Tolerance is often bandied about today with a meaning far removed from its original definition. It has come to mean agreeing with or supporting what someone else is saying or doing; one is deemed tolerant to the degree that he goes along with another’s words or behavior.

However, if one supports another’s position or actions, one doesn’t need to “tolerate” it. We don’t tolerate what we love; we tolerate what we hate; we tolerate people with whom we disagree, not our kindred spirits.

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy defines toleration as follows:

Toleration—from the Latin tolerare: to put up with, countenance, or suffer—generally refers to the conditional acceptance of or non-interference with beliefs, actions, or practices that one considers to be wrong but still “tolerable,” such that they should not be prohibited or constrained [1].

It goes on to make a distinction that is often lost today.

[I]t is essential for the concept of toleration that the tolerated beliefs or practices are considered to be objectionable and in an important sense wrong or bad. If this objection component (cf. King 1976, 44-54) is missing, we do not speak of “toleration” but of “indifference” or “affirmation” [2].

In other words, by definition, tolerance involves putting up something with considered wrong or displeasing but not so wrong or displeasing that it must be forbidden in each and every instance. Tolerance does not imply that we approve of the tolerated thing as something that is good. This essential point is glossed over by those who insist that disapproval is a sign of intolerance.

Tolerance, properly defined, is good and necessary, but like most good things, it has its limits. Tolerance is essential in an imperfect world. Without it, nations might go to war over simple human imperfections. We all have friends and family members whom we like but who have traits that annoy us (as do all human beings). Without tolerance we would be locked in a fruitless attempt to remake each person so as to be “perfect” to us. We tolerate people’s less desirable characteristics for loftier purposes such as harmony, friendship, respect, mercy, and kindness.

However, there must be limits to tolerance. Some things in human relationships that are “deal breakers.” There are things that cannot be tolerated. For example, serious and persistent lies breach the trust necessary for relationships. Behavior that endangers one or both parties (either physically or spiritually) can make it necessary to end relationships or at least to establish firm boundaries within them. 

In wider society, tolerance has necessary limits as well. For example, we appreciate the freedom to come and go as we please, and it is good to tolerate the comings and goings of others even if we disapprove of where they go. Without this general tolerance of movement, things would grind to a halt. In order to be able to come and go freely we put up with some of its less desirable aspects. However, we don’t permit people to drive on sidewalks or run red lights. Neither do we permit breaking and entering or the violation of legitimate property rights. We also restrict unaccompanied minors from entering certain establishments. In effect, every just law encodes some limit on tolerance. Conservatives and liberals debate what limits the law should impose, but both want some limits to be enacted. Even libertarians, while wanting less governmental interference in general, see a role for some laws and limits; they are not anarchists.

Thus, the modern struggle with the issue of tolerance seems to be twofold:

  • The definition of tolerance – Many people today equate tolerance with approval, losing an essential part of its definition: that tolerance involves “putting up with” people or things with which we disagree.
  • The limits of tolerance – In our modern world we are being asked to tolerate increasingly troublesome behavior. Much of it involves sexual matters. Proponents of sexual promiscuity demand increasing tolerance for it despite the fact that such behavior leads to disease, abortion, teenage pregnancy, single-parent families, divorce, and all the ills that accompany a declining family structure. Supporters of abortion demand tolerance of what they advocate despite the fact that abortion results in the death of an innocent human being. Many people of faith think that the limits of tolerance have been exceeded such matters.

Rapprochement? The debate about tolerance and its limits is not a new one, but it seems more intense today when there appears to be so little shared moral vision. One way forward might be to return to a proper definition of tolerance. Perhaps if we stop (incorrectly) equating tolerance with approval, an atmosphere of greater respect can be achieved in these debates. To ask for tolerance is not always wrong, but to demand approval is.

Consider the debate over homosexual activity. Many people of faith, at least those who hold to the biblical view, believe homosexual behavior to be morally wrong. The same is true for heterosexual relations outside the bond of (one man/one woman) marriage, such as fornication, adultery, polygamy, and incest. Because we disapprove of homosexual activity, we are often labeled intolerant (and many other things as well such as homophobic, bigoted, and hateful).

Tolerance is really not the issue, however. Most Christians are willing to tolerate that people “do things in their bedrooms” of which we disapprove. As long as we are not directly confronted with this behavior and told we must approve of it, we are generally willing to stay out of people’s private lives. What has happened in modern times, though, is that approval is demanded for behavior we consider immoral, and when we refuse to approve, we are called intolerant. This is a misuse of the term.

Our objections do not arise from bigotry or hatred (as some claim) but rather from a principled, biblical stance. Our disapproval does not, ipso facto, make us bigots or haters. Neither does it mean we are intolerant or that we seek to force an end to behavior we do not consider good. Very few Christians I have ever heard from are asking for police to enter bedrooms and make arrests.

We are not intolerant; we simply do not approve of homosexual activity. According to the proper definition of tolerance, it is the very fact of our disapproval that permits us to show tolerance in this area.

Finally, I offer a thought on who really “owns” tolerance. Opponents of traditional Christianity often claim the high ground of tolerance for themselves, but the paradoxical result of this holier-than-thou attitude is increasing intolerance of Christian faith by the self-proclaimed tolerant ones. Legal restrictions on the proclamation of the Christian faith in the public square have been growing. The exclusion of Catholic charitable organizations from receiving public funding if they insist upon adhering to the principles of the faith is becoming more common as well. In other parts of the world where free speech is less enshrined, Catholic priests and bishops have been sued and even arrested for “hate speech” because they preach traditional biblical morality. None of this sounds very tolerant to me!

Our opponents need not approve of our beliefs, but they ought to exhibit greater tolerance of us—at least the same tolerance they ask from us.