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Issues Facing Missions Today: 42. Biblical Bases for Christian Toleration

Issues Facing Missions Today: 42. Biblical Bases for Christian Toleration


Toleration has become a cardinal virtue in the West and countries influenced by the West.  Like equality, it is understood as a virtue related to freedom or liberty.  In democratic societies, toleration is a necessary virtue to restrain the tyranny of the majority.  Peculiarly, toleration of preferred minorities over against others has become the mark of twenty-first century, Western democracies.  

This is because certain minority communities actually support majority perspectives at a higher level of abstraction, such as when the 2% homosexual population is given affirmation as a minority expression because it supports the more abstract or general affirmation of sexual freedom.  Caricature and persecution of those holding to tradition views of sexuality and marriage are, suddenly, legitimate objects of derision and persecution.

Over against Western culture’s experiment with these virtues lie many Islamic societies’ practices of intolerance.  Beating, imprisonment, stoning, amputations, and beheading are not only the practice of so-called fanatical or extremist versions of Islam but also of governments under Sharia Law, such as Saudi Arabia or Iran.  The Taliban of Pakistan and Afghanistan forbade girls an education and required women to cover themselves with burkas.

Examples of every version of tolerance and intolerance could be cited from Christian history.  Yet there is a Biblical basis for a Christian version of tolerance, and Biblical teaching offers authoritative corrections to any malpractice throughout the history of the Church.  Several things might be said about a Biblical understanding of toleration, and what follows is presented as ten Biblical bases for a Christian version of tolerance

Ten Bases for Christian Tolerance.

1. The Old Testament notion of God’s own people among the other people of the world leads to an expectation of different standards in the world.  God’s making a people for Himself entails giving this people His Law.  He says,

Now therefore, if you obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples. Indeed, the whole earth is mine,  6 but you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation. These are the words that you shall speak to the Israelites" (Ex. 19.5-6).

God’s people are not to do the things that other nations do:

Leviticus 18:1-4 The LORD spoke to Moses, saying:  2 Speak to the people of Israel and say to them: I am the LORD your God.  3 You shall not do as they do in the land of Egypt, where you lived, and you shall not do as they do in the land of Canaan, to which I am bringing you. You shall not follow their statutes.  4 My ordinances you shall observe and my statutes you shall keep, following them: I am the LORD your God.

2. The New Testament notion of Christians as God’s own people also involves a view on toleration, although it brings a shift of thinking from the Old Testament.  Now God’s people are those ‘in Christ,’ persons from among both Jews and non-Jews, the Gentiles, who have acknowledged Jesus Christ as their Lord and Saviour. This led Christians to move away from an Old Testament, Jewish view that did not distinguish religious communities from nation states.  This Christian view is the basis for a distinction between the Church and ‘secular’ society.  Christians in the second century began to speak of themselves as a ‘third race’—a new people made up of both Jews and Gentiles.  As Paul said in the first century, ‘But our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ’ (Phl. 3.20).  Paul, arguing in line with the Old Testament prophets, restricts the notion of God’s people from all descendants of Abraham to a remnant who truly follow God (see especially Isaiah and Rom. 9-11).  On the other hand, not all Gentiles are considered to be outside of God’s people.  This leads to a distinction between the ethics of Christians and the ethics of those outside of Christ.  As Paul says,

1 Corinthians 5:11-13 But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother or sister who is sexually immoral or greedy, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or robber. Do not even eat with such a one.  12 For what have I to do with judging those outside? Is it not those who are inside that you are to judge?  13 God will judge those outside. "Drive out the wicked person from among you."

Indeed, Christians do judge those in their own communities who claim to be faithful followers of Jesus Christ but who are not living according to Biblical commandments.  When Jesus said to his disciples that they should not judge others lest they be judged, he was speaking about not being hypocrites (Mt. 7.1-5).  Judgement in the community, however, is done with an eye toward attempting to restore others (Mt. 18.12-35; 1 Cor. 5).

3. The Biblical notion of the ‘Fall’ entails a belief in toleration.  People aware of their own sinfulness are hardly likely to lack toleration for others.  This belief states, as Paul says, that ‘all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God’ (Rom. 3.23).  Christians see all as sinful, separated from God, and in need of a Saviour—who is Jesus Christ.  Understanding their own journey to God and their own inability to save themselves, they therefore have a certain tolerance of others, including non-Christians.  They see themselves as recipients of grace who should tell others the good news that they, too, can receive God’s grace through Jesus Christ.  Jesus taught his disciples to pray, ‘forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us’ (Lk. 11.4).

