Tolerance Is the Noblest Virtue

Lying is not only sinful, it’s also self-perpetuating. Deception always begets more deception because the only way to sustain a falsehood is with more and more lies.

That’s certainly the case with the popular lies we’ve been considering in this series. The postmodern lie that truth is relative is often defended and reinforced by another lie that we’ll consider today—that tolerance is the noblest virtue. If truth is so fluid and fluctuating, the highest virtue for the postmodern man is to be able to accommodate and accept whatever “truth” he encounters, in whatever form it takes.

And as John MacArthur points out, tolerance is a “virtue” that seems to be usurping and dispensing with all others.

In this postmodern era, one virtue is esteemed above all others: tolerance. As a matter of fact, tolerance may soon be the only virtue secular society will embrace. Many traditional virtues (including humility, self-control, and chastity) have already fallen out of public favor and in some quarters are openly scorned or even regarded as transgressions.

Instead, with the beatification of tolerance, what was once forbidden is now encouraged. What was once universally deemed immoral is now celebrated. Marital infidelity and divorce have been normalized. Profanity is commonplace. Abortion, homosexuality, and moral perversions of all kinds are championed by large advocacy groups and tacitly encouraged by the popular media. The modern notion of “tolerance” is systematically turning morality on its head. [1]

Tolerance has become the new litmus test of common decency in secular society. Your job security, popularity, and public standing all hang in the balance. Anything less than a full-fledged endorsement and validation of every worldview, lifestyle, and personal preference is enough to label you as intolerant and cast you out to the fringes of society. In a world where wrongheaded notions of “tolerance” define morality, intolerance is fast becoming the new leprosy.

It’s important to note in the above quote that John referred to the “modern notion of tolerance” (emphasis added). That’s because tolerance has been redefined in the postmodern era as unreserved approval. Yet this modern understanding represents a stark deviation from how tolerance has been historically understood.

The Oxford Dictionary defines tolerance as “the ability or willingness to tolerate the existence of opinions or behavior that one dislikes or disagrees with.” In other words, all true tolerance requires disagreement. Contrast that with the modern ideal of tolerance that won’t allow for disagreement or contrasting opinions. In that sense, tolerance is really just enforced unanimity. Far from the enlightened virtue it’s portrayed as, postmodern tolerance is nothing more than ideological fascism.

When Faithfulness Demands Disagreement

Scripture has very little to say on the subject of tolerance. Perhaps the closest we get to any biblical counsel is Romans 12:18: “If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men.” God doesn’t want His people to be known as lovers of strife and contention. Our desire should be to live peaceably in this fallen world, which sometimes requires a willingness to tolerate things we find disagreeable.

Yet we should not ignore the first two words of Romans 12:18: “if possible.” God’s Word clearly concedes that there is a threshold when tolerance is no longer an option. There is a biblical tipping point when it is no longer possible to “go along to get along.”

In those instances when believers are forced to break with societal norms and separate from the world’s worldviews, it’s never a question of personal preferences, but of upholding God’s holiness and protecting the purity of His church. Righteousness is not negotiable. And as the world’s perspectives and preferences continue to veer further and further away from biblical morality, God’s people must be prepared to be declared intolerant for their adherence to His righteous standard.

Scripture gives us several examples of people who broke with society to remain faithful to God’s law.

The Bible is clear that we are called to comply with the civil laws we live under (Romans 13:1–7)—even during the reign of wicked rulers. But when those laws come into conflict with God’s commandments, a line in the sand is drawn. We see a clear example of that in Daniel 3 when Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego refused to bow and worship Nebuchadnezzar’s idol—even under threat of being cast into a furnace:

If it be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the furnace of blazing fire; and He will deliver us out of your hand, O king. But even if He does not, let it be known to you, O king, that we are not going to serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up. (Daniel 3:17–18)

Holding to God’s righteous standard was more important than protecting their lives. They understood the wickedness of idolatry and faithfully submitted to God’s command to worship Him exclusively (Exodus 20:3-6; cf. Matthew 4:10), regardless of what it cost them.

