Back in early 1995, I saw a church marquee in St. Louis that said, “1995—the Year of Tolerance.” I found myself contemplating that phrase. What exactly might that mean, “the Year of Tolerance?”
There are some on the more liberal side of life that think of “tolerance” in terms of warm, open-arms acceptance of anything or anybody, regardless of their race, color, creed, or socioeconomic background, provided of course that they have a proper understanding of things and don’t overstep their boundaries. On the other end of the spectrum are the true narrow minds. As they see it, there is only one “right” way to think, look, and be. You are either right (i.e. exactly like them) or you are wrong. Most likely, you’re wrong.
As a man who supports my ministry habit by engineering radio stations, I think of tolerance in terms of “acceptable limits.” For example, the FCC requires all radio broadcasting stations to maintain their transmitting power within a range of 90% to 105% of their licensed power. Anywhere within that tolerance range is acceptable, but outside that range can result in a stiff fine from the Feds. That operating power tolerance certainly doesn’t allow for “anything you want, as long as it’s not hurting anyone,” nor does it require a strict, legalistic adherence to the 100% power level. It acknowledges the fact that things do drift and change, and sets an acceptable range of operating power.
However, that same tolerance doesn’t necessarily apply across the board to all of the parameters that we have to monitor. For example, the tolerance for one parameter is plus or minus 5%, and another is plus or minus 3 degrees. It can get complicated sometimes, so the FCC publishes a book of rules and regulations that tells us, among other things, what tolerances are allowable.
Christians have a similar Book that tells us what tolerances we should have in our walk with Christ. Like the FCC rules, it contains guidelines and limits that can be twisted and abused in the hands of a lawyer (legalist). Unlike the FCC rules, it contains the element of Grace, and was written, not by a governmental agency that is looking for opportunities to impose fines and penalties, but by a loving God who wants to keep us from getting into trouble, and so provides us with his written wisdom to guide us.
The Bible has a great deal to say about what our practical “operating tolerances” ought to be. For example, consider Exodus 22:18-20:
“You shall not allow a sorceress to live. Whoever lies with an animal shall surely be put to death. He who sacrifices to any god, other than to the
LORD alone, shall be utterly destroyed.”
Not much tolerance in that one. In contrast, consider Romans 10:12:
“For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, abounding in riches for all who call upon Him.”
Rather broad and inclusive, isn’t it?
From these two examples of the extremes of Biblical tolerance, we can learn an important lesson. The feel-good liberal point of view tells us to be tolerant of everything, everyone, everywhere, while the legalistic perspective tells us to tolerate nothing that isn’t precisely in keeping with our own image and likeness. In the middle, at the balance point (as always), the Bible teaches us to be tolerant of people, but intolerant of sin.
Separating the sin from the sinner is the biblical model shown to us by Jesus, as he reached out to the woman caught in adultery, or the woman at the well, or to Matthew the tax collector, or to the repentant thief on the adjacent cross. Following Jesus’ example—loving the sinner, but hating the sin—is the first and most important step in reaching out to the lost and dying world that we live in.
Which is, after all, why we’re here in the first place.