In Edward Gibbon’s too-long-to-read “The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire,” he famously contends that Paganism was tolerant and Christianity was intolerant. Although his 18th-century logic has been countered by modern historians, he laid significant blame for the fall of the empire on Christians and the church.
In today’s America tolerance is reckoned by many to be a high virtue; perhaps the highest virtue. And, some would label Christians as modern examples of intolerance. Although it seems that our critics’ claims of tolerance often don’t extend to those who take the Bible seriously and commit to following Jesus Christ. They forget that the definition of tolerance includes putting up with the opinions and behavior of those with whom they don’t necessarily agree.
Our English Bible doesn’t use the word tolerance very often. When it does the most common use is condemnation of those who tolerate evil. The only time the actual word “tolerance” is used refers to God. Romans 2:4 describes “the riches of (God’s) kindness, tolerance and patience” and says that God’s kindness leads to repentance. Although, earlier on the same page of the New Testament everything from certain sexual relations to gossip, slander and boastfulness are listed as behaviors disapproved by God.
We read the Bible in light of modern American controversies. Some verses appear to advise us against any judgment or condemnation of others, and some verses appear to advise us to condemn unbiblical attitudes and behavior. And, there are people who selectively quote verses that support their beliefs and behaviors.
As evangelical Christians, let us hold to biblical convictions and speak to our convictions. “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have” (1 Peter 3:15).
At the same time, let us live out the love of God in respect toward those with whom we may completely disagree. My understanding of the Roman Empire is one of great intolerance of Christians that brought waves of horrific persecution. When the supposedly tolerant were intolerant, St. Paul said to “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse” (Romans 12:14).
One of the most amazing conversations in the Bible is between God and Satan in Job chapter one. I cannot think of greater polar opposites. I cannot think of anyone less worthy of tolerance than Satan. I cannot imagine any belief or behavior of the Devil that is good. Yet, God spoke to him and answered him with astonishing respect. If God can be that polite to Satan then we can also show respect to those whose beliefs and behavior we reject.
This article originally appeared in Evangelicals magazine.