At the beginning of the fourth chapter of Ephesians, Paul writes this:
“Therefore, I, the prisoner of the Lord, implore you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling with which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, showing tolerance for one another in love, being diligent to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph 4:1-3, NASB, emphasis added).
Or, in another translation: “I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph 4:1-3, NRSV, emphasis added).
The Greek word translated here as “showing tolerance for” or “bearing with” one another is ἀνέχομαι, and it caught my attention because the definition I have for it on my fun little vocab flash cards is “endure.” Paul invites the people of the church community in Ephesus to endure one another.
I like this translation because, to me, it sounds stronger than “bear with.” “Bear with” sounds like it could have to do with listening to someone, or perhaps reading a somewhat long-winded (but not necessarily uninteresting) e-mail. Bear with me, here.
It also sounds stronger, or perhaps more specific, than “show tolerance”―which could have a pretty general meaning, not necessarily too different from “love one another” or “accept one another.”
I like the translation “endure” because it feels real. Staying in relationship with fellow Jesus-followers―keeping on going to church with all sorts of people, with whom I may or may not naturally connect or have anything in common―sometimes calls for a stronger word than “bearing with” or “showing tolerance.” Sometimes it really does call for “enduring” one another.
I think about this when I think about some of the reasons why people might leave a church, and why they stay.
I wonder if sometimes we stay when we should leave. We stay even after realizing that some important things about the church environment, practices, teachings, authority structure, etc. are not healthy for us, and/or perhaps for our loved ones. We stay because we like the people and feel connected with them. We’re not sure what will happen to these relationships if we leave.
And I wonder if sometimes we leave when we should stay. We leave at the first sign of conflict, different styles of communication, or other relational difficulties. We leave when, really, the church is a good place for us, and a growing place for us―and it can continue to be, perhaps for a long time to come, if we are only willing to stay and try to work some of these things out.
When I think about these things, I also think about my experience of two different churches over the course of my two years in Pasadena.
When my husband and I first moved to Pasadena, we visited five or six different churches, and then decided to attend a church where we had started to feel connected relationally. I knew that I disagreed with the church on LGBTQ+ affirmation, but I liked the people, and I figured it was all temporary. We didn’t plan on staying in Pasadena after I graduated from seminary, so I wasn’t looking for a longer-term denominational home.
As time went on, though, I began to feel more and more disconnected, unengaged, and often upset on Sunday mornings.
Sometimes I felt angry about parts of the sermon; other times, I just felt a strong sense that I no longer believed the same things that the pastor believed, on a very deep, fundamental level. This was an alienating feeling. I looked around, wondering if anyone else felt the same way, and it seemed like no one did.
There were so many people at the church whom I thought (and still think) were awesome. But some of my basic convictions about what it meant to follow Jesus and be the church together were changing, and some were growing stronger.
Regarding LGBTQ+ affirmation, for example, I came to realize more strongly that the foundation of any church I want to be a part of is Jesus’ radical, all-inclusive love and justice―and that, to me, any church whose theology or practices treat my LGBTQ+ siblings as second-class citizens does not actually share this conviction in a way that extends to all people.
(How could we as a church talk about seeking justice alongside marginalized people if we only wanted this to apply to some things, like race, but not other things, like sexuality and gender?)
It wasn’t just about LGBTQ+ affirmation, but more generally about the entire lens through which the church’s leadership saw Scripture. It was a lens that just didn’t fit me anymore.
Finally, during our last couple of months in Pasadena, we began attending another local church instead―one whose core values aligned much more closely with the kinds of things I wanted to pursue at the heart of my faith.
Our first Sunday at this new church, though, I saw a student who had gotten on my nerves during a class we had together. And my first thought wasn’t exactly holy. It was probably something like, “UGH! Can’t I just get away from people who annoy me for an hour on Sunday mornings?”
And then my second thought―well, maybe not precisely second, but something I realized upon later reflection―was, “I think this is how church is supposed to be.”
Church is not supposed to be full of what I would consider nice people―people I find easy to get along with, easy to make friends with; people who share a lot of common interests with me, or common communication styles, or Myers-Briggs types.
Churches are meant to be full of all sorts of people, richly (and difficult-ly) different from one another in every imaginable way―people who come together and stick together, not because they naturally get along well, but because they treasure a common set of deeply held values, a basic common idea of what it means to follow Jesus.
Jesus tends to bring together people like this. Healthy faith communities tend to bring together like this: people who choose to endure one another in love, for the sake of seeking God together and living out the story of Jesus together.
I hope for communities like this, for you and for me. I hope we meet people we get along well with at church, and I hope we meet people we have nothing in common with except our faith. And I hope that, when people, situations, communication styles, personalities, etc. try our patience, we dig in and learn to endure one another in love.
God knows we all need it.