A Biblical word for ‘tolerance’ is ‘patience’. And within the Bible patience is not just ‘passively waiting’ but ‘enduring suffering without retaliation’.
Tolerance is one of the modern world’s highest values and yet the Bible hardly ever uses the word. A search in the concordance will not reveal much. Bible dictionaries have no articles on the topic. It is thus hard to see where the Bible teaches tolerance let alone approves of it as an ideal to pursue.
Yet tolerance has developed since the Reformation as a distinctive of modern Christian nations. From the sixteenth century onwards Christians in different countries worked to establish the right to be loyal citizens of a nation while holding different views to the government or the society. Today it is neither the State nor the Church, which can dictate what everybody must believe. Different beliefs are no longer seen as a threat to the unity of the nation. Though calling certain behaviours “un-Australian” hints at an underlying intolerance.
Tolerance is often confused with relativism. The error starts with the assumption that tolerance is an intellectual activity. Seeking to treat each other tolerantly we listen to and respect other people and their opinions. But this can lead people into an intellectual belief structure that accepts all views as equally valid i.e. relativism. While relativism is tolerable it is both intellectual and social suicide.
Tolerance is not an intellectual position but a social response. It is the willingness to allow, endure or suffer things, ideas, or people with whom we disagree. It is particularly the activity of those in positions of power. For they are the ones who have the ability to prevent other people doing whatever they like. Yet we all have some power to endure the behaviour or ideas of other people rather than to retaliate or to avoid them.
Nobody has greater power than God. And his tolerance is seen in his patient forbearance. The King James translation called it ‘long-suffering’. He who hates sin has passed over former sins (Romans 3:26) and overlooked the times of ignorance (Acts 17:30). So much so that his justice is questioned (Habakkuk 1:2-4,13). This longsuffering patience of God is easily presumed upon by sinful and judgemental people (Romans 2:1-5), who do not understand God’s desire for our repentance. Yet it is the character of God’s justice and of God himself to be ‘slow to anger’ (Exodus 34:6).
But tolerance is not infinite. There are limits to tolerance. The State will define certain behaviour as intolerable. Crimes will not be accepted but punished, for society cannot exist without justice. Those who seek to destroy the nation by their anarchy or terrorism will not be tolerated. Nor will invasion by another nation.
Nor is tolerance infinite within a voluntary association like a church. There can be some diversity of belief and behaviour on matters not central to the voluntary association e.g. your political views are an irrelevance to your golf club. So a church should tolerate differences on issues that are not taught in Scripture and are tangential to Christian theology. This tolerance is taught in passages such as Romans 14 and 1 Corinthians 8-11. But yet there are behaviours that are intolerable within the church. The church of Thyatira is criticised for tolerating the false prophet Jezebel, her teaching and her immorality (Revelation 2:20).
Furthermore the New Testament makes a distinction between the level of toleration within the church and within society. “I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people— not at all meaning the sexually immoral of this world, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world. But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler—not even to eat with such a one. For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? God judges those outside. “Purge the evil person from among you.” (1 Corinthians 5:9-13)
While God patiently tolerates sinfulness, his patience and tolerance are not infinite. He is slow to anger but his anger will come. For there is a day of wrath when ‘God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus’ (Acts 17:31 Romans 2:5, 16).
Yet the wonder of God’s patient toleration of human sinfulness is that he is more than patient – more than tolerant. For many people tolerance is the highest virtue their relativist thinking can rise to. But God is more than tolerant he is also merciful and kind. He does not just endure our waywardness and rebelliousness – he sent his only son into the world to pay for our sinfulness. He makes the way for us to enter back into relationship with him and harmony with each other.