Before you dismiss this article as a piece of political propaganda, hear us out.

Mother Teresa was intolerant of poverty.

Nelson Mandela was intolerant of apartheid.

Martin Luther King, Jr., was intolerant of racism.

Bono was intolerant of AIDS.

Jesus was intolerant of bigotry.

In the traditional sense of the word, intolerance can be a beautiful thing. However, our culture has redefined tolerance, in turn painting the term intolerance as a harsh, unacceptable, embarrassing qualifier.

When my (Josh) kids were in high school, I asked them, what was the one thing they were afraid of being called. Their response? Intolerant.

As some 20+ years have passed since my children were that age, culture has further progressed and morphed its definition of tolerance.

Tolerance in our culture does not simply require that we give others the freedom to believe or live differently than we do. It has evolved into a demand that we accept, respect, and affirm the rightness of others’ views and behavior—or be labeled intolerant, bigoted, and even hateful.

The traditional understanding of tolerance means to recognize and respect others when you don’t share their values, beliefs, and practices. In other words, you can only tolerate someone when you disagree with that person. If you agree, then there’s nothing to tolerate!

When we accept the cultural definition of tolerance, we must also accept the cultural narrative of moral truth, the one that believes moral truth comes from the individual; that it is subjective and situational—that we are each the creator of our own truth.

As one can quickly conclude through a reductio ad absurdum, the cultural narrative on moral truth leads to all sorts of issues. If we each can declare what is true and right for ourselves, and everyone else must accept and respect our personal truth, murders, sex traffickers, racists, and terrorists cannot be held at fault for their actions. They each believe they are acting on their personal truth, and therefore, we must all accept, respect and affirm their decisions.

Yes, these are extreme examples.  But if we take the cultural view of tolerance and truth to its logical conclusion, they naturally follow.

What we need now, more than ever, is a return to a proper understanding of tolerance. We live in an age with increased polarization on political, religious, and moral issues. And sadly, rather than truly entering into fruitful debate and dialogue, people resort to name-calling, such as “You’re intolerant!” Such tactics are unhelpful, uncharitable, and wrong.

God actually provides the basis for real tolerance. After all, God has made us in His image and has commanded us to love other people. Jesus told the story of the Good Samaritan, which teaches us to show care and kindness even to strangers.

Jesus again models real tolerance in his interaction with the woman at the well. He clearly believed her actions were sinful, but he addressed her in a non-condemning and gracious manner.

In the world that Jesus lived in—and we used to live in—it was possible to love someone while thinking that person was deeply wrong.

Today, unfortunately, love requires praising someone’s values, beliefs, and lifestyle even when you think they are mistaken.

Traditional tolerance is a virtue, and intolerance can sometimes be beautiful—that is, when it is properly understood and defined. Imagine where our world would be today had Martin Luther King, Jr., not been intolerant of racism—and Mother Theresa of poverty; Bono of AIDS; Mandela of apartheid; Jesus of bigotry.

When our young people are able to understand, accept and embrace the traditional (and Biblical) understanding of moral truth and tolerance over the cultural narrative, we can then have hope for a future filled with love, civil discourse, and true freedom.

The world is a better place because of the beautiful intolerance of Dr. King, Mother Teresa, Bono and Mandela. Let’s follow their examples, and God’s, and strive to model biblical tolerance and intolerance for our children.

Josh McDowell, who has been at the forefront of cultural trends and groundbreaking ministry for more than five decades, and his son, Sean McDowell, Ph.D., are the authors of "The Beauty of Intolerance: Setting a Generation Free to Know Truth & Love" (Shiloh Run Press, February 1, 2016). 

Sean McDowell, Ph. D. co-wrote The Beauty of Intolerance: Setting a Generation Free to Know Truth & Love (Shilolh Run Press) with his father, Josh McDowell, who has been at the forefront of cultural trends and groundbreaking ministry for more than five decades.