By Dick Barrett
There is an old saying that goes something like, “We get to pick our friends, but we don’t get to pick our family.” Well, I would add, “We don’t get to pick our neighbors.” In the Great Commandment(s) Jesus tells us to “love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and all your strength. The second is like this: Love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:30-31a).
What Jesus doesn’t tell us is who our neighbors actually are. Are they the people that live around us? Are they the people that we agree with and have affinity towards? Are they our brothers and sisters in Christ? Do they include the people I disagree with? Might they even include my enemies? I think Jesus meant everyone. Our neighbors are the people that we encounter at any specific time. It might be our family members, it might be the people we live around (especially the ones I struggle with the most), it might be our brothers and sisters in Christ (including the ones that I am the furthest from theologically), and it might be my enemy (the one who has hurt me the most). All those people are my neighbors, and Jesus calls us to love them all in the same way he loves us.
I believe that one of the things the past two years of the COVID pandemic has taught us as a nation is that we are not very good at loving our neighbors as ourselves. Many have put themselves above their neighbors. Many have disrespected and treated with contempt those they have disagreed with. Even more disappointing than what appears to be a lack of love for our neighbors as a nation, is the lack of love for our neighbors as the church. We base our decisions on what’s best for me, we have criticized others in person and on social media, we have cut ourselves off from those we have disagreed with, and some who identify themselves as Christians have even gone so far as to commend, advocate and/or participate in violence against those whom they disagree with. If there is truth to that song, “They’ll Know We are Christians by Our Love,” then it really shouldn’t surprise us that many people today, both inside and outside the church, are questioning what the purpose of church really is. Do we have something different to offer than those outside the church have to offer?
In 2015 Mennonite Church USA’s Delegate Assembly passed a resolution entitled Forbearance in the Midst of Differences. While that resolution was calling for forbearance specifically in relation to conferences, congregations, and members in the church who have come to different conclusions regarding whether it is permissible to bless same-sex covenanted unions, forbearance can and should be extended to all the issues that might divide Christians. I must confess that in 2015 I struggled with that resolution and with the whole idea of forbearance. Most of my struggle was because I had little knowledge of what biblical forbearance was all about. In fact, at that time I was even questioning if forbearance is actually biblical.
Over the past six years I have been trying to become more knowledgeable about biblical forbearance. The English word “forbearance” is found only a couple of times in the Bible and in different passages, depending on which version of the Bible one uses. In the New International Version it is found only once: “God did this to demonstrate his righteousness, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished” (Romans 3:25b). In the King James version it is used to translate Paul’s instruction about how we are to love fellow Christians: “forbear one another in love” (Ephesians 4:2), and “forbearing one another, and forgiving one another” (Colossians 3:13). In many places and in many translations the idea of forbearance is translated as patience. Forbearance might best be captured in Peter’s second letter when he writes, “The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness, instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9 NIV). While in many passages the two words can be used interchangeably, and patience is always included in forbearance, forbearance requires more.
James Calvin Davis, in his book Forbearance – A Theological Ethic for a Disagreeable Church, one of the few books I have been able to find looking at forbearance as a theological concept, writes, “To forbear literally means to hold back. The several words translated as ‘forbearance’ in the English versions of the Bible usually capture the sense of someone abstaining from acting on a judgement” (p.10). He elaborates further, “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 as an act of grace and love embodied in Jesus Christ” (p. 13).
Forbearance does not mean that we agree with fellow Christians on any given topic. In fact, it means just the opposite. It is the recognition that we do disagree and we choose to remain in a loving relationship with that person, or those persons, with whom we disagree (however that relationship may look), acknowledging that it is not our position to judge. Forbearance is what God has chosen to do with all of us, withholding the punishment for our sins and extending the offer of the gift of salvation and eternal life through Jesus Christ as an act of grace and love. A quote that I was recently reminded of says, “It is God’s responsibility to judge, it is the Holy Spirit’s responsibility to convict people of their sin and cause them to repent, and it is our responsibility to love them in the same way that Jesus Christ has loved us.”
Whoever our neighbors might be, our brothers and sisters in Christ fall in that group, and we are commanded to forbear in love towards them. Trying to force one side or another on any given topic to agree with the other, and/or demanding one side or the other to repent, is not biblical forbearance nor Christian love.
In the year or years ahead, we will be facing some difficult decisions as a conference of Mennonite churches throughout Ohio and the surrounding states. While this has always been the case, it is even more challenging in what has become a very polarized time. Just as important as the decisions we make will be how we engage in the process of discernment and making those decisions. Will we choose to respond in the same ways that the outside world has responded to all the conflict over the past couple of years? Will we respond in the same way we have responded in the not too distant past? Or, will we respond in a way that honors God, forbearing and loving one another?