On May 14, Rev. Dr. Timothy Hart-Andersen, Senior Pastor of Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church, preached the last of his three sermons on Presbyterian Principles. This one focused on our duty to exercise mutual forbearance toward each other.
As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.
Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.
Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.
And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful.
Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God.
And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.
We come today to the final sermon in this series exploring the Historic Principles of Church Order from the constitution of the Presbyterian Church. These principles were adopted in the late 18th century to help the church maintain “order” in its life, but the principles do much more. They offer essential guidance to us as individuals seeking to follow Jesus in our time.
There are eight historic principles; we’ve focused on two so far: “God alone is Lord of the conscience – we carry God’s love in our minds and hearts as a compass in life.” “Truth is in order to goodness – facing the truth, even if it painful, leads to goodness.”
And finally, this principle:
“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. It is our duty to exercise mutual forbearance toward each other.”
Those 18th century Presbyterians had read their Bible. The notion of being kind to one another, even in the face of hostility, appears throughout the gospels. Jesus takes it to an extreme when he tells us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us.
How do we live like that? The letter to the Colossians has some advice:
- “Therefore, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lordhas forgiven you, so you also must forgive. (Colossians 3:12-23)
New life in Christ is like shedding old clothes and donning a new self. I have watched that happen many times over the years, as people come to fresh commitment to their faith, or come to faith for the first time. When we follow Jesus, we put on new clothes. We take on a new identity.
Last Thursday the elders of the church welcomed new members into the life of our congregation. We will receive them in worship next week. The 20 or so individuals are not coming to Westminster for social reasons, or because we’re a well-run non-profit. They are, rather, shedding an old way of life, each in their own way, and putting on a new identity. They want to discern with us what it means to follow Jesus in our complicated time. If they serve on a committee or sing in the choir that’s great; but let us be clear: church is about taking on, putting on, a new identity.
Among other things, our Presbyterian ancestors say, that new identity expects of us mutual forbearance.
This past week I found myself on an airplane flying back to Minneapolis, next to an older man wearing the hat and jacket of someone with whom I assumed I would disagree on any number of issues. He wanted to talk. Has that ever happened to you? My strategy was to open my laptop and go to work on this sermon. He tried to engage me multiple times; finally, I obliged. We were beginning our descent to Minneapolis and with his opening question to me I thought he and I might start a descent of our own.
“Is it true what they say about crime in Minneapolis?” he asked.
“I’m not sure what you’re hearing,” I replied, and then told him about the decline in crime in the city as reported in the news recently. He seemed skeptical.
Then – maybe, I confess, to see how he might respond – I said that things would be even better if there weren’t so many guns. He proceeded to tell me he owned an AR-15, and he didn’t want anyone taking it from him because he needed it for protection.
It was clear we were headed toward serious turbulence. I was determined not to give an inch on this topic about which I have strong feelings. We were in a small airplane. He had the window seat; I had the aisle. I had him cornered.
Then I remembered the historic principle in the sermon I was working on, sitting next to him. “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. ”
To forbear means to exercise restraint, show patience, demonstrate self-control. That is not where I was headed with my seatmate. I decided to try practicing what I was planning to preach.
I began by assuming he was “a person of good character.” It helped to think of him as someone’s grandfather – it takes one to know one, even if we did have opposing views. I set out to patiently listen to him, and then, to my relief, he sat quietly listening to me when it was my turn.
There we were, two grandfathers representing American polarity on that little plane. We went back and forth for some time, working hard to keep it polite and genuinely hear the other. Both of us were pleased to find one area about which we did agree: the need for more mental health support in our communities.
I left him in Minneapolis. He was headed to Salt Lake. When I told him I was a Presbyterian minister, he smiled and said he was a Lutheran. I doubt I changed his mind about guns, and I know he did not change mine, but our exchange had been surprisingly helpful. I had the sense that if we had more time, we might have found more common ground.
It is our duty to exercise mutual forbearance toward each other.
I first learned that historic Presbyterian principle back in the heat of the major church struggle over the full inclusion of LGBTQ persons in the life and ministry of our denomination. Not unlike other struggles to expand the rights of people, those of us advocating change received a lot of pushback. Some of it was ugly. It was even worse for those who embodied the pain of the church’s exclusion. Individuals were shunned, kicked out of churches, subject to cruelty and hate.
It was difficult in that time to “exercise mutual forbearance” toward those on the opposing side. We consciously and carefully referred to them not as the enemy but as “other Presbyterians,” to remind ourselves that we weren’t that far apart on every issue. There might be some common ground between us. We held firm that God’s love extended to all God’s people, and that God’s call to serve the church could come to any faithful person. We did that while trying to engage those who disagreed in a way that respected their full humanity, hoping they might reciprocate, and some did.
The church finally became supportive of its LGBTQ members. Several hundred congregations left the denomination, including some in our presbytery, but I think more would have left were it not for some on both sides of the struggle committed to exercising the historic principle of mutual forbearance toward each other.
