Commentary

Princeton Theological Seminary is wrestling with the needs of forbearance these days, ever since awarding and then retracting its annual Kuyper Prize to PCA minister Tim Keller. Many members of the Princeton community saw Keller’s selection as endorsement of his opposition to the ordination of women and LGBTQ persons, and experienced it as a challenge to their own welcome at the seminary. Once Princeton dropped plans to honor Keller, other members of the community (particularly evangelicals) wondered whether that decision implied that they were not welcome. There have been abundant missteps along the way, resulting in widespread pain and confusion.

And yet it could have been worse. When the controversial Charles Murray, known for arguments that suggest intellectual inferiority among persons of color, came to Middlebury College, he was met on my campus with intense protest that sabotaged his speech and injured a faculty member.

The result has been an atmosphere of lingering distrust among students, faculty, and the administration. Middlebury’s situation dissolved into violence and police investigations. At Princeton Keller spoke without interruption, the president conveyed regret for mistakes, and students expressed sympathy for the challenges of his job.

What was the difference? Perhaps one reason the events played out differently at Princeton is because folks there insisted on seeing one another as members of a community, participants in the one Body of Christ, and in that spirit mustered what Dietrich Bonhoeffer once called the “ministry of bearing” essential to maintaining community. In 1938, Bonhoeffer wrote a book about his own seminary called Life Together, in which he emphasized that the enjoyment of fellowship with other Christians is a privilege, a gift of God’s grace. But he also understood that the church is a human community, and therefore not immune from conflict. Christians, he said, ideally respond to their inevitable conflict with a reassertion of mutual care and intentional practices of community building in the name of Christ.

Bonhoeffer understood the ministry of bearing to be a response to God’s grace that draws the church together. We bear the burden of others’ freedom, by which he meant that we accept the challenge and the grace that accompany diverse personalities. But he acknowledged that it is not always the differences themselves that cause conflict in the church. Sometimes it is our perception that those differences are the result of others’ errors. Besides the freedom of other Christians, then, Bonhoeffer insists that we are called to bear with what we might judge to be others’ sins.

Dealing with what we perceive to be another’s sin, especially sin that wounds us, is a hard project. Our concerns with another’s convictions and their threat to our communion with them are real and important, but Bonhoeffer argued that to bear the perceived sinner with patience and love is to mimic the grace of God.

In the exercise of forbearance, we insist on the maintenance of community even while we navigate our disagreements with persistence and integrity. Forbearance invites us to live into our differences with honesty, humility, patience, wisdom, and faithfulness, all rooted in a hope in God’s future and gratitude for the forgiveness of God. Forbearance is not an unrealistic attempt to squelch conflict. It is not tone deaf insistence that we all just get along, ignoring real differences that some of us experience as profound injustice and others as grave deviations from God’s truth. Forbearance does not regard conflict as a problem to solve as rapidly as possible or a crisis to endure regrettably. Instead, the practice of forbearance invites us to recognize moments of discord as opportunities to rededicate ourselves to each other, to love and respect each other as kin in Christ, and to practice habits that build Christian community in the midst of difference.

Despite the pain, it looks like Princeton is doing some of the good, hard work that forbearance requires.

Through conversations, preach-ins, and prayer, members of the seminary community are wrestling with their differences in a common pursuit of truth and justice, and in the name of the unity of the Body of Christ. Certainly the less healthy way we dealt with our crisis here at Middlebury says a lot about secular society’s need for more authentic models for building community, practicing virtue, and navigating disagreement. Perhaps the contrast between Princeton’s experience and Middlebury’s simply points out that we in the church have a wonderful opportunity for social witness before us. If we in the church can manage to actually strengthen community through the productive discomfort that disagreement brings, we just might offer a compelling template for the broader world, a world desperate for some inspiration out of its own entrenched divisions and incivilities.

James Calvin Davis teaches at Middlebury College in Vermont, and is the author of Forbearance: A Theological Ethic for a Disagreeable Church.

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