Should Tolerance Be Tolerated in the Church?

“Some Christians don’t seem to want anything to do with anything that has the word ‘tolerance’ in it.”

Two things you never want to do. Never scream “Fire!” in a crowded theater, and never whisper the word “tolerance” in church, unless you want to be tied to a stake and burned. Okay, I’m being facetious and a little unfair, but some Christians don’t seem to want anything to do with anything that has the word tolerance in it.

We Christians love God and want to stand up for—and stand on—his Word, so we refuse to ignore, compromise on or water down any of the clear teachings of Scripture about sinful lifestyles, wrong beliefs, sexually deviant behavior, socialism, secular humanism, Muzak and domesticated cats. And this is good because none of these things should be tolerated, but in this chapter I’m not encouraging anyone to be tolerant of sinful lifestyles, beliefs or things; I’m talking about being tolerant of sinful people.

Tolerance is allowing someone, or something, to be.

Intolerant of Sin

Continued unrepentant sin should never be tolerated in the person of any Christian. As Paul wrote to the Christians in Rome, “What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We are those who have died to sin; how can we live in it any longer?” (Romans 6:1-2).

Despite what my five-year-old daughter Payton thought, we are all sinners (Romans 3:23). In home school a few years ago, my wife was sitting on the couch with our two young boys, teaching a lesson about sin. My youngest son, Sylas, asked, “Mommy, what is sin?” so Rhonda explained to him that sin is when we disobey God. She then went on to explain to the boys that we are all sinners. Payton was in the kitchen getting a drink of water—and not a part of the lesson—but when she heard this, she announced with a look of horror on her face, “I’m not a sinner!”

Rhonda replied, “Well, sweetie, you actually are—we all are.”

“But I’m not a sinner!” Payton exclaimed again.

Always the wise teacher, Rhonda said, “Well, sweetie, you’re actually sinning a little bit right now.”

Continued unrepentant sin should never be tolerated in the body of Christ. Sin in the church is like a cancer that, if left untreated, leads to death. We are supposed to eat with non-Christian sinners but not with unrepentant Christian ones. The apostle Paul wrote to Christians who were tolerating an incestuous relationship within their congregation: “I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people—not at all meaning the people of this world who are immoral, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters. In that case you would have to leave this world. But now I am writing to you that you must not associate with anyone who claims to be a brother or sister but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or slanderer, a drunkard or swindler. Do not even eat with such people” (1 Corinthians 5:9-11).

Sinners should always be allowed in our presence. It’s their only hope. It’s our only hope for reaching them.

But we are commanded not to eat with another Christian who is tolerating sexual immorality, greed, idolatry, slander, drunkenness or swindling in his or her life.

Tolerant of Sinners

Sinners should always be tolerated.

Jesus made this point when he allowed a sinful woman to be in his presence—allowed her to wipe his feet with her hair, kiss his feet and pour perfume on his feet while he ate at Simon the Pharisee’s house (Luke 7:36-50).

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This confused Simon. He didn’t understand why a man of Jesus’ stature would tolerate this woman. Luke doesn’t tell us the nature of her sin, but from Luke’s comment that she was “a woman in that town who lived a sinful life” (Luke 7:37), we infer that she most likely was a prostitute. Simon was befuddled. If Jesus really was a prophet of God—as the people claimed—why would he allow a woman like this to be in his presence?

Why would Jesus allow himself to be contaminated by the proceeds of that woman’s evil work? Wasn’t he condoning her lifestyle by receiving her attention and allowing her to anoint his feet with the spoils of her evil trade?

Of course not!

He wasn’t condoning her actions. He was just loving her.

Jesus was more tolerant of lost people than we will ever be, because he loved lost people more than we ever will. Tolerance is viewed by many in the church as watering down the message of Jesus, but when we look at how Jesus interacted with sinners who were in need of salvation, we learn that tolerance toward sinners was key to how he reached out to them. He chose to be with sinners because he wanted them to have hope. He allowed this prostitute to be in his presence at this dinner because he wanted her to be with him at the banquet he will host in eternity.

