Myths about Tolerance and Acceptance

One keeps hearing the claim that followers of Jesus should practice tolerance and acceptance, that this is the way that love is expressed, and that this is the way Jesus lived, that he accepted sinners and tax collectors. Specifically, the argument is that this tolerance and acceptance should be practiced within the Christian community, that all are accepted whatever their lifestyle or behavior. That sounded so reasonable, so “in tune with the times,” that it was necessary to check it out.

Tolerance

First, searching an English text (RSV) one quickly finds that “tolerance” does not appear and that there are only two uses of “tolerate,” both with the basic meaning of “allow,” “permit to exist,” and “leave alone” (or “forgive,’ but that meaning does not fit well in context). In Esther 3:8 Haman suggests to the king that he should not “tolerate” the Judeans; his solution is genocide. In the one Christian usage, Rev 2:20, the church in Thyatira is rebuked because they “tolerate” (i.e. “permit” or “leave alone”) a particular woman leader who is teaching immorality (i.e. non-marital sexual expression, which in that area could be either heterosexual or homosexual) and participation in the eating of food offered to idols (which could have a range of meanings, as in 1 Cor 8 – 10). In other words, the tolerance of the church was rebuked and divine punishment was threatened.
Looking at “acceptance” one discovers that its main use is whether a person or offering is acceptable to or accepted by God. Its second most common use is the acceptance of a word, teaching or testimony. In Hos 12:4 one is to accept that which is good and reject that which is evil. In Sir 2:4, 18:4, 32:14 and the like one is to accept God’s discipline. Tobit 13:6 and Rom 11:15 speak of the repentant being accepted by God, Tobit referring to their possible acceptance and Romans to the acceptance by God of repentant Jews who previously rejected Jesus, re-including them in his people. 
 
In other words, there common use of these terms as if they were spoken of in the Christian Scriptures seems to be a myth. In fact, there are numerous examples of people not being tolerated within the community so long as they are not repentant. Matt 18:15ff is attributed to Jesus, with the unrepentant being considered like outcasts. 1 Cor 5 has Paul commanding the church to expel a man who has apparently married his stepmother, probably after the death of his father. In the text chapter Paul lists a series of people whose behavior indicates that they “will not inherit the kingdom of God.” It is true that 6:11 says, “such were some of you,” indicating that this is not some type of final reprobation, but it is clear that the “were” is a past tense. They have ceased that behavior and are now “sanctified.” 
 
But did not Jesus accept such people? He is accused of “eating” with “tax collectors and sinners,” but note that it is the Pharisees who accuse him. And also note that Jesus is presented in continuity with John the Baptist as part of a repentance and ritual cleansing movement. When Jesus preaches in Mark 1:15, after announcing the kingdom of God, he calls people to repent, just as John the Baptist did. But – and here is the nub of his conflict with the Pharisees – he then accepts these repentant ones but does not require the ritual cleansing associated with the temple. (In the Synoptic Gospels there is clear continuity between Jesus and John, but no explicit reference to Jesus or his apprentices baptizing the repentant, as John did; in John’s gospel there are explicit references to Jesus’ group practicing baptism.) In other words, mere turning from sin and allegiance to Jesus (believing) was enough for Jesus to view these people as sanctified. In short, Jesus himself is replacing the temple, as N. T. Wright argues at length in Jesus and the Victory of God. This is not an acceptance by Jesus “just as you are,” but an acceptance on the basis of their repentance and commitment. He did not demand the temple rituals that the Pharisees in particular required for acceptance back into the believing community. Yet he did require repentance: Zacchaeus is told that “Today salvation has come into this house” after he clearly indicates that he has repented and plans to put his repentance into action (Luke 19:8-10) and the woman caught in adultery is not just told “neither do I condemn you [to death]” but  also “go and sin no more” (John 8:11).
 