We see a similar example in Acts 4. The Jewish rulers tried to intimidate the disciples and curtail their teaching “in the name of Jesus” (Acts 4:18). But Peter and John openly defied those restrictions: “Whether it is right in the sight of God to give heed to you rather than to God, you be the judge; for we cannot stop speaking about what we have seen and heard” (Acts 4:19–20).

On another occasion, God actually turned away His wrath and made a covenant of peace because of one man’s faithfulness to uphold His righteous standard. When Phinehas the priest executed some unrepentant idolaters, God honored him for his intolerance of pagan cultural influences:

Then the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Phinehas the son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron the priest, has turned away My wrath from the sons of Israel in that he was jealous with My jealousy among them, so that I did not destroy the sons of Israel in My jealousy. Therefore say, ‘Behold, I give him My covenant of peace; and it shall be for him and his descendants after him, a covenant of a perpetual priesthood, because he was jealous for his God.’” (Numbers 25:10–13)

It’s also worth noting that when Christ wrote to the seven churches in Revelation 2–3, He publicly rebuked two of them for their tolerance of sin. The believers in Pergamum were warned to stop tolerating heresy (Revelation 2:14–15). The Lord similarly warned the church in Thyatira about their tolerance for a false teacher (Revelation 2:20). In both cases, the churches had invited worldliness and corruption into their midst through their tolerance of false teaching.

Conversely, the Lord expressed His divine pleasure to the church in Ephesus because they were intolerant of heretics (Revelation 2:2) and their heresies (Revelation 2:6). The Ephesian Christians correctly understood that righteousness before God was vastly more important than their standing in the community. They were willing to be seen as intolerant for the sake of the purity of the gospel and their church.

Righteousness Is the Greatest Virtue

Scripture tells us that God loves righteousness and hates wickedness (Psalm 45:7). God calls us to live by His righteous standards (1 Peter 1:13–16) and blesses those who do so (Psalm 5:12). Righteousness is what distinguishes true Christians from imposters and pretenders (1 John 3:4–10). Believers are commanded to “pursue righteousness” (2 Timothy 2:22), “hunger and thirst for righteousness” (Matthew 5:6), and ultimately rest in the imputation of Christ’s perfect righteousness (2 Corinthians 5:21).

A true love of righteousness cannot produce indifference to wickedness. As John MacArthur argues, we cannot tolerate and accommodate what God hates.   

Where are the men and women today with the courage to stand alone? The church in our age has abandoned the confrontive stance. Instead of overturning worldly wisdom with revealed truth, many Christians today are obsessed with finding areas of agreement. The goal has become integration rather than confrontation. As the church absorbs the values of secular culture, it is losing its ability to differentiate between good and evil. What will happen to the church if everyone proceeds down the slippery path of public opinion?

It is interesting to speculate what the church would be like today if Martin Luther had been prone to compromise. The pressure was heavy on him to tone down his teaching, soften his message, and stop poking his finger in the eye of the papacy. Even many of his friends and supporters urged Luther to come to terms with Rome for the sake of harmony in the church. Luther himself prayed earnestly that the effect of his teaching would not just be divisive—but that the truth would triumph. When he nailed his Ninety-five Theses to the church door, the last thing he wanted to do was split the church.

Yet sometimes division is fitting, even healthy. Especially in times like Luther’s—and like ours—when the visible church seems full of counterfeit Christians, it is right for the true people of God to declare themselves. There is no room for compromise. [2]

When we embrace righteousness as the greatest virtue, we will know when tolerance is appropriate and when separation is necessary. This sinful world will continue to place its demands upon us, but the Christian walk is a call to conformity to an infinitely higher standard. God’s Word will always be the measure of true virtue. 

Used with permission from John MacArthur.

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