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A Healthier Approach to Disagreement in the Church Begins With One Unusual Word

How practicing forbearance strengthens our fellowship and improves our social witness.
A Healthier Approach to Disagreement in the Church Begins With One Unusual Word

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:

As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another [anecho] and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. (Col. 3:12–14, NRSV used throughout)

Pulling no punches in rejecting what he thinks are wrongheaded teachings about Jesus and Christian duty, the author nonetheless recommends that the Colossians put on the character of Christ, and part of that character is the practice of forbearance. The commitment to “bearing with one another” is rooted in Christian virtues—compassion, kindness, humility, patience, and love. The author does not ignore the conflict in the community, but he insists that how the church works through that conflict should reflect their character, and that of the one whom they claim to follow.

In the Letter to the Colossians we see not only an acknowledgment that unity and disagreement can exist together but also an illustration of how forbearance can be practiced without the abandonment of principle and conviction. For forbearance is not a recipe for dissolving difference; it is a virtuous means by which to maintain community even in the face of disagreement. To do so is to reflect the character of the God who brings us together, as is made clear in another use of anecho in the New Testament. In the Letter to the Romans, Paul uses references to God’s practice of forbearance to indict our own aptness to judge those with whom we disagree:

You say, “We know that God’s judgment on those who do such things is in accordance with truth.” Do you imagine, whoever you are, that when you judge those who do such things and yet do them yourself, you will escape the judgment of God? Or do you despise the riches of his kindness and forbearance [anecho] and patience? (Rom. 2:2–4a)

For Paul, our presumption to judge others hypocritically for their transgressions ignores the fact that we, too, deserve God’s condemnation. But in Christ God forbears us, extending us mercy even as we actively strive to remain estranged from God:

For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith. He did this to show his righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over the sins previously committed. (Rom. 3:22b–25)

The concept of forbearance, then, captures the foundational act of divine grace on which all of Christian belief is built! God acted to extend forbearance to us, to pass over—that is, to refuse to respond negatively to—our sins, instead extending righteousness and patience to us in an act of grace and love embodied in Jesus Christ.

Refrain from Judgmental Contempt

In response, Paul strongly recommends that members of the church extend similar grace to one another, especially in moments of intense disagreement.

Toward the end of his Letter to the Romans, Paul wades into a church debate about the importance of certain religious practices. Some in the church believed adamantly that allegiance to Christ should manifest itself clearly in adherence to certain disciplines, including vegetarianism and presumably the celebration of a Sabbath. Others in the church were arguing that faith in Christ frees us from such external scruples. Paul apparently thought the latter group was correct, as indicated by his reference to them as “the strong” and the scruple-focused party as “the weak.”

Despite his allegiance with those emphasizing Christian liberty, however, he insists that “the strong” welcome the other party in faith, refraining from judgmental contempt for those whom they believed to be wrong in their interpretations of the faith. From Paul’s perspective, community can and should be maintained in a church that harbors important theological disagreement, for both “the weak” and “the strong” are united in their intent to live “to the Lord” and in their ultimate accountability to God. As a result, says Paul, we ought to bear with what we perceive to be the failings of the weak, pushing their growth gently, sometimes swallowing our disagreements, seeking not our self-interest but the building up of others (Rom. 15:1–2). For the forbearance we practice in a season of disagreement is a reflection of our gratitude for—and an extension of—the forbearance God in Christ shows us in the face of our alienation.

In the end, our maintenance of church unity in the face of difference itself testifies to our faith: “Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God” (Rom. 15:7).

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