Notice, however, that these examples are all within the Jesus-following community (or the Jewish community in the case of Jesus). In 1 Cor 5:9-13 Paul makes it clear that one should not try to impose Christian standards on those who do not claim to follow Jesus. There is hardly a word of Jesus spoken to Herod or Pilate or Romans or Gentiles about their evils. This does not mean, according to Paul, that they are fine, nor that one should not, when possible, call them to repentance and into the community of Jesus-followers, but it does mean that they are in God’s hands, God’s responsibility, and it is not the job description of those within the Christian community to try to set them right. They are, so to speak, “above [the Christian’s] pay grade.” Ironically, one sees the contemporary Christian community more ready to set “outsiders” right and correct the ills of society than to see to the sanctification of their own community. [There is also a secondary problem: the church has become the locus of evangelism with the boundaries between followers of Jesus and not-followers-of-Jesus blurred to the point of non-existence. This is a strange aberration of the last 150 to 200 years of church history. But it deserves more treatment than can be given here.] One notes that the graphic above is precisely where tolerance, and more than tolerance, dialogue, is possible, for other religions know that they are “outside” not “inside” and in turn view the follower of Jesus as outside the boundaries of their group, however much they may embrace warm relationships.
One could multiply examples of this reception of the repentant but rejection of their behaviors throughout the New Testament. And this is precisely love. In much of present society love is defined as warm feelings towards others, warm feelings that does not include criticizing or rejecting their behavior. It is an “I’m OK you’re OK” type of love. It is the limbic-system love that Edwin Friedman criticizes in both society and the individual (in society, see Failure of Nerve). But in the biblical tradition love is closer to Thomas Aquinas’ definition, “Seeking the good of the other as other,” i.e. seeking the good of the other for their own good, not for the benefit it might bring to oneself. In that case it would be unloving to tolerate evil behavior in another, for it is not good for them. It could end up with their not inheriting the kingdom of God. If one tolerates the alcoholic’s alcoholism, one becomes something of an enabler. That is not love. Love calls for strategic confrontation. It may be and probably should be gentle confrontation (gentleness is a Christian virtue, although the prophets were not always gentle). It may be a patient confrontation as one waits for the evidence to built up and the person to “hit bottom.” But the behavior must be confronted if one loves the person. The surgeon who tolerates a cancer because an operation would be painful is hardly showing love. So it is with all other sins, despite the fact that all human beings were “born this way” (at least in the Western tradition of Christianity, classically expounded by Augustine of Hippo).
Furthermore, in Revelation, Jude, and 2 Peter, among other places, one sees a concern that one must deal with evil for the good of the group. If one loves those in the group, there are times when those practicing and advocating behaviors dangerous to their moral and spiritual (and sometimes physical) health need to be exposed and even expelled. One does not know why those who were “not of us” made the decision so that they “went out from us” in 1 John 2:19, but one suspects that the teaching of “the elder” had something to do with triggering the separation.
One could go on, but this is a blog post, not a book.
In summary, tolerance of evil behaviors is not a Christian virtue. It is not loving. Confrontation and, if the person remains unrepentant, expulsion is very much part of the whole Christian tradition, starting with Jesus. This is love, if one sees the behavior as dangerous to the person. It is also very much part of the Christian tradition that this should be done in gentleness rather than harshness, that it should be done in humility (I also am a sinner, and this may help me look more deeply inside so I discover deeper levels of my sin), and it should normally be done in the context of community (the exception being when community itself has become corrupt enough that a prophetic voice is a lone voice). One sees this down through the monastic tradition in the Rule of St. Benedict, in St. Francis, and in Teresa of Ávila (remember that she was a reformer). Pope Francis may speak out strongly on societal evils of many types, but he also goes to confession weekly: the stronger the confrontation, the more one must oneself be the humble penitent. But one should not mix up gentleness and humility with tolerance, much less love, for tolerance of evil in a person or social structure is not loving the other; it is seeking one’s own comfort instead of the good of the other.
This journey was triggered by a genuine question about what the Scriptures say about tolerance and acceptance, especially within the community of followers of Jesus. It concludes, “If I love you, I will not tolerate or accept your sin, but because I love you I will call you repentance, even if that means pain and rejection for me.”
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About Peter H. Davids

I am Director of Clergy Formation for the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of St Peter, a professor at Houston Graduate School of Theology, and a Catholic priest (and former Episcopal priest for 34 years). I am also a husband, father, and grandfather.
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