Beyond Tolerance

In my years as a Seventh-day Adventist minister I have noticed a glaring problem in the evangelistic outreach of many of our churches. Every year we prepare for an evangelistic crusade or a revival of some kind. We pass out tracts and give people Bible studies. We hold the meetings in our churches or at a hall, and maybe we get some visitors to attend. It is a long shot, but sometimes we even baptize some people. But then we don’t see the new members around for very long. Does this sound like your church? Why does this keep happening?

There’s an uproar—above or below ground. Ask any pastor or evangelist, and they will tell you that the number one problem with new converts is keeping them. I have discovered a cause that if ignored will perpetuate this crisis indefinitely: Most Christians don’t accept outsiders. We struggle with the idea of making people feel that they belong. We do not identify easily with newcomers, especially if they still have not given up certain habits.

The early Christians had this same problem. Christ’s disciples were Jews, so when it came time for the gospel to go to the Gentiles, there was an uproar in the church. Paul and Barnabas were persecuted when they began to preach the message to the Gentiles. They were run out of the city of Antioch, where Christianity was born (Acts 13:50). Certain men from Judea even suggested that in order to become a Christian one must first observe the Jewish ritual of circumcision (Acts 15:1). And the church has been dealing with issues of acceptance ever since. We secretly do not want the gospel to be for everyone, and in this way we misrepresent our Lord. We must become accepting of all people if we ever really expect God’s kingdom to grow. Let’s look at some keys to becoming more accepting:

Understand the difference. Do not make the mistake of thinking that tolerance is the same as acceptance. Tolerance does not go far enough, but it is a good starting point. One definition of “tolerance” is “the act of putting up with something or somebody irritating or otherwise unpleasant” (Encarta World English Dictionary). I think it is important for every church member to learn to at least tolerate other church members and especially newcomers. You’ve heard it before: “If you can’t find something good to say, don’t say anything at all.” That adage embodies the essence of tolerance. Tolerance is a good starting point, because it at least respects people enough to know that our opinion is not sovereign; and, if everyone learned this, our churches would be growing much more rapidly.

But tolerance comes up short, because it never makes a newcomer feel like they belong. A person knows when they are merely tolerated. They can tell when you really want to say something but are holding your tongue. Tolerance does not demand a change of heart on the part of the person doing the tolerating. We need to go beyond tolerance and move to acceptance.

Remember our faults. Sometimes I think the reason we have such a hard time accepting other people, especially newcomers into our churches, is because we have forgotten our own faults. Before we joined God’s remnant we had issues and problems that plagued our lives. When we joined the body of Christ, things began to get better. We began to live victorious lives in every aspect of the word.

Then we forget our human frailty. I’m not suggesting we should dwell on the past or even that we should try to remember every sin. That will not do any good. I am suggesting that we remain humble, remembering the “all” in Romans 3:23. There is nothing more damaging to God’s church than “faultless Christians.”

Get to know their story. Life is a journey, and everyone has their own. There are times when we think we can look at someone and tell exactly what their problem is. We size up people and stereotype them. We put them into categories and label them when we should be getting to know them.

However, when we find out a person’s story, we begin to see that they are not really what we thought they were. They have come a long way in their short lives. Learning a person’s story helps us to focus not on how far they have to go but on how far they have come, by the grace of God.

I have found that it is much easier to accept someone when we know where they’ve come from. I am not talking about sympathizing with someone’s sin. I am talking about making people feel that they belong. Getting to know a person’s story goes a long way in helping us accept them.

Make an effort to witness often. One reason we have such a hard time accepting new converts is because we spend all our time with church people. How many non-Adventist friends do you have? Can you count them on one hand? Studies show that the most effective method of soul winning is through establishing relationships. That means we must at least have some non-Christian acquaintances. Keep in mind the Pharisees accused Jesus of being a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners (Luke 7:34). They would never have made this accusation had Jesus not been seen with these people. Jesus knew He needed to get to know sinners if He expected them to believe He could save them from their sin. How will people ever know that Jesus wants to save them if we will not get close enough to tell them? As we witness to people more regularly, we will begin to feel a burden for them. We will not look down our noses at them when they join the body of Christ, because we labored for them.

Practice hospitality. According to Paul, in Romans 12:13, hospitality is a fundamental Christian value. Hospitality becomes something we give to everyone with whom we come in contact, whether at home or with someone who has come to visit our church. Paul says Christians are hospitable.

Up the ante. In Romans 12:10 Paul says that we should honor one another. One definition of “honor” is “great respect and admiration” (Encarta World English Dictionary). Paul is upping the ante. He is admonishing us to move beyond tolerance and acceptance to honor. The New King James Version reads: “in honor giving preference to one another” (Rom. 12:10). When you respect and admire someone you will give him preference over yourself. This can be especially helpful to remember when we consider our opinions. Paul is encouraging us to esteem others’ opinions above our own. This is very difficult to do, but through Christ all things are possible (Phil. 4:13).

Acceptance is difficult, because the heart must be in it; it cannot be faked. Tolerance does not require caring. It does not demand an attitude change, either. The challenge may be difficult, but God can give us the power to move beyond tolerance to acceptance and then to honor.

John Nixon II
© 2014 General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists