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Holy forbearance: Faithful witness in times of disagreement

by James Calvin Davis

Conflict is not all there is to being church, but more and more I fear it is what we are known for. In the aftermath of this summer’s General Assembly, we Presbyterians have a chance to confirm that stereotype or complicate it. The week in Detroit saw our denomination take at least three controversial votes: in favor of selective divestment in companies doing non-peaceful business with Israel, to approve an authoritative interpretation of church polity to permit ministers to perform same-sex marriages and to recommend to presbyteries an adjustment in our constitutional definition of marriage, one that steps away from a heterosexual norm. There will be consequences to these decisions, as there always are. Presbyteries will argue over the constitutional change for a year. “Special interest” groups will assemble on either side. Individuals and congregations will consider leaving the denomination. How might we work through our deep disagreements differently this time?

Lately, I’ve been mining the New Testament epistles for tips on navigating theological disagreement since most of the letters arose in response to conflicts that were threatening to tear apart natal Christian congregations. My favorite concept to emerge from this study has been the idea of forbearance.

The term forbearance shows up in Ephesians (at least in the King James Version), as well as a few other places. The Letter to the Ephesians appears to have been written to a church struggling with Jewish-Gentile diversity. Gentile converts joined the church in droves, prompting members of that Christian community to ask hard questions about their relationship with their Jewish kin (sound familiar?). In response to their growing rift, the letter calls for navigating even deeply rooted theological differences with Christian character:

I, therefore, the prisoner of the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love; making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. (Ephesians 4:1-3)

From this admirable list of virtues, to me the most evocative challenge comes in the call to bear with one another. Forbearance is an antiquated term; not many of us use it unless we’re discussing bank loans. Admittedly, I like it partly because it sounds ancient and deep, an old beseech to remain with one another when we are our most divided. The double entendre is rich: it beckons us to put up with each other a little longer, tolerating deficiencies we think we see in others, while also inviting us to actively carry one other through difficult times in our community’s life. Forbearance invites us to be there for one another in occasions of mutual embrace and moments of difference.

Screen Shot 2014-08-06 at 11.46.01 AMWhat might it mean to practice forbearance in today’s PC(USA)? Surely it requires all of us to approach our disagreements with a healthy dose of humility, acutely aware that we don’t know everything there is to know about this world and God’s intentions for it. Forbearance also demands the exercise of patience, taking time to listen to sisters and brothers and respecting their place in Christian community. It likely requires a commitment to faithfulness, maintaining relationships of trust with one another across theological differences and, more fundamentally, trusting God to reveal truth in God’s time. Ultimately, forbearance invites us to love one another as friends and fellow travelers on this pilgrimage of faith.

In a book I wrote a couple of years ago, “In Defense of Civility,” I examined the rise in vitriol in American politics, arguing that American democracy will remain unhealthy, unproductive and uninspiring until we assert the virtues of humility, patience, integrity and mutual respect in our public life. I also argued that religious traditions can help restore civility, in part because they often harbor commitment to respectful dialogue within their own teachings. To be honest, though, we must acknowledge that Christians have just as often been propagators of incivility as they have been oases of mutual respect. Presbyterians know as well as anyone that conflict is part of Christian DNA.

Yet, Ephesians begs us to see the truth our disagreements threaten to obscure, that even in our most disagreeable moments, we are caught up in a unity not of our making, a unity that derives from the One who joins us together. Reflecting God’s reconciling grace, we are “no longer strangers … but members of the household of God.”

What a powerful context in which to understand our differences! Members of a household may view the world very differently, but if it is a healthy home they remain bound to one another in love and loyalty. Similarly, we Presbyterians struggle mightily with differing interpretations of the faith, but may we never forget that we are still family to one another — bound together as children of God.

Ephesians doesn’t commend forbearance on the assumption of uniformity in the church. Quite the opposite, in fact! The call to forbearance doesn’t make any sense without high-stakes disagreement in play. But while disagreement has always been a part of being church, so is the cosmic unity in which we negotiate that disagreement. By practicing forbearance we live with difference counter-culturally, doggedly staying in fellowship and modeling the character of Christ to one another in the slow process of working through our conflicts of conscience. For we know it’s not up to us to create consensus; it’s simply our responsibility to confess the unity God creates in Christ, in part by how we navigate the absence of consensus. Forbearance, too, is in our DNA.

What might it mean for the PC(USA) to take seriously the call to forbearance? How might it change the character of our disagreements for us to speak the truth to one another while bearing with each other, regarding one another as friends from whom we refuse to be separated? To be sure, it’s not an easy project to undertake. Sometimes it will seem that forbearance threatens our commitment to preserving God’s truth. Sometimes forbearance will resemble timid gradualism in the face of injustice. Practicing forbearance will be hard and uncertain work, but it is holy work, and it is work we can only do together. If we choose to take up the call, of this much I am sure: for a world where hostility is epidemic, bearing with one another faithfully can be a life-saving witness to the reign of God.

JAMES CALVIN DAVIS is a professor of religion and ethics at Middlebury College in Vermont and a teaching elder in Albany Presbytery.