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Tolerance, intolerance, and in between


The following is a three-way exchange of recent days:

Brother X: "(There is)... a climate of confrontation and intolerance threatening to destroy our unique fellowship."

Brother Y: "However, it should be pointed out that some of us believe that our unique fellowship is threatened with destruction from excessive tolerance."

Brother Z: "So we should use slight intolerance...?"


Now this exchange is threatening to give me a headache, for which I have little "tolerance". So, to head this off, and incidentally to figure out where I stand on this, I headed for the dictionary...

"Tolerance" has at least four distinct meanings (not that they are totally unrelated to one another, but there are gradations involved... and, as everybody knows, the fun is in the "details"!):

Now, this suggests a question: When they use the word "tolerance", or its negation, "intolerance", which of the four definitions (or its negation) do each of Brothers X, Y, and Z mean?

Does Brother X mean there is "a climate of blind, narrow-minded... suspicion and irrational hatred"? Or does he mean there is a "climate in which certain beliefs are not allowed"? My guess is... the first. But can I be sure?

When Brother Y says that we may have "excessive tolerance", does he mean that we have gotten too far away from "blind, narrow-minded... suspicion and irrational hatred"? Or does he mean that we've gotten (or could get) to the point where we "allow or permit" certain beliefs that we should not? My guess is... the second.

Is Brother Z suggesting that even "slight bigotry or prejudice" is too much? Of course. Or is he suggesting that we should, as a community, "allow or permit" any and every doctrine? I hope not.

Just a little case study of how the use of the same word with different meanings can drastically affect our discussions. Or, as the fellow once said, "It all depends on what you mean by what you say!"

Now take the four definitions of "tolerance" above:

(a) If by "tolerance" we mean a policy of non-interference with particular doctrines or practices IN THE BROTHERHOOD, then... certainly... absolute "tolerance" would be absolutely destructive of our faith, or at least of our community's uniqueness. Amongst Christadelphians, such absolute "tolerance" could never be tolerated!

(b) If by "tolerance" we mean freedom from bigotry and prejudice, then we can never have too much! It's like Peter says in Acts 10 and 11, "I have learned not to call or consider any man common or unclean!" However, as with Cornelius and his household, such men (and women) could not be "tolerated" in the ecclesia unless they believed the first principles and were baptized.

What is interesting about this definition is how the commonly-accepted definitions of ordinary words may come to affect our very thought processes (think "gay" and "pro-choice"). If "intolerance" is so readily equated with "prejudice" and "bigotry", who would ever want to be "intolerant"? But sometimes, I am sure we all agree, we must be "intolerant"! When and where, that is the question!

(c) If by "tolerance" we mean an acceptable variation from a generally-recognized standard, then -- again -- tolerance is a very real desideratum (sorry, I was reading John Thomas today: "desideratum: a thing greatly to be desired"). Part of what keeps us together is our adherence to a generally-recognized standard (a statement of faith). But another part of what keeps us together, practically speaking, is that we generally recognize that there are acceptable variations from that standard, ie, certain doctrines and practices not specifically forbidden, because not of a first-principle nature. As has been said, "In essential things --unity. In doubtful things -- liberty (or tolerance). And in all things -- love."

(d) If by "tolerance" we mean allowing others to hold religious views that differ from the established ones, we better believe in this. If our governments did not believe in this, where would we be, with our "non-orthodox" views? Hiding in cellars and caves, that's where!

Submitted in a spirit of equal parts "tolerance" and "intolerance",


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