Book Review: Forbearance: A Theological Ethic for a Disagreeable Church

How do we deal with disagreements in the church? When the combativeness of the political world spills over into the church, what should Christians do? James Calvin Davis’ book, Forbearance: A Theological Ethic for a Disagreeable Church (Eerdmans Publishing Co. 2017), attempts an answer.

Davis is a professor of religion at Middlebury College in Vermont and an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church. A scholar of church and state relations, and a theologian in the Reformed (Calvinist) tradition, he is also the author of In Defense of Civility: How Religion Can Unite America on Seven Moral Issues That Divide Us. While he was raised in an evangelical environment he now identifies as a liberal Protestant.

Davis lifts up forbearance as a virtue derived from Ephesians where the writer encourages his readers in “bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace (Ephesians. 4:2-3).” Forbearing, as the Greek anecho reveals, is “to bear with” or “to hold up,” in the sense of “actively carrying something or someone for a time…an active extension of concern for one another.”

In Colossians the writer exhorts us to “clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other . . . (Colossians 3:12-13).” The basis of our forbearance with one another is that God extends forbearance to us (Romans 2:2-4). Forbearance, says Davis, is the foundation for God’s grace toward us and is the bedrock of all our Christian belief.

This reliance on forbearance is a clear witness of the deep disagreements within the apostolic church. If the worshipping communities were uniform in their beliefs and practices there would be no need for this virtue. Yet these differences, while inevitable in any vital church community, need not drive a wedge between people who try to model the character of Christ. “In the practice of forbearance,” notes Davis, “Christians do not create unity; we confess it.”

Forbearance is defined as “the active commitment to maintain Christian community through disagreement, as an extension of virtue and as a reflection of the unity in Christ that binds the church together.” Davis explores the relation of forbearance to humility, patience and hope, wisdom, faithfulness, friendship, truth, and justice. A final chapter on “Forbearance as Social Witness” rounds out his exposition.

A quick glance at three of the chapters may illustrate the practical value of Davis’ book for the church.

Friendship

Using Aristotle’s three-fold distinction of friendship types—pleasure, utility, and character—Davis explores friendships based on character as those most worthwhile in the community of the church. His definition of friendship of this sort is typical of his care in choosing his words: “Friendship is a relationship of mutuality and intimacy rooted in shared interests, loves, or goals and characterized by genuine interest in the other person as a particular other.”

He examines the tension that many Christian writers claim exists between agape (love) and philia (friendship). Traditionally, theologians tell us that the ideal Christian love is disinterested love, agape, the kind that is inclusive and universal. Friendship (philia) is seen as a rival to agape and even as idolatry, according to Kierkegaard, because it is desire-based rather than duty-bound. But Davis believes that Christian suspicion of friendship comes from an exaggerated emphasis on the story of the Good Samaritan as the exemplar of Christian love.

While the love shown by the Samaritan is certainly to be emulated in our relations to the world, Davis points to Jesus’ command to the disciples to love each other. “By specifying love-in-community as the calling card of Christian discipleship, however, Jesus describes something different than the Good Samaritan love of the enemy and stranger. In doing so, he speaks to the importance of mutual affection among the followers of Jesus.” Simply put, community in the church arises from our mutual affection for the people we worship with and develop deep friendships with.

Jesus calls his disciples “friends” and implies that this is the kind of love he expects them to show to each other. “With the disciples,” says Davis, “Jesus establishes the church as a community whose central obligation is to share friendship with one another as Christ has befriended them.”

Truth

Practicing forbearance, the agreement to respect and love one’s fellow believers despite differences, faces its strongest test when those differences are deeply divisive issues such as abortion, economics, race, and climate change. Should the church speak the truth even if it divides the body?

Davis appeals to Calvin on what it takes to keep a community together through such disagreements. Christians have to figure out how to live within communities comprising both the elect and hypocrites, as Calvin calls those who participate in the church but do not have a saving relationship with God. We don’t have the option, cautions Calvin, to simply walk away from a church that disappoints us. He argues that “even deep disagreements about theology, morality, and worship are not grounds for division in the church.” In Calvin’s view, not all articles of doctrine are of the same sort: some are foundational and are not up for negotiation while others can be expected to result in disagreement.

But what about significant disagreements on the fundamentals of theology and morality within the church? We can’t leave, but neither can we allow such things to fester. Calvin offers three helpful hints. First, we must not fall into the arrogance of insisting that the church reflect our own perceptions of the truth. Second, he asks us to focus on our own imperfections and to avoid exaggerating the impact that others’ convictions may have on us. Finally, Calvin reminds us that “forgiveness is the backbone of the Christian community.” Baptism, our sacrament of forgiveness, is more than a one-time experience; it is the means through which we receive forgiveness continuously—and live with disagreements.

Protestants often choose doctrinal purity over a commitment to community. How do we practice forbearance and hold on to our convictions about that which really matters? The secret, says Davis, “to maintaining a commitment to truth while practicing forbearance is to allow the latter to shape the former.” Our deepest convictions are worthless if we cannot live them out in generosity and love.

Social Witness

The final chapter, “Forbearance as Social Witness,” speaks to how the church might relate to a contentious political and cultural sphere. “By practicing forbearance in their religious communities,” says Davis, “Christians model a better way for navigating differences.”

The virtues of civility—humility, integrity, mutual respect—create the possibility of a deliberative democracy. If those virtues sound familiar to Christians, notes Davis, it is because they correspond well to what he has been describing as forbearance. “Because of these connections, I think the modeling of forbearance is perhaps the best gift the church can give to a political culture that is desperate to learn how to navigate its own differences in healthier ways.” Churches that practice forbearance equip their members with the attitudes and practices needed in a healthy democracy.

If there is a weakness in Davis’ book it is that he tries to stretch the fabric of forbearance over too many virtues—humility, patience, wisdom, truth, justice—any one of which could fill a book. His method is to show how forbearance connects to and supports each of these Christian virtues. As a result, there is a good deal of repetition. There is also a stylistic turn in his writing that I eventually found grating, and it is that every idea is illustrated three different ways. He does not lack for fluency, however. Every sentence is neatly manicured, with no hangnails or rough edges.

These slight discomforts do not detract from the timely value of his insights on civil discourse, both inside and outside the church. If Christians were determined to make forbearance with one another their hallmark, despite their deep differences in social and political agendas, perhaps the prayer of Jesus, “May they all be one, so that the world may know that you have sent me,” could be fulfilled.

Barry Casey taught religion, philosophy, and communications for 28 years at Columbia Union College, now Washington Adventist University, and business communication at Stevenson University for 7 years. He continues as adjunct professor in ethics and philosophy at Trinity Washington University, D.C. More of Casey’s writing is available on his blog, Dante’s Woods.

Image Credit: Eerdmans Publishing Co.

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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/8480

I recently came across the title on the Eerdmans stand at the Frankfurt Book Fair

While reading, I kept asking myself how Forbearance differs from Tolerance?

The beneficial perspective was to consider the active practice of Forebearance as a spiritual discipline, which I probably had not thought about seriously.

The tradition of Protestants over the last 500 year has been to seperate on the basis some or other ‘truth’ to the point where we trend toward our own designer faith.

Examples used by Davis, include the acceptance of Women in Leadership and the recognition of various sexual expressions. The point being made, is that one cannot simply exclude or boycott expressions we dont like, rather it is a spiritual discipline to seek out and learn to embrace those with whom we fundamentally disagree.

Given the cul-de-sacs into which the ‘good and great’ have drawn us, forbearance offers a pathway from 51% winners taking all, to 100% acknowledging that we have to live with difference.

The book is no quick read, but it is time well spent.

Postscript:
Another interesting position was the idea of Dietrich Bonhoeffer who introduced a ‘Ministry of Bearing’, this to cope with the reality of living in a fascist culture. Tolerating such values was not acceptable, but living in Forbearanve was a way of not living at war with the majority.

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The beneficial perspective was to consider the active practice of Forebearance as a spiritual discipline, which I probably had not thought about seriously.

Well said. It’s more than tolerance, which, by comparison, seems almost grudging.

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[First I must disqualify myself: I am neither “in the church,” nor can I quite bring myself to identify as a “Christian,” so you may, understandably, want to skip my posts.]

I find the idea fascinating, but not quite convincing, that the world’s combativeness can somehow reach flood stage and swamp the church.

For example, last week I blew it; I mean I really blew it, by my own standards, and probably anyone else’s.

There is someone who I was quite close friends with decades ago, when she and I were both very conservative Adventists, which she still is, and I am no longer. There came a time, years ago, when I felt I had to set a boundary with her about trying to “win me back to The Truth.” I knew she meant only the best, but it didn’t feel like any kind of real relationship when she did that, and I felt uncomfortable and cornered.

I thought we had an understanding. When she, from all good intentions and love, recently made another overture to help me come back to the Lord, did I forbear? Was I kind, meek, humble and patient? No, I was not. I was unreasonably short, impatient and insensitive with her. And moreover, I felt entirely justified. For a few days.

