Thursday, July 4, 2013

Wow, How Times, I Mean Terms Have Changed!

With the caving in to the culture by the Boy Scouts of American and the most recent decisions by the US Supreme Court to crush the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) and California’s Proposition 8, it is an imminent fact that terms like “fundie,” “homophobe,” and “bigot” will become louder as our culture becomes more hostile toward the Christian faith and those who embrace. These accusations will be received from people who embrace a relativistic starting point in their ethics and morals. Welcome to the world that is waving a banner of what was once known as the “new tolerance.” Whether we like it or not, the temperature is being turned up against the biblical worldview and those who embrace it. 

However, believe it or not, this so called “new toleration” is really not so new. It has taken a few decades to be ratcheted up to what we see and hear now, a loud appeal for the new “normal.” But how did it get here? How did it get to the point where the definition of tolerance became a cultural synonym for “acceptance”, “permissiveness” or “affirmation”? 

The purpose of this essay is to give a possible answer to this question through the tracing of the definition of tolerance. and its changes over the last century and a half. As we trace the definition of toleration together, we will be able to provide a couple of answers to engaging this cultural dilemma.

It is this writer’s conviction that understanding this issue will provide a tool in the arena when possible discussions emerge. 

The Definition Has “Circled the Drain” 

 As we all know, definitions of words change with the culture or so it appears. We can think of words like “gay,” which meant one time in our cultural history to refer to one who is happy. Now it refers to the description of a “lifestyle.” The word change in the meaning of “tolerance” is not much different.

One day, a colleague and I were conversing with three of our co workers, who are essentially first and second year college student age. Our discussing centered around “tolerance” and its definition. In this discussion we pointed out to them that the traditional definition of tolerance does not imply what it means in our present day culture. Thanks to the internet dictionaries that are available, we were able to take time to engage these sources and follow the path to the present day definition entries. What we found was quite interesting, a metamorphosis of cultural meaning for this word so popularly thrown around at the local university campuses across our nation. 

Allow me to give some examples here. While there are multiple definitions for the word “toleration” I will address those definitions that fall within the context of this discussion. [1] 

Coming from the angle of definitions show the importance and the power of words. Various academic dictionaries have sought to be the rudder for definitions of words over the history of a nation and its worldview at large. [2] The various definitions for the word “tolerance” or “toleration” appear to agree with this notion. As one moves through the older dictionaries to the more modern editions, the original definition seems to be cast aside for a subtly loosened definition. A demonstration is warranted here. 

As the reader engages these definitions, watch for subtle shifts in the definitions. One will find that there is a move from an earlier original definition, like the definition coming out of the Worcester Dictionary of the English Language (1874) which states, “toleration is defined as “the power or act of enduring; tolerance is applied to the disposition of habit of mind, toleration of action. Tolerance will lead to toleration of different opinions.” 

Something to notice from this definition. First, the word “bigoted” is no where to be found. Secondly and more importantly, the definition implies the act of enduring in spite of any disagreement of views. Person A can endure with Person B’s views without running any risk of being ostracized or being called some inflammatory name. 

Presenting a biblical application to this definition, the Jews in the Old Testament were commanded to be tolerant of strangers in their midst and to show them hospitality and care for their needs. God has commanded them to the thinking that even though people may do or think differently, they are still holders of intrinsic value, whether one agrees with them or not. 

Moving to the Century Dictionary, an Encyclopedic Lexicon of the English Language (1911), there is an expansion of the definition with the first mention of any use of the word “bigotry.” [3] The definition for tolerance is as follows: 

a disposition to be patient and indulgent toward those whose opinions or practices differ from one’s own; freedom from bigotry or severity in judging of the opinions or conduct of others: ‘the Christian Spirit of charity and tolerance.’ 

While the word bigotry is present and an allusion to “Christian Spirit of charity and tolerance‘ is used as an illustration, one must be careful to note some things here. 

First, what does it mean not judge? Everyone makes judgments. The word bigotry implies a motivation and degree of Person A’s judgment of Person B. I will define this word "bigotry," when we get to the last section of this posting.

Second, there is still present the aire of being patient toward another person who holds to differing persons. At the same time, apart from a biblical worldview as a standard, one cannot escape the fact that there will be some kind of judgment being made of that view. This is an inescapable point from both sides of the conversation. 

Funk and Wagnall’s New Standard Dictionary of the English Language (1931) reflects this as well, by stating “tolerance” as, “forbearance in judging of the acts or opinions of others; especially forbearance towards those of religious views differing from one’s own.” 

Notice there is the sense of endurance between two differing views, i.e., differing or opposing religions. Remember that the culture still was dealing with the immigration issues and had already experienced World War 1. Religions like Judaism and others not so prevalent were making their way to this country. There was plenty of warrant for the appeal to be “free from bigotry” and the exercising of forbearance toward those of different religious persuasions. 

But that does not mean a Christian should not share the truth of the Christian faith with someone embracing a different religion. The motivation and the presentation of the message were most likely variables in determining whether or not the recipient of that message or an onlooker would deem the presenter’s message as bigoted or not. 

But America experienced a few wars, and then came more ideological shifts and influences. There was also the segregation of the sixties, and a continuing flow of immigration. With these variables, the definition of this word “tolerance” morphed with the changing culture [4] to reflect a new idea, that Person A must “accept” Person B’s worldview or ethical foundation as an equal worldview or ethic. 

Where did the definition land after the last major ideological tectonic shift? The definition crossed a line that had not been implied in the original definitions of the word. What line did the definition cross?

