Tolerance - the Highest Good?

Posted by Mike Marx on

The American Heritage Dictionary defines tolerance as "The capacity for or practice of recognizing and respecting the opinions, practices, or behavior of others."

Many in our society have uncritically accepted the supposition that unconditional tolerance is the highest good and social actions must be judged by tolerance.  If tolerance is the highest good, then all else must be judged by it and nothing can be determined without first subjecting it to the "tolerance test". 

However, if tolerance is the highest good, truth, divine revelation and laws all become secondary.  There can be no distinction between right or wrong, no criminal acts and therefore no system of justice, for these all fail the "tolerance test".  God's revealed word and God himself become secondary and therefore relative if tolerance is the highest good.  Sin and the consequences of sin become something only intolerant people consider, for tolerance negates sin and its consequences.  Tolerance also does not allow for discipline and the teaching of right and wrong to children.  Tolerance as the highest good demands that each individual decides all things for himself or herself and that all others, including God, totally accept the individual's decisions and choices.

 I believe there are other values which are higher than tolerance.  The first is the will of God, who is revealed to humanity as the Father, his Son, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit.  The inspired word of God, the Holy Scripture, provides the authoritative teachings of God to humanity.  Second is the principle of truth, personified by Jesus Christ, who declared himself to be the truth.  Third is divinely given love, which also is personified by God.  Practiced within the context of and subordinate to these higher values, tolerance is indeed good.

 The practice of tolerance within this context is exemplified by the response of Jesus to the woman caught in the act of adultery.  Others had judged her sinful act and were ready to stone her to death.  Jesus responded to the crowd that the one without sin should cast the first stone.  They all dropped their stones and went away.  Jesus then addressed the woman with the question, "Has no one condemned you?"  "No one, sir," she said.  "Then neither do I condemn you," Jesus declared.  If the story stopped there, tolerance might be considered the highest good in this story.  However, Jesus went on to say to the woman, "Go now and leave your life of sin." 

 The response of Jesus was affirmation of (tolerance of) the woman, but non-affirmation of (intolerance of) adultery.  Jesus called her practice of adultery "your life of sin" and told the woman to leave that way of life. 

Jesus, to use the dictionary definition, did not respect the practices or behavior of the woman, even though Jesus did respect and affirm the woman herself.

 One of the arguments for affirmation of homosexuality and same sex marriage is unconditional tolerance.  How might this biblical story be applied to the question of what constitutes a Christian response to the practice of homosexuality?  Can we be loving and accepting of all people and yet not be accepting of all their actions?  How might Jesus respond today to the increasingly normative societal expectation that churches provide marriage ceremonies for same sex couples?  These are questions for all of us to consider.


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