Then it suddenly became urgent that I must apologize to her, so I wrote her an email saying I was sorry and that she in no way deserved that. It seems now that I didn’t go far enough, was still partially justifying myself, so I must say more. I doubt she’ll ever want to talk with me again, and I completely understand if she doesn’t. I feel sad and helpless about that, but I accept it.

The reason I accept it is because I know I am completely, 100% responsible for running that precious soul off the road emotionally.

I didn’t do that because “the combativeness of the political world spilled over on me.” I didn’t do it because my parents abused me, or the Seventh-day Adventist Church abused me, or she should have known better and she deserved it.

No, I did that because out of the abundance of my heart, my mouth spoke. Period.

From whence come wars and fightings among you? come they not hence, even of your lusts that war in your members?

Thank God, he “giveth the more grace,” but I can’t take back what I said, so being forgiven by God doesn’t feel like a stopping place for me.

As long as she is suffering the damage I caused her, I will carry this on my heart and pray for her.

Here the Christians may not want to forbear with me, and I understand.

We either have a Heavenly Father who forbears with us and waits long for the harvest, or we have a morally incomprehensible God who perpetually holds the Sword of Damocles over our heads while professing to be love. No “bedrock” of faith there for me.

Maybe I just say that because I’m a pipsqueak of the faith, and all you giants of the faith can cuddle up to a father who rages on and on, page after page in the Bible with threats and dark speech.

I can’t cuddle up, or buck up, or suck up to that–not the way I grew up. Not happening.

I’ll take the God of my heart, and split the change with the ancients who were probably abused as children and therefore lived in the darkness of the misapprehension of God.

I have not so learned Christ.

You can only speak as individuals.

And you don’t have to be as ham-fisted about it as I often am.

And maybe you can try to develop a more rounded moral matrix so that you are not so polarized. Alden Thompson is right, in my opinion: you need each other.

I’ll pray for you all. I hope you will pray for me. If you do, maybe the next time someone tries to win me back to The Truth, I’ll respond from an open heart of love.

Thank you.

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Well, you just gave a beautiful sermon in humility and forbearance! Bless you, I think we’re on parallel, and maybe even converging, paths on all this.

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Thank you, Barry, for this review. This book looks like it will be worthwhile time spent. It reminds me a bit of Augustine: " In the essentials, unity. In the non essentials, liberty. And in all things, charity."

I wish the Sabbath school quarterly we just went through on Romans had emphasized this… this being a practical theme of Paul’s gospel. I wish Protestantism and Adventism, in particular, held this as a central value, rather than doctrinal conformity. I resolve to live and love more this way myself.

Frank

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Well, well, well… You’re off with the right attitude.

No need to rejoin the SDA church but mighty proud of your insight.

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Vary fascinating insight by Barry on a book i only read the review of. Thanks!

I am dealing with the subject of forbearance from two distinct platforms. The SDA church of which I am still a member, and the Christian religion as the umbrella to 32% of the world population and 40.000+ denominations.

9 years ago I chose to walk away from the Christian religion to become a “follower of God” for theological reasons. I did a serious study of the “Christian religion” and its demographic-socio-cultural patterns and I saw the profile then of what I see today. I attended a non-SDA church for 10 years with my family with a very well known Pastor which was instrumental in my walking out of the Christian religion. It was was of the most enlightening times of my life, after having grown, been a pastor for 30 years, my Dad having been a SDA pastor all his life, and having been basically nurtured by the SDA culture and mindset. I am deeply grateful. Not demeaning any of it.

I chose to start an independent-multi-denominational church, which I have done for 9 years, and again, it has been one of the most fulfilling experiences of my life.

i remain committed to the “historical-prophetic” SDA MOVEMENT, EGW, and the basic understanding of God calling a group of people in 1844 to venture into a new movement. (Many former SDA fight me back on EGW. The reason why I can handle the lady it’s because my theological filter for the Bible and EGW are the same. I don’t have one theological view of the Bible, and another of EGW, which I find to be case with former SDA that discount EGW as a prophet of God. Her “OCD” writings, obsessive repetition that could be spelled in one sentence, her “perceived” errors, don’t bother me, because i believe the same about the Bible. God speaks “inspired” messages, which become “messy” because of the messenger, culture, and language.)

Now, “forbearance.” Yes, it’s a spiritual discipline and it’s more than tolerance or patience.

Forbearance within the SDA church. I hear many exercising this spiritual discipline, specially in the most educated settings of the SDA Church regarding the ordination of women… Not much else. Many others won’t have anything to do with “forbearance.” Those are the ones calling me “go back to the truth” and I know they pray for my salvation, for which I am grateful.

I share two concerns.

