Forbear with One Another
Members of the blood-bought church of Jesus Christ have a holy calling to put up with one another. Revel for a moment in that “holy calling” part. In the eternal counsels of God, we were predestined to salvation (Eph. 1:3–14). Then, in time, we were grafted into a local body of believers to form a distinct outcropping of Christ’s body (1 Cor. 12:12). It’s in community that we labor for his eternal kingdom (Col. 3:1–4). Our life together is one of glorious mission.
Now consider that “put up with” bit. It’s so earthy you can almost smell the body odor. Bear with one another. Endure your brothers and sisters in Christ as you live together as God’s family. Does such a humdrum duty merit more than a passing nod? Bear with me.
Forbearance is more than a nicety we extend to fellow church members when convenient. It’s a moral responsibility: we are called to clothe ourselves with the virtue of “bearing with one another” in fidelity to Christ (Eph. 4:2; Col. 3:13; cf. Rom. 15:1). It’s also a moral skill: we must grow wise in putting up with, enduring, patiently abiding, and choosing to live at peace with one another in Christian community.
FORBEARANCE: LOVE IN WORK BOOTS
Forbearance is a viable concept in our culture, but it has a musty smell to it. The prevailing philosophy of Western individualism orients us to develop our personal subset of values. In expressing those values, our world commends aggressive action and efficient accomplishment, even if we must trample others in the process. So your boss may offer a passing word of commendation in a performance review for demonstrating forbearance with others. But you’re not likely to leverage such a virtue into a promotion.
The local church, of course, is different. It’s a spiritual family in which putting up with one another is a virtue that leads to countless blessings.
As we learn to deploy this virtue, we must face the reality that forbearance is applied primarily in spaces where we encounter believers who bore, annoy, irritate, frustrate, intimidate, exasperate, or just plain make our lives hard. Forbearance certainly happens with easy people. But it flexes its muscles when we relate to people we find difficult.
Invariably, when Christian brothers and sisters bore, annoy, irritate, frustrate, intimidate, or exasperate us, such visceral responses are rooted in our own sinful passions. Forbearance reigns in those passions. It expresses enduring love for people our flesh wants to fight against or flee from. Forbearance is love in work boots. With love, it bears all things and endures all things. With love, forbearance is not arrogant, irritable, or resentful. It unrelentingly puts up with the weaknesses, failures, folly, and off-putting traits, habits, and practices of fellow church members.
This means putting up with that brother whose personality grates against your spirit, and that sister whose preferences never seem to align with yours. It means bearing with that member who talks too much, or processes too slowly. It means enduring that member who loves awkward conversations, that ministry leader who enforces policies you find ridiculous, and that family who touts political views that give you indigestion. It means forbearing with that saint who struggles to break free from an exasperating pattern of sin. It means putting up with that elder who has hurt your feelings or displays weaknesses that frustrate or annoy you. It means choosing to endure biblical sermons, week after week, even when they run longer than you desire or prove less captivating than you wish.
Such church members do not deserve your forbearance. They haven’t earned it by their exemplary deeds. Indeed, if you plopped them down before some unrestrained unbelievers, they would get an earful. But these same people are your family in Christ, and you are called to put up with them just as they are—at least for now.
FOR NOW, FORBEAR
Indeed, it is this “for now” aspect that upholds forbearance as virtuous. There’s admittedly a spiritually anemic, spineless species of tolerance that masquerades as forbearance. Genuine forbearance is virtuous because it zealously imitates the Holy Spirit’s sanctifying work in the lives of the redeemed. I put up with him and with her because God is putting up with all of us (Acts 13:18; Rom 2:4). God is slowly chiseling us into the likeness of Christ with all the forbearance of a perfect Father.
Let me put it another way: bearing with other believers is an active partnership with the Holy Spirit. The Father never quits on his children, and the Spirit never ceases to bear with our sins and weaknesses until he has the prize he’s after—our conformity to the Son. So when we fail to bear with a church member, we disengage from the Spirit’s sanctification efforts and thus grieve him.
FORBEAR, UNTIL WHEN?
Bear with me a little longer.
Our forbearance is incomplete until we recognize that it has a shelf life. The virtue of putting up with sinners can devolve into a vice. God’s forbearance is not eternal. The day arrives when his justice renders any further extension of forbearance unjust (Matt 17:17; 25:41–46). So while grace and mercy must fuel persevering love for sinners, local churches must also determine when forbearance has run its course with a member who persists in unrepentant sin.
The tool Christ gives his church for making such a determination is not your personal, unilateral opinion as judge and jury that we’ve all put up with so-and-so long enough. The tool God provides is corrective church discipline. We must continue to bear with every member of the body until the church determines together that we must all stop doing so. Disciplinary correction constitutes a final extension of forbearance in the hope that the erring member repents and is restored to fellowship (Matt 18:15–20). But it’s not until the assembly issues an unheeded call to repentance that we may suspend forbearance.
Until then, we must bear with one another in steadfast love with our eyes set on glory. So when forbearing another church member proves hardest, let us remember the one who chose to love us when we were his enemy (Rom 5:8). Let us remember that he equally chose to love that difficult member. Let us remember that very soon, when we all stand glorified in the presence of our Savior, there will be nothing more to forbear. Love will have won. Forever.