Reforming the Ties that Bind:
Theological Virtues for Living Together in Difference

Plenary Address from the 2011 Conference,
Excerpted and Edited,  by James Calvin Davis, Middlebury College

Several years ago in our denomination, a task force was charged with thinking intentionally about our simultaneous responsibilities to the peace, unity, and purity of the church, in the face of intense theological disagreement, most notably over the issue of ordaining gay and lesbian candidates for ordination. This year, with the passage of 10-A, there are many Presbyterians who are again concerned with negotiating the balance of the denomination’s peace and unity with a duty to its purity.

To be sure, emphasizing the purity of the church is a biblical and Reformed priority. Both Scripture and our theological tradition suggest that it is a duty of the church in the world to reflect, to the best of its abilities, right belief and living. The First Letter to the Thessalonians reminds us, “For God did not call us to impurity but in holiness” (4:7). Similarly, Paul urged the Philippians, “Beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (Philippians 4:8).

The priority on purity is a reflection of our Reformed heritage. The Scots Confession, for instance, emphasizes the faithfulness of the Kirk as a prominent theme. It adds discipline to the two marks of the church Calvin himself identified, thereby drawing attention to that consistent theme in the Confession, that purity of doctrine and practice is a duty and trait of the faithful church.

Obviously in this latest round of debates over ordination that resulted in the passage of 10-A, Presbyterians on both sides of the issue claim that they are the defenders of the church’s purity, and that the other side tragically misrepresents the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Both sides of this debate can and have asserted that to stay in fellowship with their opponents puts at risk the integrity of the Gospel for which the PCUSA stands. These days more conservative congregations and clergy lament that they cannot stay in a church in which ordination is so understood and practiced, while some more liberal congregations and clergy may secretly or openly wish them to make good on their threat to leave. Each side argues that they are prosecuting the mandate of the Scots Confession, to repress vice and nourish virtue, by wishing for a fellowship devoid of the opposing view.

Virtues for Living Together

But I want to sketch out a theology, rooted in Reformed sources and principles, for living together with our difference. We cannot pretend that Presbyterians do not remain deeply divided on this and other issues. We cannot simply wish away the strength of genuine Christian conviction on one side or the other. But I want to claim that there is a mandate in our tradition for staying together, even with our difference, and there are theological resources in the Reformed tradition for guiding what living together in difference might look like, that don’t come at the expense of a commitment to pure witness to the Gospel.

Among the Reformed virtues that compel us to stay together in our difference, the chief virtue among them is humility. Humility is a Reformed virtue because it falls out of a Calvinist anthropology, a theological understanding of what it means to be human. What it means to be human is to be created as a masterpiece of God’s wisdom and benevolence, but created nonetheless, with all of the limitations that come from being creatures and not God. What it means to be human is to be created as a reflection of God’s goodness, only to have marred that reflection through pride and disobedience, relegating ourselves to a perpetual condition in which we turn from the good in favor of inordinate self-interest. As Christians, we call that read on the human condition “original sin.”

Sin aggravates the restrictions that naturally come from our finitude and limits the confidence we can have in our knowledge of what is good and right. Even for the Christian who enjoys the advantage of grace and the guidance of Scripture, the effects of sin remain, so that it is easy to overestimate the confidence with which we understand God’s intentions for us and the world.

So a Calvinist anthropology dictates that humility be a part of our character. And a theological commitment to humility requires that we make a habit of regularly admitting the limits to our own understanding. Humility urges each of us to admit that we could be wrong in matters small and significant. You could be wrong, or I could be wrong, but in the meantime we live together and struggle together in our shared commitment to Christ, muddling through our understanding of what that obligates us to be and do in this world.

This acknowledgement of our limitations encourages our second virtue, patience. A Reformed commitment to the virtue of patience is rooted both in our humble admission that our opponent may be more in the right than we are, but also in a Calvinist affirmation of the sovereignty of God. If a Reformed Christian anthropology convinces us that we cannot be overly assured that we understand God’s wishes more properly than someone else, Reformed theology also assures us that God is the final arbiter of truth and that God will make the right and the good known at the end of human history. Until that time, we pursue the truth, but our tradition also commends a certain amount of patience with the slow pace of human understanding, with the mysteries of God, and with the dissenting views of others. “But we appeal to you, brothers and sisters… Be at peace among yourselves. And we urge you, beloved, to admonish the idlers, encourage the faint hearted, help the weak, be patient with all of them” (1 Thessalonians 5:13-14, NSRV).

The exercise of patience toward our fellow Christians as we wallow through our shared finitude and truncated knowledge is itself a reflection of the third virtue essential for living together in disagreement, mutual respect. Respect for other human beings is an important corollary to the doctrines of creation and grace. In the face of extreme differences, in the presence of deep disagreements, we nonetheless show respect for one another out of respect for the imago dei and in imitation of the grace God extends to each of us.

And if God’s creative benevolence and gratuitous grace demand that we respect one another as human beings, how much more should we convey respect, kinship even, for one another within the church? Perhaps that’s the term we should use for this virtue, kinship, for the regard it implies is more than a generic deference. It is an investment in the well being of the other, even the other who stands for substantially the opposite of what you think is right for the church. “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you” (John 15:12, NSRV). The commandment isn’t to love those members of Christ’s community who substantially agree with you on important issues, with an escape clause for one’s theological opponents. The commandment doesn’t ask us to love those who are most like us, and abandon those who aren’t. We are commanded to love one another, as Christ has loved each one of us. Period. In that love commandment, as much as in the reflection of imago dei, lies the imperative for us to bind ourselves to one another in Christian kinship, even in the face of important disagreements.