  1. There is a greater concern about forbearance which is my guiding light at the moment.

Namely, the Christian religion in an “Post-Christian era.” I believe God is raising an “EMERGENT CHURCH” in the world which is composed of individuals, groups, individual churches, people from all paths of life, as a movement. It’s not a new religion, it’s not a new denomination. It will never be. It’s a “movement.” I like to describe it as the “REMNANT” of the Kingdom of God on earth of people preparing for the Second Coming of God in Jesus, to this earth. (My choice of words regarding the “remnant” is deliberate. It’s not the “remnant” as a branch of the the Christian religion in the form of the SDA movement, (1844) and not now, a branch of the SDA movement referring to the “special-super-law abiding people” that will be the chosen in the time of the end- Revelation 12:17; 14:12)

I believe the “REMNANT” of the “Kingdom of God” (KoG: as God’s people from Genesis to revelation) is composed of people who respond to the “last message” which will mark the people of God in the time of the end: namely LOVE and COMPASSION. (Matthew 24:12: context; John 13:35: mark; Romans 10:13: principle; Matthew 25:31-45: final test)

I don’t hear much being said about “forbearance” in the larger context of the Christian religion and the world.

If the “EMERGENT CHURCH” is composed of Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, some SDAs :slight_smile: Jews, Hindus, atheists, agnostics, secular humanists, LGTBQ, people from different cultures, races, (who hear God calling them to manifest LOVE and COMPASSION in a world empty of it, it also means that this shift of consciousness trumps theological differences) then “FORBEARANCE” becomes the mark of God’s people in the time of the end. Which makes all the sense in the world. To accept a Buddhist or an atheist who is “loving” without judging his theology or understanding of God, while accepting that LOVE and COMPASSION is what God values the most, is ultimately the exercise of forbearance.

I perhaps go further, “Forbearance: A Theological Ethic for the Members of the “Emergent Church” as the Remnant of God’s Kingdom on Earth.”

  1. The second concern is “forbearance” as a psychological “excuse” to impede the “final shift.” While Paul speaks of forbearance, he is also very clear on what the “old message” and the “new Gospel” is all about.

I believe the majority of people in the world will avoid becoming a part of the “emergent church” in the false “spirit of forbearance.”

How do we distinguish “forbearance” as an authentic spiritual discipline in dealing with “disagreeable” issues within a “community” (SDA or global village with 5++ religions), versus, “forbearance” as a “dysfunctional-denial” response to the fear of change?

That’s the question I ponder on… God in Jesus manifested radical forbearance towards sinners, while he was very firm with the religion who was on its way to becoming “false religion.”

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I believe that the reason that forbearance is so unpopular is that it permits–even encourages-- the truth preached by the politically weak to persuade.

IOW, truth can afford to be fair, error cannot.

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You raise many interesting issues. I’ll add just a point of clarification. Throughout the book Davis asserts that forbearance does not mean giving up one’s convictions nor accepting just any belief that comes down the road. In fact, holding to one’s convictions is the very reason why forbearance is necessary, both in the community of the church and outside it. Indifference toward what really matters is debilitating. To go a step further, I believe that indifference to what others hold dear is what is known as ‘tolerance’ these days. But what Davis is trying to persuade us of is that we can and should be convicted on a few essentials (the Incarnation, God’s grace to us, our own need of righteousness, etc), that we should hold those with the understanding that this is what God has convicted us of, and that where we differ with others, patience and forbearance play a role. There is much that others may believe that we need not spark a fight over. The things that are essentials we hold close, hold with gratitude, share as we are asked, and forbear on the rest.

The chapter on ‘Friendship’ seemed key to me; the church community can be the place where we form deep friendships. We don’t just dump our friends when we disagree with them, we forbear with them in patience and good humor.

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The difference, as you point out, between tolerance and forbearance is absolutely essential. It’s a distinction I’ve been struggling with and Davis’ ideas on forbearance have helped me understand it better. They are also helping me remain committed to the good that continues in this country without growing numb to the evils that we perpetuate.

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Barry, thank you, very insightful. i will get the book.

I will risk a second comment.

Davis asserts the primacy of accepting the other person as a child of God. Relationship comes first. Forebearance is the spiritual framework to address difference of culture, belief and behavior, over which compromise is unlikely.

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Yes, that’s right. Good point!

By embracing our own, and others humanity honestly, unpretentiously, globally is perhaps the only human characteristic capable of sharing even a whiff of divinity. Not doing so ( instead elevating, or denigrating self, or other) and we become a spewable stench.
Pray we become a sweet aroma-perhaps this is simplistic definition of your word here, but it seems to work.