This is the second article of a three-part series in looking at tolerance and Christianity.
Christian truths, values, teachings and practices have often been criticised as intolerant by both non-Christians and people within Christian circles. One common intersection of these themes is the use of polarising social or political issues, such as marriage or abortion.
We live in a diverse society where people come from different backgrounds, beliefs, and life experiences; thus there will inevitably be different opinions and views on the many topics of life. The tolerance of different ideas is a fundamental value that each person must have in order to have a functioning community with common interests and goals.
What is Christian tolerance? Where does it come from and what does it look like?
Foundations of Christian tolerance
The ability to listen and engage with other people with different opinions is an important Christian virtue. It is founded in a few fundamental Biblical truths. The two most relevant ones relating to tolerance are: 1) humanity being made in the image of God and 2) God’s grace and love being for all mankind.
The concept that mankind is made in the image of God (Genesis chapter 1, verses 26-27) emphasises the sanctity of human life and its priority in creation over animals. Some examples of synonyms (though not perfect) to explain this concept are “made in the likeness (physical) of God”; or “have attributes or qualities like God in relation to creation”.
This means that human life is extremely important, if not the most important thing in creation. As a result, it is wrong and sinful to take another person’s life and this is explicitly called out in the Bible as wrong and as sinful, carrying great penalty:
“Whoever sheds the blood of man,
by man shall his blood be shed,
for God made man in his own image.” – Genesis chapter 9, verse 6
Additionally, because God displayed His love, grace and mercy for all mankind by sending Jesus to die on the cross for us, God sets us the example for humanity to live by. It is clearly explained in the book of 1 John chapter 4, verses 7-21 stating: “9 In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him… 11 Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. … 19 We love because he first loved us... 21 And this commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother.”
Along with the idea that Christians are intolerant of sin as explored in the first article, these three concepts combined are the basis for how Christians seek to interact, live and be tolerant of others in today’s society.
When applied correctly, these principles are versatile in allowing for the toleration of different viewpoints and encourage discussion within the church and also in society. They are also sustainably over-tolerant as Christians seek to love, obey and honour God first and foremost - they will aim to not promote sin or commit sinful acts. This will be viewed as intolerant by some.
This degree of intolerance is therefore seemingly foolish, unloving or unjust to non-Christians as there may be clashes of beliefs. This is reasonable and expected (1 Corinthians chapter 1 verses 22-23) in a diverse society. When a society of people with different beliefs and different backgrounds try to work out how to live together (even if it is assumed there are no Christians), there are a few possible scenarios.
In a tolerant society, parties will participate in conversations and debate and use a voting system to communally decide (and gracefully submit) on decisions. In an intolerant society, parties would go to war to systematically silence or exterminate each other.
As Christians value the sanctity of human life, the only option realistically left to them is the non-violent one and therefore, they will choose to engage in public debate and voting where possible. How Christians engage in debate and discussion is aiming to be loving whilst putting God first, thereby speaking truthfully, yet gracefully and not resorting to name calling or bullying.
Our foundation in God’s character
Christians are extremely intolerant on certain issues (what they perceive as sin) and yet extremely tolerant on other issues or at least indifferent about them. Both intolerant and tolerant viewpoints of Christianity come from the character of God. The Bible teaches us that God is a completely just God and must punish sin. On the other hand, the Bible also teaches us God is the definition of love.
Sometimes, Christians aiming to love God with all their heart, soul, mind and strength (the greatest commandment) may come across at odds with the second: loving our neighbours as ourselves; given that we are to put God first in all our lives.
Since Christians hold firmly to the Bible as the infallible and authoritative Word of God, it means both truths of God must be upheld. Ignoring one or the other will result in an incorrect understanding of God. Does God contradict himself in the Bible by trying to be a God of justice and a God of mercy and love? This is something we will explore in the last part of this series.
Brandon Tsang is a Sydney-based writer currently working in IT. He studied Marketing and Economics at UNSW and loves to spend his spare time hiking, playing volleyball or watching Netflix.
Brandon Tsang’s previous articles may be viewed at