It’s very unfashionable these days to admit that you’re intolerant and narrow-minded, however it’s extremely common for people to act intolerant and narrow-minded.
Said differently, people pretend to be tolerant and open-minded all the time, yet rarely do they exhibit those characteristics especially when it comes to the political and religious domains. But here’s the thing: being intolerant and narrow-minded can absolutely be the right course of action depending on the situation.
So, what’s a good test of when and how to be intolerant? Fulton Sheen, a well-known American theologian of the early 20th century, provides us with good guardrails when he says this in his sermon entitled “A Plea for Intolerance”: “Tolerance applies only to persons … never to truth. Tolerance applies to the erring, intolerance to the error … Architects are as intolerant about sand as foundations for skyscrapers as doctors are intolerant about germs in the laboratory. Tolerance does not apply to truth or principles. About these things we must be intolerant, and for this kind of intolerance, so much needed to rouse us from sentimental gush, I make a plea. Intolerance of this kind is the foundation of all stability.”
The Bible’s view of tolerance and narrow-mindedness
Naturally Sheen’s guidelines for tolerance and open-mindedness dovetail well with the Bible. Nowhere will you find episodes of error or lies being tolerated, but it’s completely different for erring people.
Where truth is concerned, we’re told to pursue it above all else. Our instructions are to “Buy truth, and do not sell it, get wisdom, instruction, and understanding” (Prov. 23:23), “do not let … truth leave you” (Prov. 3:3), and “make your ear attentive to wisdom; incline your heart to understanding.” (Prov. 2:2).
Jesus said that freedom is found in truth – “you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:32), with the implication being that it is error that binds and enslaves. Unfortunately, today in our post-truth culture we see a lot of people, through their own doing, being dominated by falsehoods.
But even though Scripture exhibits a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to truth and error, it showcases a charitable and liberal attitude towards engaging people who are captives of such deception.
Just like people today who are “lost sheep; their shepherds have led them astray” (Jer. 50:6), Jesus saw the same and, “He felt compassion for them because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and He began to teach them many things” (Mark 6:34). In the same manner, Paul was in constant dialog with people who believed differently than him. Although he sometimes had strong words for his most abusive detractors, more commonly his method was the one highlighted in the books of Acts where it records him calmly “reasoning” with his unbelieving audience many times (17:2, 17:17, 18:4, 18:19, 19:8, 19:9; cf. 1 Cor. 5:9-10).
A telltale sign of the wrong kind of intolerance
One reason I’m a Christian is that I’ve spent so much time engaging those of other belief systems and hearing the reasons, straight from the horse’s mouth as it were, for why they believe what they do. Such a practice has been enormously helpful to my own faith.
When I compare the logic, evidence, and rationale for competing worldviews with the arguments for Christianity, not only am I not moved an inch from my faith, I actually become more confident and grounded in its truth. Because of that, I have zero fear of engaging in conversations with those who don't hold the same convictions I do.
As a result, I’m very open to other people expressing their competing beliefs in public because it exposes their creed to the light of day and provides me with an opportunity to challenge them with the truths of the Christian faith.
I’ve noticed that one telltale sign of the wrong kind of intolerance is that it behaves in the exact opposite way. Error never seeks dialog.
Instead, error looks to duck, dodge, and avoid conversations that challenge its assertions. It seeks to suppress discussions that test its truth claims and censors attempts at debate, with the goal being to dominate instead of communicate.
It’s common for error to engage in ad hominem attacks on the people it sees as its opposition. This practice betrays the fact that it is afraid of being confronted with the truth, has little to no confidence in its own positions and is unwilling to think things through.
The Bible warns about “always learning and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth” (2 Tim. 3:7) and those that “will hurl truth to the ground” (Dan. 8:12). It says “that “a scoffer seeks wisdom and finds none” (Prov. 14:6) and that “fools despise wisdom and instruction” (Prov. 1:7).
As Rick Wade wrote, “A determined will can ignore the best of evidence." Sadly, when this happens, error grows and collectivizes in a society with the end result being what Jeremiah spoke about: “Lies and not truth prevail in the land” (Jer. 9:3).
Fulton Sheen summarizes his sermon written about intolerance 100 years ago when he states: “America, it is said, is suffering from intolerance. It is not. It is suffering from tolerance: tolerance of right and wrong, truth and error, virtue and evil, Christ and chaos.”
For us, the lesson is to be intolerant and narrow-minded when it comes to truth and its moral implications (1 Cor. 13:6), but to show charity and understanding to those who are trapped by the spirit of the age (Eph. 2:1-3).
Robin Schumacher is an accomplished software executive and Christian apologist who has written many articles, authored and contributed to several Christian books, appeared on nationally syndicated radio programs, and presented at apologetic events. He holds a BS in Business, Master's in Christian apologetics and a Ph.D. in New Testament. His latest book is, A Confident Faith: Winning people to Christ with the apologetics of the Apostle Paul.