Forbearance: A Theological Ethic for a Disagreeable Church. James Calvin Davis. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 2017.
Summary: Commends the practice of and virtues related to forbearance, as encouraged by Paul in Ephesians and Colossians as an ethic for dealing with theological differences within the church.
“Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.” (Colossians 3:13, NIV)
“Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love.” (Ephesians 4:2, NIV).
The political landscape of the U.S. and other countries is not the only place where one might find division and rancor. Sometimes this arises within church denominations and even individual congregations. At times, this can be over something no more significant that the color of the new sanctuary carpet. At other times, these differences may be over matters of theological conviction, often ones carrying personal consequences. It is deeply troubling to see fractures and fragmentation in the one body of Christ. Currently, we are witnessing such occurrences around the Church’s understanding of human sexuality, and particularly its beliefs about lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered, and other expressions of sexual orientation and identity, and the kinds of practices that will be affirmed (or not) and how the church will welcome and embrace persons who identify in these ways.
James Calvin Davis writes to churches facing these disagreements as a pastor of a mainline Protestant church and commends the biblical practice of forbearance, commended by the apostle Paul in the passages quoted above. It is clear from references to LGBT persons, and theological differences concerning LGBT sexuality, that this is the particular concern out of which this work arises, although the principles Davis enunciates, and the importance of cultivating the virtues related to forbearance have far wider implications, not only for church but for society.
He begins with a brief exegesis of the passages I have cited and discusses how important the practice of forbearance is as an alternative to destructive forms of theological conflict in the church. He then, in chapters 2 through 6, explores five important virtues implicit in the practice of forbearance: humility, patience, wisdom, faithfulness, and friendship grounded in love.
Perhaps two of the most important chapters are 7 and 8, which address concerns of truth and justice. Concerning truth, he discusses the importance of taking truth and conviction seriously, but also being open to study, to learning from others, and to changing one’s convictions. Likewise, his chapter on justice addresses what may be the most significant critique of forbearance, that it is commending a form of gradualism or “waiting” against which Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” Forbearance is not the same as waiting but rather a posture of how one deals with those with whom they differ even as they press for justice.
Davis concludes this work with arguing that for Christians to learn the practice of forbearance in disagreements within the church may be crucial to contribute to recovering civility in our public squares and political discourse. Clearly it stands to reason that if the church that confesses “one Lord, one faith, one baptism” cannot do this, how may we expect it of a broader society. It has been argued that the forms of congregational and representative government developed in the churches of the Reformation served as a training ground for a democratic republic. Might something like this pertain in our own day as well?
There is much with which I resonated in this argument about forbearance. I’ve long been troubled by how easily churches have divided from each other, and how such divisions undermine the church’s witness. That said, I found a subtle subtext in this work that concerned me that Davis’s formulation of “forbearance” will neither accomplish what is hoped for and may leave the church more vulnerable to apostasy.
First of all, there is a subtle implication in Davis’s writing that should churches practice forbearance, this will not only engender greater respect between differing parties, but that eventually they will embrace more progressive perspectives, rather than those historically embraced by the church. Davis does not seem to envision a process where progressives come to re-affirm a historic position, or a new synthesis that embraces both historical understandings of theological conviction coupled with a compassionate and consistent ethic that affirms the dignity of all. For those on the historic side of some of the conflicts Davis discusses, his proposal could feel like a slightly more genteel form of a war of attrition.
It is also troubling to me this doesn’t adequately (at least for me) speak to how the Church responds to issues from racism to nationalism to the resurgence of gnostic versions of Christianity that the church rejected early on as inconsistent with the Incarnation. Are we to forbear those who commend these beliefs in the church? Scripture uses different language, that of refutation for such beliefs, and those who hold them.
I found myself deeply torn reading this work. I am in great sympathy with the virtues the author commends and think that there are many disputes that might be resolved, or where we could “agree to disagree” while focusing on central truths where we share common ground. Yet I’m troubled both by the bias in Davis’s argument, and what I think is an insufficient recognition that forbearance and vigilance must walk hand in hand. The same apostle Davis commends also writes, “Watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers.” (1Timothy 4:16, NIV). Forbearance is one part of a “both-and” that includes vigilance. This is what it means to be a community shaped by both grace and truth.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher via Netgalley. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.