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Thinking Out Loud

A Case Study in Mutual Forbearance

by User Not Found | Aug 09, 2011
This blog post was written by Jonathan Yarboro.

The Rev. Jonathan Yarboro has served as the pastor of First Presbyterian Church, Wetumpka, Alabama, since graduating from Louisville Seminary in 2006.

The Form of Government section of the Book of Order of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), old and new versions, features a powerful term: mutual forbearance. The actual citation reads:

“…we also believe that there are truths and forms with respect to which [people] of good characters and principles may differ. And in all these we think it the duty both of private Christians and societies to exercise mutual forbearance toward each other” (G-1.0305 or F-3.0105).

This historic principle of church order is rooted in the understanding that unity is best exercised in diversity. Scripture clearly supports this understanding, but Western culture often does not. Examples of mutual forbearance do not make good headlines. As a matter of fact, I would argue that anyone wishing to define mutual forbearance in contemporary media would be hard pressed to find resource material. Much of today’s media paints a very different picture of how we live in relationship with others.

Some scholars have highlighted the significance of mutual forbearance in living one’s faith. All of my seminary professors in some way embodied what I have come to appreciate as one of the key elements of a faithful Church. Still, even religious headlines, especially within the Presbyterian denomination, underscore the difficulty human beings have in fully embracing the concept. How can we as “the church” begin to live in to what Scripture clearly calls us to do: to treat one another with respect and dignity, especially in the face of theological difference?

Since 2006, I have served as the pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Wetumpka, Alabama. This congregation of 160 members is nestled in the beautiful Coosa River basin of Central Alabama, the buckle of the Bible belt! First Church is a middle class congregation and has been, for the most part, since its founding in 1836. For 175 years, believers willing to call themselves Presbyterians have gathered here to worship, work, and witness. The history of this congregation is fascinating and multi-faceted. Allow me to share one crucial piece of it with you.

Over the years, each time a potentially divisive decision has been placed before this congregation, someone in the church has stood, just before the vote, and proclaimed in some manner, “No matter how this vote turns out, we will not split. If we split, we die.” Consider, briefly, the implications of this statement.

Each time this statement has been shared, it has come from a different person. At times, it has come from an Elder, but not always. It has never come from the same person twice, and never from the pastor. What this says to me is that the main reason First Presbyterian Church of Wetumpka continues as a thriving community of believers is its commitment to mutual forbearance. This congregation has persevered through civil wars, world wars, racial wars, denominational splits and unions, and more.

In his book, God’s Tapestry: Reading the Bible in a World of Religious Diversity, Gene March, A.B. Rhodes Professor Emeritus of Old Testament at Louisville Seminary, explains why this principle is so hard to embody. He says the stakes are higher the more common our ground becomes. [1] In other words, we may find it easier to practice mutual forbearance with those in other churches than we do within our own. Recent tensions over changes in Presbyterian church polity certainly support this notion, but they do not have to.

Perhaps we should look for guidance from the faith communities that have weathered the storms of living together as the people of God. What would we find? I am willing to bet we would find expressions of deep faith and piety, great joy and intense pain, and humility above all else. Sounds like mutual forbearance and a productive excursion of faith to me. How about you?

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[1] W. Eugene March, God’s Tapestry: Reading the Bible in a World of Religious Diversity (Louisville, Westminster John Knox, 2009) 103.

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