(In)Tolerance: Overused and Misunderstood Terms

“I’m right and you’re wrong!” I’m sure you’ve thought or stated (or yelled) this at one time or another. Disagreements can come often in life, as we all have different viewpoints and beliefs. Some of our disagreements may cause some exclusion based on these beliefs. But if during a discussion, the other person does not change their opinion to fit your belief, does that make them intolerant? The words tolerant and intolerant are used so often today that many people, I believe, have lost site of their true meaning.

The ability “to agree to disagree” is a long-standing principle that seems to have been lost in our current culture. You see, tolerance requires the understanding and application of this principle. Tolerant thinking and actions demands there be times to understand an agreement on who is right or wrong may not be made. Intolerance does not accept this principle. The thinking and actions of intolerance only understands to push its viewpoint, usually through a forceful measure, until it’s counter is forced to accept it. Just look at the definition of the two words. Tolerance is defined as “showing willingness to allow the existence of opinions or behavior that one does not necessarily agree with”; intolerance does not show this same willingness to allow differing opinions.

For example, some people believe Christianity to be intolerant. Some find it intolerant because of its exclusive belief Jesus alone saves and brings eternal life, while others find certain Christian beliefs (such as on sexuality or abortion) to be intolerant. In our current culture where “all things are OK”, some will say Christianity and its followers are intolerant of people. But Christian doctrine for salvation (or of sexuality, abortion etc) has nothing to do with tolerance or intolerance. “Jesus is the only way” is not an intolerant argument; it’s what Christians believe is right. Sexual relations are believed by Christians to be for a husband and his wife only. These are their beliefs; they are not intolerant. Intolerance only becomes true if Christians force a person to accept these beliefs.

Lets look at another example to see how misunderstood the terms tolerance/intolerance have become. You likely have heard about the Christian couple in Denver who, due to their personal beliefs, declined to make a cake for a homosexual wedding. After explaining this to the customer, they offered other bakeries where they could have that service provided. However, the customer did not accept this and sued the couple, citing discrimination and intolerance. The customer is attempting to make the couple change their beliefs using force, by a costly lawsuit or by making the couple close their business. Who in this story is tolerant and intolerant? By not accepting “to agree to disagree” about a belief, or not show a “willingness to allow the existence of differing opinions”, intolerance emerges.

I believe Timothy Keller says it best: “Tolerance isn’t about not having beliefs. It’s about how your beliefs lead you to treat people who disagree with you.” We must be tolerant of people, not their beliefs. In fact, this is a principle taught by Jesus. During his ministry, he sent his followers out to discuss and teach others their beliefs. Knowing not all people would agree with these beliefs, he told them how to respond. “If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, leave that home or town and shake the dust off your feet” (Matthew 10:14). Jesus taught tolerance. If he were intolerant, he would have told his followers to attempt to force people into accepting his teachings and beliefs.

“Our culture has accepted two huge lies. The first is that if you disagree with someone’s lifestyle, you must fear or hate them. The second is that to love someone means you agree with everything they believe or do. Both are nonsense. You don’t have to compromise convictions to be compassionate.” This quote by Rick Warren is one I often use because it so eloquently sums up how our culture has lost truth about the meaning and application of tolerance/intolerance. Just because an agreement can not be made about certain beliefs between people does not mean there is fear or hatred. However, intolerance can lead to both fear and hatred, which is why we must be willing to accept others despite our differing beliefs.

As Martin Luther King, Jr stated, “We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools.” The Christian doctrine states we are ALL in the same boat, fallen sinners. We all struggle, but often with different sins. Until the log is out from our eyes, we may not see our own brokenness. But once we understand this truth, then we are able to freely see others as our brothers and sisters, and thus, show real tolerance towards them despite having differing beliefs.

“A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.” (John 13:34, NIV).

About admin

I am an Otolaryngologist, commonly known as an Ear, Nose, and Throat (ENT) physician and surgeon. Currently, I am a member of ENT Specialists, PLLC that practices in Lexington, Georgetown, and Frankfort, KY. My practice consists of General ENT, but my interest and expertise is centered around pediatric ENT treatments, nasal and sinus disorders, chronic ear infections and hearing loss, and facial skin cancer surgery. I attempt to provide the highest quality medical care, using the most current research and surgical techniques, but also to care for each individual patient as if they were a member of my family.
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