How to be a (Truly) Tolerant Christian


A recent "Dear Abby" column featured a letter from a woman who was appalled that her husband’s parents had rejected their daughter Mia’s lesbian lifestyle and treated her and those who embraced her lesbianism as "sinners." They advised family members to stand up to Mia and not let her "manipulate" them. Dear Abby’s advice included the following statement: "Frankly, your sister-in-law must be extremely resilient to have tolerated the abuse she’s getting from these ‘good’ people . . . It seems this self-righteous family’s ‘moral values’ do not include tolerance."

So according to Dear Abby, the lesbian is tolerant and the parents with moral values are abusive, self-righteous, and intolerant.

Dear Abby’s attitude mirrors that of many people who identify themselves as Christians today.

No Discrimination Allowed

An Internet search for "Christian tolerance" turns up such Web sites as the Gay Christian Network and the Christian Tolerance Church, which touts, "We believe that God loves all of his people in all of our diversity, a diversity which God himself created." Of course God loves everyone, but if "diversity" includes immoral lifestyles, then God certainly did not create all diversity—he allows it but he didn’t create it.

The Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance, "a multi-faith group" state, "We do believe . . . In working towards a culture that is relatively free of discrimination on the basis of gender, race, sexual orientation, gender identity, religion, national origin, physical disability, age, etc." The problem is, sexual orientation and gender identity refer not simply to the conditions themselves but also to the alternative lifestyle which often accompanies it. The Web site exhorts, "People in the U.S. and Canada are going to need religious understanding and tolerance in the future."

So it seems that entire organizations exist for the purpose of promoting Christian tolerance in the world—specifically tolerance of the gay and lesbian lifestyle. This might sound like a good thing, but it seems that a permissive attitude toward the gay and lesbian lifestyle is often the specific agenda of such organizations. And this attitude is spreading. In fact, at Catholic Answers, we often hear from Catholics who are dealing with their Christian friends’ various interpretations of tolerance.

A woman recently questioned whether she had done the right thing by not attending her lesbian daughter’s "wedding" ceremony. Her daughter and a few other family members accused her of being intolerant and even hateful for choosing to not attend. I’ve heard many such stories and they often allege intolerance on the part of the faithful Catholic.

Reject the Sin, Not the Person

To prove their point, such "tolerant" Christians often cite the following Gospel story in which Jesus prevents the stoning of an adulteress:

The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery, and placing her in the midst they said to him, "Teacher, this woman has been caught in the act of adultery. Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such. What do you say about her?" This they said to test him, that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. And as they continued to ask him, he stood up and said to them, "Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her." And once more he bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. But when they heard it, they went away, one by one, beginning with the eldest, and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. Jesus looked up and said to her, "Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?’ She said, ‘No one, Lord." And Jesus said, "Neither do I condemn you; go, and do not sin again." (John 8:3-11)

This story is said to represent Jesus’ unconditional love for us that we should also have for each other. Indeed it does, but what exactly does that mean?

Some Christians would answer that, since we are all sinners, no matter what a loved one does we should embrace his every action with acceptance and joy. Anything less than that—for example, the rejection of an immoral "alternative" lifestyle choice—is viewed as a rejection of the whole person. Such rejection is then described as "intolerance" and "hate." But is this really a scriptural view of Christian tolerance?

It’s clear that Jesus rejected the scribes’ and Pharisees’ condemnation of the adulteress. He said as much after they left: "Has no one condemned you? . . . Neither do I condemn you." But this doesn’t mean that he embraced the woman’s sinful behavior or expected her accusers to do so! In fact, he admonished the adulteress, "do not sin again." Jesus does not condemn the sinner—there is still hope for her salvation—but he does reject the sinful behavior which could put her salvation in jeopardy.

This is precisely the teaching that the Catechism of the Catholic Church (2357–2358) expounds concerning the treatment of those who suffer from homosexuality.

Do not condemn the person: "[M]en and women who have deep-seated homosexual tendencies . . . must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided." But do reject the sinful behavior: "Under no circumstances can [homosexual acts] be approved."

So Catholic teaching is consistent with the Gospel passage above and certainly does not support a definition of tolerance that condones or embraces immoral behavior. But what do other biblical passages say about tolerance?

A "Tolerable" Severity

Most English translations of the New Testament today do not include the word "tolerance" at all. The closest many come is a few instances of the word "tolerable."