Because we find ourselves extending respect to folks with whom we continue to disagree, a fourth virtue important to our living together as a community of faith is Christian forbearance. Forbearance means to delay a negative reaction to another’s action, inaction, or presence, to tolerate or indulge another. In light of what we have said about the claims of Calvinist anthropology, theology, and a doctrine of grace, it seems appropriate that Reformed virtue requires a certain willingness to tolerate those who claim to share our allegiance with Jesus Christ but understand the implications of that allegiance in very different ways.

Christian forbearance acknowledges that in our quest to protect the unity of the church, we may find ourselves sharing fellowship with sisters and brothers whom we believe hold incorrect convictions on important matters of faith and morals. But the discovery of that disagreement should not automatically lead to a break in our fellowship. Instead, there is a place for Christian forbearance, for tolerating the disagreement and what we personally consider error in the church. This commendation of forbearance is not just a reflection of our realistic theological anthropology. It is also a reflection of our ecclesiology, for the Reformed tradition has always acknowledged a distinction between the perfection of the invisible church and the muddiness of the visible. The visible church will always be a mixture of wheat and tares, right thinking and misguided theology, and Jesus specifically commands us not to rip out the weeds (or separate ourselves from them) at risk of endangering the garden itself.

When I’m not talking about civility, I study Roger Williams, the founder of Rhode Island and America’s first voice for religious freedom. Interestingly, what got Williams booted from Puritan Massachusetts was not primarily his insistence on separation of church and state. It was his ecclesiology. The Puritans had come to the New World to construct a holy society as a beacon of righteousness to the world. But most of them had no intention of renouncing the Church of England. Instead, they meant to reform the church from within. But Williams believed that in order to maintain the purity of the church Puritan congregations had to explicitly denounce the Church of England. For Williams, the Puritans were not real Christians as long as they shared fellowship with the sin-laden Church of England.

John Cotton, a religious leader in Massachusetts, insisted that Williams subscribed to bad ecclesiology. Cotton pointed to Jesus’ parable of the wheat and tares and charged Williams with threatening the unity of God’s church. He wrote to Williams, “the failings of the Churches (if any be found) are not forthwith to be healed by separation. It is not surgery, but butchery, to heal every sore in a member with no other medicine but abscission from the body.”*

Cotton insisted that theologically it was a more faithful balance of concern for purity and concern for unity to work for the reform of the church from within, rather than breaking the church apart. “The way of separation is not a way that God hath prospered,” he wrote. To this thoroughly Reformed Puritan, the visible church was always a weedy garden that needs to be carefully tended, not torn apart.

Life Together in Disagreement

Nothing I’ve said so far requires that we abandon the pursuit of truth in our commitment to live together. Civility requires respectful dialogue, but respectful dialogue can include respectful disagreement. It allows room for us to say to one another, “I think I’m right, and I think you’re wrong,” as long as that sentiment is followed up by another. “I think I’m right and that you’re wrong, but I love you as a Christian sister or brother, and I do not question your place next to mine at the Table of Christ.”

Living together in disagreement does not require us to abandon the pursuit of righteous truth. How can we abandon the pursuit of truth? It is our mission as the Body of Christ in the world! The preservation of the truth is one of the Great Ends of the Church! How can we abandon such an awesome responsibility! We can pursue, defend, and debate truth. We should discuss, study, and pray together. We should challenge one another to defend our convictions in the light of Scripture and the wonderfully complex tradition of Christian witness. We should confront one another when we perceive distance between our convictions and the words and pattern of our Lord Jesus.

But in order to discharge that responsibility without abandoning our obligation to the unity of Christ’s Church, we must find ways to pursue the truth in debate and disagreement that are respectful, patient, humble, and peaceful. We must find ways to live together in disagreement, dogged in our pursuit of what is right while bound together in grace and love.

Now we descendents of Calvin must admit that respectful disagreement is not necessarily what we’re known for. Calvinism doesn’t exactly enjoy a reputation for patience and tolerance in the popular imagination. But we know better, don’t we? We know that ours is a complex and complicated tradition, one in which diversity of theological understanding has been a consistent characteristic. Despite the simplistic depiction of our tradition in American public culture (and in some churches), there is more to Calvinism than witch hangings and five-point litmus tests. The great minds of Reformed Christianity commended humility, patience, respect, and forbearance as theological virtues of deep importance. And when we take those theological values together, they give shape to an imperative for living together in unity and peace, despite and even because of our disagreement. Those who really know this tradition understand that the virtues of civility are as Calvinist as the intolerance for which we are sadly better known.

Because we know this, we are well positioned to own those virtues in our own congregations, and in our denomination, and then to offer them to the world as a gift of grace and a template for living. In other words, if we Presbyterians figure out some way to live virtuously in disagreement among ourselves, perhaps we then can extend that ministry of reconciliation to the world. To do so, I would suggest, is to position ourselves to fulfill one of the other Great Ends of the Church, to exhibit the Kingdom of God.

*The Correspondence of John Cotton (University of North Carolina Press, 2001), 220.