4. Christian teaching about ‘faith’ also calls for a Christian view of tolerance.  The Bible understands salvation to be by faith in God, that is, in God’s provision of salvation.  This was true in the Old Testament as much as in the New Testament.  The difference between the two testaments is not that righteousness is through works in the Old Testament but through faith in the New Testament.  Rather, God’s salvation remains a promise in the Old Testament, but it is fulfilled in the New Testament through Jesus’ sacrificial death on a cross for our sins.  For our purposes, this teaching on faith means that salvation is not our own accomplishment but is by God’s grace.  As with the Biblical teaching on the Fall, so also with the Biblical understanding of salvation by God’s grace: whether sinners or saved Christians, we have no basis to approach God or others as superior to others.  This is at the centre of Christian faith, and it is also an essential basis for a Christian view of toleration.  Also, Christian faith means there is no room for coercion.  People cannot be forced to be Christians; they must ‘come to faith.’

5. Toleration is also based on the central teaching of the Christian Gospel: the death of Christ on a cross.  As John says in Revelation, Christians ‘have conquered [their accuser] by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they loved not their lives even unto death’ (Rev. 12.11).  Christian life is ‘cruciform.’  Jesus’ victory came through His death on a cross, not through military action or some other use of force.  His victory becomes exemplary for Christian practice as well (a point too often missed in the history of Christianity!).

6. The Christian view of God’s reign (the kingdom of God) also involves a perspective on tolerance.  The Old Testament already clearly teaches that God is King over the entire world—a view consistent with Jewish monotheism.  The psalmist says, ‘Say among the nations, "The LORD is king!’ (Ps. 96.10).  The world is coming to know that God is their King.  Ultimately, the nations will acknowledge that the Lord is the only God, and all will bow their knees before Him (Isaiah 45.23; cf. Phl. 2.10-11).  Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, has already been exalted as Lord (Eph. 1.20-23).  Paul sees the interim time as a time when Jesus subdues his enemies (picking up the language of Ps. 8.6, ESV): For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet.  26 The last enemy to be destroyed is death (1 Cor. 15.25-26).  Thus, Christians believe that God’s reign is ‘already’ as well as ‘not yet.’  God’s present rule has the purpose of bringing salvation (2 Cor. 6.2); his future rule will bring judgement.

7. Christians believe in an ultimate reckoning before God.  There is coming a judgement day.  Toleration does not mean acceptance of whatever people believe, desire, or do.  God’s justice will be meted out on the day of judgement, even as it has already been meted out in providing forgiveness of sins through the sacrificial, substitutionary death of Jesus Christ for us.  The delay between the justice of the cross and the justice of God’s final judgement is a matter of divine forbearance—toleration.  As Paul says, God our Saviour ‘desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth’ (1 Tim. 2.4).

8. Moreover, retaliation and vengeance is not Christians’ responsibility but God’s.  Paul says,

Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, "Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord."  20 To the contrary, "if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head."  21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good’ (Rom. 12.19-21).

This is consistent with Jesus telling his disciples to love their enemies and pray for those who persecute them (Mt. 5.44).

9. Christians also have a view that there are some matters of indifference, such as whether to eat food sacrificed to idols in the marketplace (1 Cor. 8-10) or to follow Jewish cultural practices (circumcision, eating kosher foods, observing particular days—cf. Rom. 14.1-15.3).  Some issues are essential to uphold a holy community, but these standards are not to be forced on those outside the church (1 Cor. 5).

10. Finally, love of God and neighbour is the ground for laws (Mt. 22.37-40).  Similarly, God desires mercy, not sacrifice (Mt. 9.13; 12.7, quoting Hos. 6.6).  Paul’s great chapter on love is a chapter that makes room for tolerating others:

1 Corinthians 13:4-7  4 Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant  5 or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful;  6 it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth.  7 Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

Western culture bases tolerance on the value of freedom; Christian theology bases toleration on the virtue of love.  Therein lies the difference between a coercive, permissive culture and a compelling, transformative community.


The Christian understanding of toleration is uniquely Christian.  It is not based in liberal democratic views but is based on a Biblical worldview, particularly on Jesus’ own victory on a cross.  Biblical teaching on the people of God in the world, the Fall, sin, grace, faith, the reign of God, the judgement of God all lead to a unique and consistent view of tolerance.  It is a view that can appreciate both forgiveness and judgement.  It can oppose wrong views while still tolerating them.  Toleration is not a matter of affirming relativism but is rather patient and hopeful, cruciform, and a matter of letting God be God in dealing with people while showing love toward enemies.  Toleration also entails appreciating that there are certain matters of indifference while others are important to uphold within Christian communities.  Ultimately, love is key to Christian relationships, and this provides a final and important basis for toleration.