Dr. Ray E. Heiple, Jr.
The True Virtue of Tolerance VS. the Sinful "Tolerance" of the Wicked
Nevertheless, I have this against you: You tolerate that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess.
Question 109 of the Larger Catechism asks, “What are the sins forbidden in the Second Commandment?” It gives the answer, “The sins forbidden in the Second Commandment are, all devising, counselling, commanding, using, and any wise approving, any religious worship not instituted by God himself; tolerating a false religion; the making any representation of God, of all or of any of the three persons, either inwardly in our mind, or outwardly in any kind of image or likeness of any creature whatsoever; all worshipping of it, or God in it or by it; the making of any representation of feigned deities, and all worship of them, or service belonging to them; all superstitious devices, corrupting the worship of God, adding to it, or taking from it, whether invented and taken up of ourselves, or received by tradition from others, though under the title of antiquity, custom, devotion, good intent, or any other pretence whatsoever; simony; sacrilege; all neglect, contempt, hindering, and opposing the worship and ordinances which God hath appointed.” Last week we considered the Bible’s ordinances for church government and ministry. This week we begin to look at those sins which break the second commandment.
The first part of the Catechism’s answer has to do with the regulative principle of worship, which forbids anything in worship that is not positively instituted by God Himself in Holy Scripture. Since we have already looked at this principle in a previous question, let us first consider the sin of tolerating a false religion. No doubt it would be shocking to much of our culture today to hear Christians speaking of the sin of being too tolerant. Yet as the Scripture at the head of this article plainly shows, there is a kind of tolerance that is sinful, which God hates and which He will judge. There is also a kind of tolerance that is good and which Christians should seek to always and everywhere show. What is the difference?
Christians are commanded to love their enemies, to bless those who curse them, to do good to those who hate them, and to pray for those who spitefully use them (Matt. 5:44). If we are to be like our heavenly Father who causes the sun to shine on the just as well as the unjust, and provides good gifts to the obedient and the disobedient, then we must overcome evil with good (Rom. 12:21). In this kind of activity where Christians must refuse to allow evil to affect their just and generous treatment of other men, we show the Biblical kind of tolerance that images the loving care God shows to all creation. The virtue of tolerance is never a respecter of persons, it never takes a bribe, it never treats other human beings in any way than is less than what they deserve as creatures made in the very image and likeness of God. In other words, the good kind of tolerance treats all men ethically regardless of who they are, what they believe, or what they have done. It would be sinful to not show this kind of tolerance to all.
However, even as we must treat all men with equal respect and dignity, we must not accept or tolerate the evils that others do. As the Catechism declares, it is a sin to tolerate false religion. Likewise, it is sinful to tolerate immoral behavior such as unjust violence, adultery, lying, stealing, gossiping, etc.
Christians cannot and should not tolerate evil. To do so is to become an accomplice to the evil and participate in the spread of it. Here someone might ask, “But how can we tolerate people and at the same time be intolerant of their sins?” The Scripture at the head of this article shows the way. Jesus rebuked the church of Thyatira for tolerating “that woman Jezebel.” Our Lord did not make a distinction between Jezebel and her sins, as if the church was to try to figure out a way to tolerate Jezebel, while being intolerant of her sins. Jezebel as a false prophet was leading the church of Thyatira into sin, and as such she herself could not be tolerated to continue in the church as a member in good standing. God Himself was going to judge her and those who sinned with her but those who repented would be spared (v. 22). She was still to be tolerated as a human being, but not as a church member. Thus, so long as we can avoid sharing in the sins of others we must tolerate people who do evil, but we cannot tolerate being in a relationship with them where their sin is condoned or protected. The church of Thyatira could not tolerate Jezebel as a member of their church, but they could and should be tolerant of false prophets in the marketplace as long as the state allowed them. May God grant us the wisdom and the courage to know when to be tolerant and when to be intolerant for His glory and our good!