What happens when we approach disagreement not as a problem to solve but as an opportunity to practice Christian virtue?
In this book James Calvin Davis reclaims the biblical concept of forbearance to develop a theological ethic for faithful disagreement. Pointing to Ephesians and Colossians, in which Paul challenged his readers to “bear with each other” in spite of differences, Davis draws out a theologically grounded practice in which Christians work hard to maintain unity while still taking seriously matters on which they disagree.
The practice of forbearance, Davis argues, offers Christians a dignified, graceful, and constructive way to deal with conflict. Forbearance can also strengthen the church’s public witness, offering an antidote to the pervasive divisiveness present in contemporary culture.
“Forbearance. It’s an old-fashioned word, perhaps, but if ever we needed to recover its use, now is the time. Our politics and economics, our communities and churches, and even our families are fractured by polarizing disagreements that often grow into debilitating conflicts. In this discerning book James Calvin Davis deftly narrates the meanings, spirit, power, and practice of ‘bearing with one another’ as a fundamental Christian civic virtue, one that can lead us into ways of dealing with our conflicts that are marked by wisdom, justice, faithfulness, and hope.” –Craig Dykstra, Duke Divinity School
Forbearance: A Theological Ethic for a Disagreeable Church, Kindle Edition
The biblical idea of forbearance is an underappreciated metaphor for divine grace and an underutilized concept for capturing how Christians ought to replicate that grace in the project of living together in community. To be sure, not much has been made of this idea in classical or contemporary biblical commentary. In his commentaries on Ephesians and Colossians, for instance, John Calvin leaves the term “forbearance”—the Greek anecho meaning “to bear with” or “to hold up”— without comment, skipping past it on his way to elucidating other parts of the passages where it appears (Eph. 4:1–3 and Col. 3:12–14). Similarly, most modern commentaries do not linger on the idea of forbearance as the linchpin for these passages.
Perhaps one of the reasons for its current unpopularity is that the term sounds like a call to yield, which unsurprisingly is not what people want to hear when they are embroiled in protracted disagreements over convictions they consider essential to Christian faithfulness. A couple of years ago, in the run-up to the latest denominational battle over same-sex marriage in the Presbyterian Church (USA), the faculties of two seminaries—Columbia Theological Seminary (GA) and Austin Theological Seminary (TX)—issued statements calling for forbearance in the debate. Insisting that schism in the church is a “profound pastoral and theological problem,” the Columbia and Austin faculties implored their fellow Presbyterians to bear with each other in the debate over amendments to the denominational constitution that would allow ordained ministers to officiate at same-sex marriages. In particular, the Columbia Seminary statement notes the way tag-words like “purity” and “inclusivity” have been weaponized in an increasingly hostile ideological environment. Calling on Presbyterians to repent of this hostility and work constructively toward a healthier future for the church, the Columbia faculty modeled this attitude by disavowing their own contributions to the polarization in the PC(USA). Citing biblical authority and denominational precedent, both statements argued that a spirit of forbearance, of “endeavoring to hear and take seriously the convictions of others,” was the only way to forestall further division in the church. Indeed, they suggested that a spirit of forbearance in this controversy would testify to the true source of the church’s hope, the One who calls the church together.