These twelve [the apostles] Jesus sent out . . . to the lost sheep of the house of Israel . . . "And if any one will not receive you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town. Truly, I say to you, it shall be more tolerable on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah than for that town." (Matt. 10:5-15; see also Luke 10:1-12)

Also:

Then he [Jesus] began to upbraid the cities where most of his mighty works had been done, because they did not repent . . . "But I tell you, it shall be more tolerable on the day of judgment for Tyre and Sidon than for you. And you, Capernaum, will you be exalted to heaven? You shall be brought down to Hades. For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day. But I tell you that it shall be more tolerable on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom than for you." (Matt. 11:20-24; see also Luke 10:13-14)

In these passages, those who heard Jesus speak expected that the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah (destroyed for their immorality—see Gen. 19) and Tyre and Sidon (predominantly pagan cities) would be dealt with severely on Judgment Day, but Jesus here indicates that these cities’ severe treatment would be "more tolerable" than the treatment of some others. Even so, such severe treatment would hardly be something one would joyfully embrace or rejoice in. One might rejoice in the fact that the treatment would not be as severe as it could have been, but the treatment itself would surely be nothing to embrace. It would be endured or borne.

The Greek word translated as "tolerable" in these passages is anektoteron, and it does not appear anywhere else in the New Testament. In fact, a search of the Revised Standard Version, a relatively literal translation, contains only one other instance of any form of the word tolerance at all: "But I have this against you, that you tolerate the woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess and is teaching and beguiling my servants to practice immorality and to eat food sacrificed to idols" (Rev. 2:20).

Here, Christ actually rejects tolerance—he rebukes the church in Thyatira for its tolerance of Jezebel who, among other things, was influencing Christians to practice immorality. A modern-day attitude which condones, embraces, or rejoices in the gay or lesbian lifestyle should be rejected on this very basis.

That’s it as far as the use of the word "tolerance" goes in the New Testament. Frankly, given that there is so little New Testament use of the word in any of its forms, one could argue with many Christians (e.g., sola scriptura adherents) that the word "tolerance" hardly belongs in the Christian vocabulary at all, at least not where immorality is concerned.

How Should We Act?

So how do we respond to allegations of intolerance by the gay community and those who support it? We must go beyond word searching and look for examples of how Christians ought to behave when faced with the immoral behavior of others.

According to Scripture, Christian tolerance of undesirable behavior seems to extend only to the point of putting up with it, enduring it, or bearing it for a greater good. It never crosses the line into condoning immorality. For example, when dealing with obstinate disbelief Jesus said, "O faithless generation, how long am I to be with you? How long am I to bear with you?" (Mark 9:19).

Paul wrote to the Ephesians, "I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all lowliness and meekness, with patience, forbearing one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace" (Eph. 4:1-3, emphasis added). It seems that Paul encouraged Christians to bear with one another for the sake of peaceful unity.

Similarly, to the Colossians, "Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassion, kindness, lowliness, meekness, and patience, forbearing one another . . . " (Col. 3:12-13). And to the Corinthians, "When reviled, we bless; when persecuted, we endure" (1 Cor. 4:12).

These passages seem to indicate that there are times when we must put up with the undesirable actions of others—bear them, endure them—without condemning anyone because condemnation belongs only to God. But this does not mean that we are not to judge and condemn sinful behavior itself, and there is even a point at which we must distance ourselves from others to protect ourselves and our loved ones from them.

This seems evident in the passage from the book of Revelation cited above, as well as in the following teaching of Jesus:

If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. (Matt. 18:15-17)

Paul concurs: "Now we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep away from any brother who is living in idleness and not in accord with the tradition that you received from us" (2 Thess. 3:6).

Reconciliation Is the Goal

Ultimately, rejecting a person’s sinful behavior without condemning him can help to lead that person to repentance and salvation. Paul indicates this in God’s own example: "[D]o you presume upon the riches of his [God’s] kindness and forbearance and patience? Do you not know that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?" (Rom. 2:4). That’s the goal: a loved one’s reconciliation with God which will get him back on the path to salvation.

Tragically, it doesn’t always work out that way, and a Christian may find that he is rejected with hostility for his own rejection of another’s sinful lifestyle. This is all too common today when dealing with those firmly embedded in the gay community.

But, in such situations, it can be comforting to know that Jesus recognized division—even among family members—would sometimes be a reality for those who remain faithful to him:

Do not think that I have come to bring peace on earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and a man’s foes will be those of his own household. He who loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and he who loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and he who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. (Matt. 10:34-38)

However difficult this might become, we can rest assured that God will ultimately take care of us. In Paul’s words, "what persecutions I endured; yet from them all the Lord rescued me" (2 Tim. 3:11).

As for Dear Abby, she’ll just have to tolerate our "intolerance."


Jim Blackburn is a cradle Catholic who was born and raised in Illinois. After graduating from Southern Illinois University, Jim ran his own brokerage firm for twelve years. During that time, he studied Catholicism and other faiths, eventually becoming an apologist for Catholic Answers. In...

This article appeared in Volume 19 Number 8.