Isn’t It Always Wrong To Be Intolerant?

Tolerance is an important virtue. Given the wide range of human perspectives and imperfections, patient tolerance—humble endurance of other people’s shortcomings—is basic to the foundation of civil society. Scripture emphasizes the importance of tolerance (Proverbs 12:20; Proverbs 15:1; Matthew 5:9; Romans 12:18).

Tolerance is important. But if practiced to excess, it becomes an idol.

It is difficult to think of virtues as idols, but if any particular virtue isn’t considered in the context of God’s overall authority and the interdependence of all virtues on each other, it can easily become one. As an example, consider the virtue of courage. Most great discoveries and accomplishments require courage. Yet many people have suffered and died when foolhardiness or aggression has been mistaken for courage.

Genuine courage is in harmony with the other virtues. The other virtues provide a context that defines genuine courage. Caution, for example, seeks the least dangerous alternative. If an action has no regard for caution, it can’t be considered genuinely courageous. Justice is concerned with whether a potential action is ethical. If a potential action has no regard for justice, it can’t be considered courageous. In fact, it would be an act of aggression, not courage.

If caution were the only virtue, innovation and freedom would disappear. If justice were the only virtue, society would be paralyzed by a legalistic quest for a degree of moral perfection impossible in a fallen world.

In some historical contexts, tolerance has been the most important virtue, defending freedom of expression, action, and thought. But just as foolhardiness and aggression can be mistaken for courage, laziness and fatalism can be mistaken for tolerance.

The apostle Paul gave us a short list of what he considered the greatest virtues in 1 Corinthians 13:13: faith, hope, and love. But even of these three, he declared the greatest to be love (1 Corinthians 1,13).

Lesser virtues like tolerance must be measured by the standards of love. Love is what makes the lesser virtues virtuous. It is their source and their goal. If caution were the most important virtue, there would never be cause for risk. If courage were the most important value, there would never be a reason for surrender. If justice were the most important value, there would never be grounds for mercy; and if tolerance were the only virtue, there would never be any room for truth.

Love sets the criteria for real tolerance. Real tolerance can’t exist apart from judgment and discernment in response to individual and social evil. “Let love be without hypocrisy. Abhor what is evil. Cling to what is good” (Romans 12:9 NKJV).

Under the rule of love, some evils must be confronted.

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