Prior to the change, the definition, as it relates to this discussion, appeared to apply only to the social milieux where ethnicity and nationalities were insulted. Now the definition has crossed over the lines into the categories of the ethical and moral choices. This is where the culture is today, but what does the definition look like? [5] 

The Definition Has Crossed the Line

One of the best illustrations where this cross over can be seen is in the television and film medias. Recalling the seventies, the television sitcom, “All in the Family” with Carroll O’Connor portraying the highly critical and bigoted (especially in today’s terms) father, “Archie Bunker.” Archie’s daughter is married to a man of Polish dissent. Not a single episode would go by without some bigoted slur of his son in law’s ethnicity or nationality. Given the historical setting of the television show, it stands to reason that there is still an understanding of “tolerance” and bigotry. [6]

However, researching the later episodes, terms like “fairy”, “fag”, and “queer” began to be introduced into episodes toward the latter years of the final seasons of the program. This is just one of the handful of programs that began to reflect the proverbial “camel’s nose creeping into the tent.” So what does the definition look like now? 

Toleration’s definition now has words inserted into the definition, words like, “acceptance”, and “permissive.” These are words that no longer just apply to categories of ethnicity or nation of origin. With these words inserted, there is a moral and ethical line that has been crossed. Here are just a few examples,

Random House Kernerman Webster’s College Dictionary has as an entry for “tolerance”, “an act or instance of tolerating, esp. of allowing, enduring, or accepting what is not actually approved; forbearance; allowance by law or government of the exercise of religions other than an established one.” [7] 


Allowing” or “accepting what is not actually approved.” The question that surfaces here is what is it that one is being admonished to “accept” that is not actually approved.” The definition does not say. However Webster’s Dictionary Online’s definition streamlines the definition a little closer to the issue. According to this source tolerance is defined as, 

A fair, objective, and permissive attitude toward those whose opinions, practices, race, religion, nationality, etc.; A fair, objective, and permissive attitude toward opinions and practices that differ from one's own’ An interest in and concern for ideas, opinions, practices, etc., foreign to one's own; a liberal, undogmatic viewpoint. [8] 

And the MacMillian Dictionary reinforces this definition where tolerance is defined, “the attitude of someone who is willing to accept someone else’s beliefs, way of life, etc. without criticizing them even if they disagree with them.” [9]

These two definitions reflect the current attitude toward the definition of tolerance. It is one thing to be fair, but who holds the plumb line on fairness? The definition of toleration that was is not the definition that is currently in vogue. 


No longer are you and I going to be allowed to “love the sinner and hate the sin.” The term “sin” is now the new hate speech. What we need to do when engaged in conversations with people who disagree with us is convey the “gentleness and respect” that 1 Peter 3:15 calls us to demonstrate.

Another thing we need to do is to make sure that when engaging in conversations we need to make sure we understand the definitions of “toleration,” “tolerance,” and bigotry or bigot; and make sure we help those who are making such accusations against clarify the definitions in the discussion. This will level the “playing field” and hopefully keep the conversation cordial and keep us toward sharing the truth in love, but also telling the truth like the truth should be communicated.

Understand that the Supreme Court’s decisions did not make gay marriage the norm for the country. Understand that the decisions did not make the gay lifestyle accepted right across the board in the country. If the church does not step into the game, and take the gospel to the culture, I will give this culture 7-10 years until is becomes “normative.” If this happens, we need to be prepared for persecution in this country. This is a hard saying that I do not like myself. However we need to step up our witness and show that we really love the Lord with all our heart, and all our soul and prove that we love the mind by engaging our minds for the glory of Christ and for the edification of the saints.




Writer’s note:I have come to the conclusion that understanding of the original for the word “tolerance” as opposed to the present day definition of tolerance is much like the analogy of arguing ethics versus morals. Ethical frameworks determine what “ought” to be. One’s moral choices are the outpouring of that person’s ethical starting point. The original definition of tolerance versus the present day definition of tolerance is much like this. Morality can be seen lived out is what is based upon one’s ethical underpinnings. 

[1] The definition of tolerance is not excluded to only ideological or moral categories. It is also used within the medical community for one having a tolerance to a medication or a type of treatment. It is also within the world of mechanical engineering where the laws of physics come into play with pressure, tension or some other force coming upon a particular object. 

[2] Words are extremely powerful, and dictionaries are always very precise about what vocabulary they use in their definitions. This writer is under the persuasion that there is even the worldview of the compilers or the editorial committees of various reference works are reflected between the pages and in the entries therein. 

[3] The early 1900‘s in American culture saw a lot of people coming to this country in search of greater opportunity and a new life. With this in mind, it might be surmised that whenever the word “bigot” or reference to someone being “bigoted” it may have been related to one’s nationality or ethnicity by another. This understanding carried into the 60’s and the 70’s in this nation. 

[4] In all fairness to some of the modern dictionaries, there are a couple of entries that were found to be in line with some of the earlier entries. E.g., Random House Dictionary of the English Language has their entry for “tolerance” stating, “a fair, objective and permissive attitude toward those whose opinions, practices, race, religion, nationality, etc. differ from one’s own; freedom from bigotry.” The New Oxford American Dictionary (2001) has their entry as “the ability or willingness to tolerate something, in particular the existence of opinions or behavior that one does not necessarily agree with.” 

[5] You can also read Tolerance is an American Value at 

 [6] I am using the term bigoted to mean “making a judgment without or a lack of any information.”

[7] Random House Kernerman Webster's College Dictionary, 2010, K Dictionaries Ltd. Copyright 2005, 1997, 1991 by Random House, Inc, s.v. “tolerance.” (Bold font inserted by this writer) 

 [8] (Webster’s Dictionary Online at


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