What happens when we approach theological disagreement not as a problem to solve or a crisis to endure but as an opportunity to practice Christian virtue?
Religious communities play an essential role in improving the health of American public life. An unimpeded rise in public vitriol threatens American democracy in our time, but religions could help underwrite an infusion of civility, to make our politics more productive and inspiring. Religions often bring rich histories of moral reflection, including consistent priorities on other-regard and mutual respect, that if shared with the wider public could give us healthier ways of living with difference. As I talk to various church groups around the country, however, the same question comes up over and over again: How can Christians provide this civic leadership if we cannot get ourown houses in order? How are we supposed to provide a template and resources for respectful dialogue when our own church debates are so often rancorous, divisive, and destructive?
These are exactly the right questions for us to ask, of course, so I have tried to imagine a better way for us Christians to navigate difference in our own midst, as an opportunity to practice biblical virtue and improve our social witness.
Carrying the Burden of Disagreement
The virtues that lend themselves to more constructive ways of living with disagreement are captured well in the practice of Christian forbearance. Forbearance is the active commitment to maintain Christiancommunity through disagreement, as an extension of virtue and as a reflectionof the unity in Christ that binds the church together. Admittedly, the term “forbearance” sounds a little antiquated. Most of us do not go around asking for or extending forbearance, unless we are talking about a bank loan. But I confess that the unusualness of the word is part of my attraction to it, because in its very utterance it represents the distinctiveness of Christian practice in the divisiveness of contemporary American culture. And while the word is not part of our normal vocabulary, it does have biblical significance that we might exploit to capture a healthier approach to disagreement. But what does it mean to practice forbearance?
In English, to forbear literally means “to hold back.” The several words translated as “forbearance” in English versions of the Bible usually capture the sense of someone abstaining from acting on a judgment. Saul forbears to pursue and kill David even though he has an opportunity. Kings demand that prophets forbear speaking any more of God’s judgment. God forbears exacting punishment, despite the people’s desert of it.
But there is a fuller connotation of the term “forbearance,” actually more in line with its literal meaning, and it is this sense of the term that I find appealing. Forbearing also means “bearing for or with,” which suggests not just voluntary restraint but actively carrying something or someone for a time. It implies patience, mutual respect, the extension of time, a certain latitude, and perhaps some affection that motivates a person to carry the burden of disagreement. In this sense, forbearance is less a momentary cease-fire than an active extension of concern for one another.
The author of Colossians commends forbearance in a way that captures this fuller meaning. Teachers of an alternative theology had infiltrated the church, contesting the Pauline understanding of Christ’s divinity and humanity, appealing to gnostic ideals to urge excessive asceticism and a rejection of the material world. The Letter to the Colossians is not bashful in its opposition to this alternative theology; at the same time, it urges the congregation to practice forbearance with one another as they navigate the crisis: