Sexuality & Scripture

Bearing with One Another in Love

October 2011:  by Professor Stephen Fowl |

The book of Acts repeatedly illustrates that in times of conflict the body of Christ grows as believers offer testimony to, for and with each other.  I was reminded of this point time and again during our colloquium in South Africa.  This colloquium represented many different things, but for me, it was first and foremost a great occasion of bearing witness to each other and bearing with each other in love.

In the Bible study groups, through plenary talks and in conversations at meals and over drinks, we offered accounts to each other of what God had done and what God was continuing to do in our lives and in the lives of the larger Christian communities in which we participate.  This was not merely a sharing of experiences; this was more than telling our stories, though both of those things happened. What made this a time of bearing witness was that people offered accounts about what God was doing. Although people shared accounts that were often intensely personal reflections of pain, rejection and suffering often coupled with patience, courage and joy, these testimonies were deeply rooted in God’s saving activity.

I have no doubt that that the testimonies people offered changed me, and are still changing me.  I suspect it will be sometime before I truly appreciate the effects of the things I saw, heard and the relationships that were forged over the course of this colloquium.  Moreover, it would be a mistake to assume that most peoples’ views were radically transformed and that we generally came to agree on matters of sexuality.

For the time we were together, however, we were able to bear with one another in love.  In Ephesians 4:2-3 believers are admonished to “maintain the unity of the Spirit.”  To have any hope of doing that we read that, believers will need to display humility, gentleness, patience with each other and “bear with one another in love.”

The call to bear with one another in love assumes several significant things about the life Christians share with each other. First, the notion of forbearance presumes failure. For Christians to bear with one another in love recognizes that Christians will argue and disagree with each other; sin against each other and fail one another from time to time.  If we are to bear these things in love and thus maintain the unity of the Spirit we cannot be reduced to grudging acceptance of or a willed indifference to the struggles and convictions of other members of Christ’s body. Love cannot abide either of these ways of glossing over matters of conflict. Hence, the call to bear with one another in love must begin with and be sustained by speaking truthfully to each other.  Finally, the idea that believers are to bear with one another in love, recognizes that believers are not all in the same place on their path to ever deeper friendship with God and each other. The body of Christ is comprised of people who have varying measures faith, varying experiences of God’s love, differing temperaments in worship, and differing social and material contexts. Within the single body of Christ, there are diverse members. Homogeneity is not and should not be one of the marks of Christ’s body. Thus, bearing with one another in love means that within this diverse body, believers need to be able to bump up against very different sorts of people, equally committed to the faith, whose differences are to be borne in love.

Across the Anglican Communion, this sort of forbearance in love is in short supply.  I saw it in abundance during this colloquium.  Although our time together in South Africa was brief, we began to see that as we bore with one another in love, our differences and disagreements did not always divide along the lines we thought they would.  New points of agreement emerged and real and substantive points of disagreement were sharpened and clarified.  If bearing with one another in love allows us to shift the terms of the arguments we have about sexuality then our time together will not merely have been a blessing to each other, but it will have provided a real service to the wider church.

Professor Stephen Fowl teaches New Testament at Loyola University in Baltimore. He is a member of the House of Bishops’ Theology Committee and the examining chaplain for the Diocese of Maryland. He participated in the 2011 Chicago Consultation Ujamaa Centre Consultation in Durban, South Africa.