“Above all,” Colossians urges us, “Clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.”
The Church, like the human community, has always struggled to hold in tension internal disagreement while staying together. The historic principle of mutual forbearance acknowledges that we do not all have to agree on everything. We never will. But when we write off someone with whom we disagree, or make them our enemy, we have little chance of ever finding common ground.
There are truths and forms with respect to which (people) of good characters and principles may differ. That principle is not only Presbyterian – it is foundational to any functioning democracy. In the church we call the power that binds us together the love of God; in civil society it’s a shared sense of national purpose. We seem to have lost that, or are in danger of losing it.
When mutual forbearance is thrown out, democracy is on a collision course with itself and headed for deep trouble. With the mutual animosity characteristic of our time, we run the risk of losing any shared commitments and fracturing that which ties us to one another.
It is the duty, those Presbyterians said back then, both of private Christians and societies to exercise mutual forbearance toward each other. Forbearance – both as individuals and collectively. The Letter to the Colossians is not written to a private party; it is directed at a community.
The future belongs to people and communities that can learn to live with those with whom they disagree and may even consider an enemy.
Every year in Israel, Palestinians and Israelis hold an event called Joint Memorial Day. It began in 2005 to “try to break the chain of revenge and hatred.”
The first gathering 18 years ago had only 200 people. Three weeks ago, 15,000 Israelis and Palestinians showed up. They told stories of grief and loss on both sides – and listened to them. They publicly committed themselves to end the cycle of violence that only begets more violence. That is true in any society, including ours.
“It’s possible to use our pain in a different way,” an Arab father whose ten-year old daughter was killed by Israeli soldiers said at the event.
An Israeli man whose sister was killed by a suicide bomber said, “It is easy and natural to hate, be angry, want revenge. But I am convinced this is the best way to leverage my feelings and my loss for the good of my people and this country,”
That is the exercise of courageous mutual forbearance. If Israelis and Palestinians can do it, anyone can. Peace with justice will not come to the world until we break repeated patterns of hatred and revenge, violence and more violence between nations and neighbors.
To survive, our own democracy depends on finding a way to live together in a divided house with those we may be tempted to see as enemies. That is true for the Church, as well.
This may not be happy news for us, because it’s easy and, if we’re honest, strangely satisfying to spiral down into anger and dismissiveness toward others. I know this, because I struggle with this tension all the time. It surfaced on that airplane ride this past week.
Instead, the letter to the Colossians invites us to put on new life, to clothe ourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and trusting God’s love to bind us together.
The three historic principles we have explored all start and finish with God’s love. They offer guidance to us in this troubled world, as we follow Jesus: God alone is Lord of the conscience. Truth is in order to goodness. It is our duty to exercise mutual forbearance toward each other.
In the end, only the power of God’s love working in us and in others will lead to that new day, a day where justice breaks forth and peace flourishes on earth and the human community lives in harmony.
That day is the great gift God has already given in Jesus Christ, the one whom we seek to follow and serve.
Thanks be to God.
I wholeheartedly agree that we should act with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness and patience with everyone we meet and with whom we interact. This includes forgiveness of others for what we perceive as their errors.
We may still try to teach and admonish others. And we need to acknowledge that others may not agree with us. This is when mutual forbearance or restraint, patience and self-control come in.
I also must confess that I tend to interact with others who, I believe, agree with me on contentious issues of our political and social life and try to avoid issues that might provoke disagreement.
As a result, I think that many others and I need practice of interacting with others who hold different opinions on issues like gun control and certain political leaders.
Tim’s account of his spontaneous response to a fellow airplane passenger who raised the question of crime in Minneapolis seemed inadequate. Given the vague nature of the other man’s comment, a better response by Tim could have been something like the following: “I’m not sure what you have heard on this subject, but during the COVID crisis and afterwards, Minneapolis experienced a bad rash of car jackings and thefts, high speed, reckless auto traffic that killed and injured many people and many gun-caused injuries and deaths. But recently there have been reported declines in these horrible crimes. I should also mention that later this month two downtown Minneapolis churches—Westminster and Central Lutheran—are co-hosting a national Festival of Homiletics for clergy of various churches.”
 Previous posts about this series of sermons: The Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), dwkcommentaries.com (May 11, 2023); Minneapolis Westminster Presbyterian Church: Presbyterian Principles: God alone is Lord of the conscience, dwkcommentaries.com (May 12, 2023); Minneapolis Westminster Presbyterian Church: Presbyterian Principles: Truth is in order to goodness, dwkcommentaries.com (May 13, 2023).
 Rev. Dr. Timothy Hart-Andersen, Sermon: Presbyterian Principles: It is our duty to exercise mutual forbearance toward each other, Westminster Presbyterian Church (Minneapolis) (May 14, 2023); Bulletin, Westminster Presbyterian Church (May 14, 2023) (the Bulletin’s cover contained the full statement of this Principle).