It’s all about the choices we make, and sometimes we make bad choices. Sin is about choice. We choose to sin.

Faith is also about choice. We choose to believe.

This woman had made some bad choices in the past, but those choices hadn’t made her intolerable, just sinful, so Jesus chose to have faith in the power of love lived out in her presence.

Tolerance is really an act of faith.

When it comes to sharing our faith in Jesus, allowing someone to be in our presence is a statement of our faith that coexistence between Christians and non-Christians will result in positive changes.

We Must Have Faith in People

We must believe that people can change.

Unlike many of the people in Contessa’s world, my friend Keith didn’t write Contessa off as a lost cause, because he believed she could change.

When he first met Contessa, she was almost completely incapable of expressing herself verbally, so she wrote notes to him and slid the notes across the table. She had been hurt deeply by life and some really bad people. She was wounded and needed someone to believe that she could be rescued from the darkness enveloping her life.

Keith believes in God, so he believed that—with God’s help and through the power of the Holy Spirit—Contessa could be changed.

He and many other Christians ate with Contessa at a common meal every Saturday before the Celebrate Recovery meeting. Keith and the other Christians involved in Celebrate Recovery refused to be shocked by anything Contessa shared with them, and they refused to stop believing in her. The people she encountered at church—including me—just loved her, encouraged her, and tolerated her while constantly speaking hope and truth into her life. I had the blessing of leading a ministry in which Contessa was involved, and I got to know her very well. And after more than a year, because of the love of a bunch of good people who believed that she could change, Contessa gave her life to Jesus Christ.

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Contessa, a girl who once struggled to verbalize even the simplest thought with a stranger, now shares her testimony with Celebrate Recovery groups around her hometown. She’s an amazing person who was changed by God and the faith of some wonderful Christians. Praise God!

Simon the Pharisee had no faith in the woman who knelt at Jesus’ feet. He didn’t believe she could ever change, even though the evidence of her transformation was dripping from Jesus’ feet onto the floor, running down her face, moistening her hair, and filling his home with its sweet fragrance. He wondered why Jesus couldn’t see “what kind of woman she [was]” (Luke 7:39), because that was all he could see. She was not sin, but only Jesus could see that.

By the way, let me pause here and point out something that can hinder our efforts to share our faith with non-Christians. Please remember that, through Jesus, you and I are not our worst sin.

Do you know that?

When you look in the mirror, what do you see? Do you have a hard time seeing past the bad choice you made on prom night your junior year of high school? Do you have a hard time seeing past the three guys you slept with in college? Do you have a hard time seeing past the deceptive and manipulative games you played to get that promotion last year?

We are all sinners who sin. We are not sin. There’s a difference. Sinners are to be loved; sin is not. We sometimes, despite what we say, seem to have a hard time separating the sin from the sinner. Who do we think we are, showing no grace to those who need it most?

Who died and made us sinners? God? No one!

Who died to make us sinners godly? God’s Son did.

God loves sinners. That’s the point of John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son.” And Paul wrote in Romans 5:8, “God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”

God’s love, demonstrated, looks like Jesus dying on a cross for sinners, while they’re still sinners.

God doesn’t hate sinners; he loves them. He loves you. He loves me.

He loves drug dealers, child abusers, tax cheats, cross-dressers, women chasers, men chasers, liars, drunkards, swindlers, dirty politicians, movie stars who bash Christianity, telemarketers, and prostitutes with alabaster jars of perfume. He tolerates them—he allows them to be—because he has faith that everyone can change if given the chance.

Taken from Eats With Sinners by Arron Chambers. Copyright © 2017. Used by permission of NavPress. All rights reserved. Represented by Tyndale House Publishers, Inc.

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Arron Chambers is the lead minister of Journey Christian Church in Greeley, Colorado. He is a contributing editor for Christian Standard, a coach and an inspirational speaker to thousands of people each year.