The original definition of tolerance and the way in which the word is used now are quite different. Originally, tolerance meant to acknowledge that others have differing beliefs and accept that it is their right to do so. In this way, Christians are to absolutely be tolerant. Recently, tolerance has come to mean accepting that those other beliefs are true—something Christians absolutely cannot do.
The Bible is specific that we should expect others to have different beliefs about God. Galatians 4:8 says that those who don’t know the true God are slaves to what are not gods. Romans 1:18-25 explains that although God has given evidence of His nature in creation, many will refuse to believe what their eyes tell them. And Luke 10:21-22 says that on occasion, it is to God’s purpose that people do not see Him; God often closes the eyes of those who in pride rely on their wits to find Him instead of in humility seek Him with their hearts.
Christians are to tolerate others when they have different beliefs about God. But are we to expect tolerance in return? Luke 6:22 says we are blessed when others reject us because we follow Christ. John 15:18 says that when the world hates us, we need to remember they do so because they hated Christ first. It is foolish to expect tolerance from others toward our Christian beliefs, even if they demand tolerance for their own. God has told us clearly: we will not get it.
But God has also told Christians what our response should be when we are faced with intolerance. Matthew 5:43-48 says we are to love our enemies and pray for them. Romans 12:20 says we are to provide for them. We do not play by the world’s rules. We do not respond to intolerance with fear and hate. Instead, we express the love of Christ in us.
Unfortunately, the world no longer defines “tolerance” as acknowledgement that others have a differing belief. It has come to mean full acceptance of those beliefs. Of course this definition makes no logical sense because to embrace this type of tolerance precludes any personal opinion or belief. Christians are not to endorse religious beliefs that run counter to what the Bible teaches.
The problem with tolerance as it is now meant is that it rejects the possibility that objective truth exists. The Bible teaches that truth does exist, that God is truth, and that we are to follow in His truth. John 1:14 and 17 says that Jesus, who came from the Father, gives us truth. John 8:32 and Romans 6:16-23 says that the truth sets us free from the control of sin.
The Bible is also clear regarding those who hide or distort the truth in the name of tolerance. Romans 1:18 says whoever suppresses the truth will receive the wrath of God. In Matthew 28:19-20, Jesus says that our mission is to teach others of the truth about Him. First Corinthians 13:6 (NIV) says, “Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.” John 14:6 says that Jesus is the truth. While Christians can acknowledge the right of others to have different beliefs, we cannot allow those beliefs to go unchallenged for one simple reason: it is not loving, and Jesus calls us to love (Luke 10:25-37).
It’s inevitable that the world will call believers intolerant, but we can mitigate the damage by being intolerant in the way God tells us to. First, we must know what we believe (1 Peter 3:15). Second, we need to know how to teach what we believe. Second Timothy 2:23-26 says:
Have nothing to do with foolish, ignorant controversies; you know that they breed quarrels. And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth, and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will.
In the heat of the moment, faced with personal attack and rejection, it’s easy to forget the reason we speak truth. It is not so that we’ll be proved right and vindicated, but in the hope that the truth will set another free.
Should a Christian be tolerant of others’ religious beliefs? Yes, in the classical sense. The Bible teaches that many will reject God. We should be prepared to accept that, as well as the fact that those who reject God will reject His followers. Christians should not be tolerant in the modern sense. We should not endorse the belief that all religions lead to God, that truth is a personal construct, or that everyone’s beliefs are valid. Jesus is the truth. Christians are called to tolerate – and even to love – people without accepting their false beliefs.