Mutual Forbearance Has Its Limits

August 8, 2011

“Can’t we just all get along?” Yes, we can: we can be cordial, gracious in our dealings, non-attacking, and patient with the weaknesses of others.

Awhile back I was having a dinner party for folks from many Christian traditions. One replied to the invitation with a private word, saying his wife would not feel free to attend if alcohol of any kind was served at the party. I told him, “Having your wife with us is far more important to me than exercising my Christian liberty to have wine with dinner. Tell her she is more than welcome, and we will refrain from serving alcohol.”

For my dinner guest, this was a condition of fellowship based on her interpretation of Scripture and the practice of her faith. Did I agree with it? No, but in the grand scheme of things, for me it was not a big deal. For her it was. So the forbearance flows in her direction.

Those who support the leadership of people committed to homosexuality believe that they are asking an equivalent favor of those who are not so committed.  “Would you please not make a big deal of it and let this person be ordained?”

But the situations are not equivalent at all. First of all, we are talking about ordination decisions that are made on behalf of the whole church, to be welcomed by the whole church no matter where a minister might transfer. This is not a matter of private opinion but of general policy in this fellowship we call the PCUSA. Secondly, in this instance the forbearance is expected to flow in the other direction, toward the less restrictive view. For the one holding to the restriction, the request is tantamount to creating a stumbling block.

When the apostle Paul instructed the church about forbearance, it was always in the direction of the less restrictive (more free) voluntarily restricting their behavior so as not to offend the conscience of the more restrictive (less free).  The decision about serving wine for dinner falls into this category.

But in matters related to clear biblical teaching (case already made in previous posts) which justify a more restrictive pattern, for one side of the church to say, “You have to let some of us break this rule” is to ask the other side of the church to give up (permanently) a matter of conscience. This is not mutual forbearance, this is domination.

But, you might ask, isn’t imposing the other more restrictive view on the whole church another form of domination? If the prohibition were not so clearly spelled out in Scripture, perhaps this would be the case. But because the prohibition comes from God, God is the one who is demanding submission, not a church faction. If we are God’s people, we will “joyfully submit to the Lordship of Jesus Christ” in the matter. This is at the heart of Christian obedience, and we’re called to it as a basic expectation of our life in Christ and our life together as a church.


4 Responses to “Mutual Forbearance Has Its Limits”

  1. George McIlrath Says:

    Right on, again. Wonderfully articulate, but so concise! Bravo & PTL!!!

  2. Mateen Elass Says:


    What an excellent contribution of truth, so clearly illustrated and biblically anchored. Thank you for this post!

  3. Art Seaman Says:

    As one who entertains regularly, with Muslims, Coptic Christians, lesbians, gays, reformed alcoholics, Vegans, vegetarians, and others: I find the woman’s request offensive. No one is forcing her to drink alcohol. She may refuse a dish or a drink, but to impose her beliefs (not substantiated by Scripture-vis a vis the Wedding at Cana for one) is boorish, and dictatorial. Let her stay home. She will miss my Chateaubriand with Bearnaise sauce, my Creme Brulee with Amaretto glaze and my poached pear dessert in Medoc sauce. Will she also preclude discussions about taxes, abortion, the great disparity in wealth in the nation, and the racism in churches?

  4. Dave Moody Says:

    Thanks Mary…
    Love is patient, kind… and not easily offended. Thanks for being so gracious in public and, apparently, private as well.

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