

If someone came up to me and said, “I believe that the best way for you to optimize the performance of your laptop is to remove your anti-virus protection, take down your fire wall, open up every email attachment from people and companies you do not know and download as much free software as you can from sites you have never heard of.” 

I could easily be tolerant of that person legally, not to mention relationally, without buying into what he says about the way to optimize the mechanical performance of my computer. 

I would neither affirm, nor agree, with handling the internet, much less my computer, in that way.

In other words, I can hold to the value that other people have a right to their beliefs, without believing that all points of view are equally valid. 

Or be compelled to uphold the pursuit of such beliefs.

Now let’s be more aggressive. 

What about speaking out in favor of a particular position?

Should we simply allow for intellectual disagreement, or is there a place for – brace yourself – evangelism, and even a prophetic word of warning?

This is another point of cultural divide. Some would say that being an evangelist is the ultimate affront to the uber-virtue of tolerance. But again, they are not thinking through what they mean by tolerance.

Penn Jillette is the “talkative” half of Penn and Teller, the Las Vegas comedy-illusion team. Penn has been an outspoken atheist. But he posted a video blog on his personal website about a man who gave him a Bible, and his reflection was arresting:

I’ve always said that I don’t respect people who don’t proselytize. I don’t respect that at all. If you believe that there is a heaven and hell and that people could be going to hell or not getting eternal life or whatever, and you think that, well, it’s not really worth telling them this because it would make it socially awkward. ... How much do you have to hate somebody to not proselytize? How much do you have to hate somebody to believe that everlasting life is possible and not tell them that? 

I mean if I believed beyond a shadow of a doubt that a truck was coming at you and you didn’t believe it, but that truck was bearing down on you, there’s a certain point where I tackle you. And this is more important than that. 

He’s right. It is.

But that doesn’t mean our culture “gets it.” In fact, it doesn’t.

So the next time you wonder what’s going on in our world, remember the deep cultural current that is dividing two very different worldviews:

One believes in truth that is made, and one believes in truth that is found.

And those who believe it is found are finding there is little tolerance – of any kind – for their belief.

James Emery White



James Emery White, Wrestling with God (InterVarsity).

John Stott, The Authentic Jesus (Marshalls).

Alan Levine, “The Prehistory of Toleration and Varieties of Skepticism,” Early Modern Skepticism and the Origins of Toleration.

Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind.

Jillette, Penn. (2008, December 8). “Penn Says: A Gift of a Bible.” Crackle. Retrieved 2009, March 26; watch video.

Editor’s Note

James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, N.C., and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, which he also served as their fourth president. His newly released book is A Traveler's Guide to the Kingdom: Journeying through the Christian Life (InterVarsity Press). To enjoy a free subscription to the Church and Culture blog, log on to www.churchandculture.org, where you can post your comments on this blog, view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on Twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.  

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