It takes lots of patience to live at peace with one another. Contrary to popular opinion, division is not a spiritual gift, though some would have us think so. I’m afraid we sometimes find ourselves taking cues on how to treat each other—both believers and unbelievers—from the circus that has become contemporary social discourse—played out in Facebook feuds and talking-head pundit shows.
In contrast, listen to the words of the Apostle Paul:
As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called (Ephesians 4:1-4).
In this passage, Paul highlights some fundamental attitudes and fundamental doctrines – one body, one Spirit, one Lord, faith, and baptism. It’s the attitudes I want to focus on, because without these, there really is no hope for unity—humility, gentleness, and patience!
It is the duty of every Christian to seek to establish and maintain brotherly connection, because that seems to be the way of Jesus. Unity is a command to be obeyed as much as any other in the New Testament. Unity is a commitment to hearing and interacting with one another in love. John Yoder calls this “reconciling conversation.” Such conversations reflect certain character traits that come from Jesus and the Holy Spirit and personify the kinds of patience that’s required to maintain a Christ-like level of brotherly conversation. Here are seven types of patience needed with believers whose judgments differ from our own.
Pedagogical patience – takes into account that human learning is gradual and occurs in sequences and stages.
Pastoral patience –takes into account the realities of trauma and healing, along with the patience required to help broken persons move toward trust and commitment.
Multicultural patience –it’s hard to understand each other when we are dealing with cultural or linguistic diversity. Our assumptions may not compute across that divide. Are we willing to work at it?
Collegial patience – needed by the minority and involves coming to terms with a dominate view without being convinced by it. (If you’re in a group of Christians and your view is outvoted, are you going to walk away mad and say, “Well, I lost it!”? Or are you going to hang in there with collegial patience to see if something good comes out of it?)
The patience of repentance – recognizes that even if one’s position is correct, that it has probably been presented inadequately at times, or even unfaithfully at times. (So you might need to repent for that).
The patience of finitude – the recognition that one may be wrong.
Apocalyptic patience – the awareness that all matters are not worked out in the broken reality in which we live, and that we must wait and hope for heaven, where there will be perfect unity and peace.
Here’s a few questions to further your conversation. (Caution: PATIENCE REQUIRED!)
What should be our stance toward Christians with whom we seriously disagree?
On what terms can we accept those with whom we disagree as fellow believers?
Is spiritual growth really possible if we can’t admit from time to time, “I may be wrong?” What’s the value of humbly admitting that to one another?
It was the wise Solomon who said, “Understanding is a fountain of life to those who have it” (Prov. 16:22). We normally assume that we are right and other Christians with whom we disagree are wrong. But it’s likely we have something to learn just as likely as we have something to teach. Furthermore, we are not ready to answer these questions unless we remember the terms on which God has accepted us.
I have seen it happen again and again, and probably you have too: the most immature member controlling the direction of the entire congregation. I have seen inappropriate behavior not only tolerated but emerge as the most effective way to get something done. I have seen churches give the mission of God away to the lowest common denominator – the personal preferences of a “weaker brother.” In these churches, the strongest person in the church is the one who is always offended.
In Leadership that Works, Leith Anderson writes about the tendency leaders have to reward dysfunction. Perhaps the most commonly rewarded dysfunction is the empowerment of the wrong people. Individuals who would be fired from their jobs or thrown in jail if they exhibited such behavior in the larger community are allowed to threaten, intimidate, control, and manipulate in the church. . . . I’m not saying we shouldn’t allow disturbed people into the church, but we shouldn’t allow disturbed people to disrupt the church. The difficulty comes when churches reward dysfunction rather than help people overcome it (Leadership That Works, 30).
Wouldn’t it be better if we applied the wisdom of Scripture to courageously confront inappropriate and immature behavior? I have found the following considerations to be helpful.
Be aware of the “herding instinct.”
This occurs when a dysfunctional person tries to drive the congregation to adopt a viewpoint aligned singularly with his own. As a result, the congregation ends up organizing, not around healthy leaders, but around the least mature.
According to Noel Friedman (A Failure of Nerve), the chronically anxious congregation almost seems to develop a “self” of its own to which everyone is expected to adapt. Dissent is discouraged, peace is valued more than progress, and problems are formulated in rigid black-and-white constructs with no room for both/and thinking (67). (A bible class on the Holy Spirit, for example, can erupt into World War III). In such an environment, there is constant tension and pressure for members to adapt to the dominant view. The result is that many congregations break apart in an argument over how they should stay together. (Have you ever see a video of the Taiwanese parliament? After sixty years they still leap across chairs and hit each other. In their attempt to agree upon the rules, they end up in anxious an heated arguments).
Other dangers abound. Church bulletins show little divergence from previous years because creativity and individuality are squashed. In turn, those who do not consider themselves part of the “herd” grow increasingly more frustrated. As a result, some of the finest and most talented people eventually leave and invest elsewhere. Be aware of the herding instinct.
Be willing to speak truth plainly.
I find it helpful to see how Jesus dealt with misguided critics. When a Pharisee was “surprised” that Jesus did not wash his hands before a meal, Jesus said to him, “Now then, you Pharisees clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness. . . . Did not the one who made the outside make the inside also? But now as for what is inside you—be generous to the poor, and everything will be clean for you” (Luke 11:37-41). This man was NOT a weaker brother, he was a legalist.
There’s a difference in hurting someone’s faith and catering to someone’s immaturity. Sometimes the most loving thing a leader can say is, “I’m sorry the issue is out of your comfort zone, but it’s not outside the gospel.” We do danger to the gospel and the church when we say we’re going to deny Christian liberty to keep an individual from being offended.
Lastly, seek a solution.
The Apostle Paul gives us solid guidance: Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace (Ephesians 4:2-3). These are the fundamental attitudes necessary for harmony in the body. When they are absent in the heart of the Christian, disruption is sure to come. Therefore, always seek to bring the brother or the sister you love back to the heart of Scripture. The goal is to love the individual while preserving the health of the body, to have the maturity to respect viewpoints other than our own, to say in the end, it’s not MY way or YOUR way, but OUR way.