To Forbear or Not to Forbear?

That is today’s question… While investigating last week’s issue of “jumping to conclusions,” we ran across a convicting passage in Calvin’s commentary on this all too familiar verse:

“If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother.” Matthew 18:15 English Standard Version (ESV)

We’ve covered the mechanics of the confrontation–repentance–reconciliation process in “I’m Sorry, Please Forgive Me.” However, Calvin points out that there is a step prior to confrontation in which many of us fail.

But if thy brother shall sin against thee. [Since the Lord had broached the topic of] bearing the infirmities of [brothers and sisters], he now shows more clearly in what manner, and for what purpose, and to what extent, we ought to bear with them. [Without such guidance in the] way of avoiding offenses, every man [is abandoned to] winking at the faults of others, and thus what is evil would be encouraged by forbearance.

I find myself caught in this trap at times: not wishing to offend but knowing that the other is at fault to their own harm (as well as mine.)

Christ therefore prescribes a middle course, which does not give too great offense to the weak, and yet is adapted to cure their diseases; for that severity, which is employed as a medicine, is profitable and worthy of praise.

Having taken on our humanity, our Lord knows our own infirmities in these matters and provides a solution:

In short, Christ enjoins his disciples to forgive one another, but to do so in such a manner as to endeavor to correct their faults. It is necessary that this be wisely observed; for nothing is more difficult than to exercise forbearance towards men, and, at the same time, not to neglect the freedom necessary in reproving them.

Therefore, we see that we have an obligation to confront our brothers or sisters for their good.

Almost all lean to the one side or to the other, either to deceive themselves mutually by deadly flatteries, or to pursue with excessive bitterness those whom they ought to cure. But Christ recommends to his disciples a mutual love, which is widely distant from flattery; only he enjoins them to season their admonitions with moderation, lest, by excessive severity and harshness, they discourage the weak.

As we said last week, we have a duty to hope well of others, for we are not acquitted and shall stand before the Judge. And, yet, we must hold one another accountable for our mutual well-being, neither deceptively flattering nor harshly rebuking one another. Rather, Christ recommends to his disciples a mutual love: moderate admonition, that cures our diseases.


The Reconciliation of the Montagues and the Capulets, 1854, Fredric Leighton (1830–1896), in the public domain in the United States


Psalm 133 says how good it is for brothers and sisters to live in unity. And we know we desire such unity in our churches. However, we don’t often experience it. What’s wrong? Why can’t we all get along? The apostle Paul addressed such a situation in the early church at Corinth:

…In the first place, when you come together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you. And I believe it in part, for there must be factions among you in order that those who are genuine among you may be recognized. 1 Corinthians 11:18-19 English Standard Version (ESV)

There must be factions? What is Paul saying here? John Calvin dissects these verses:

When ye come together in the Church, I hear there are divisions …It is…a reproof of a general kind — that they were not of one accord as [is fitting for] Christians, but everyone was so much taken up with [their] own interests, that [they were] not prepared to accommodate [themselves] to others.

Hence arose that abuse, as to which we shall see in a little — hence sprung ambition and pride, so that everyone exalted [themselves] and despised others — hence sprung carelessness as to edification — hence sprung profanation of the gifts of God.

Sounds unfortunately familiar. Calvin points out that Paul realizes not all are involved but the complaint isn’t groundless:

{Paul] says that he partly believes it, that they might not think that he charged them all with this heinous crime, and might accordingly complain, that they were groundlessly accused. In the meantime, however, he intimates that this had been brought to him not by mere vague rumor, but by credible information, such as he could not altogether discredit.

Calvin then defines heresies and schisms:

For there must be also heresies …Heresy…consists in disagreement as to doctrine, and schism, on the contrary, in alienation of affection, as when anyone withdrew from the Church from envy, or from dislike of the pastors, or from ill nature.

It is true, that the Church cannot but be torn asunder by false doctrine, and thus heresy is the root and origin of schism, and it is also true that envy or pride is the mother of almost all heresies, but at the same time it is of advantage to distinguish in this way between these two terms…

Calvin consoles those who do not participate in these divisions:

“So far, says he, should we be from being troubled, or cast down, when we do not see complete unity in the Church, but on the contrary some threatenings of separation from want of proper agreement, that even if sects should start up, we ought to remain firm and constant.

For in this way hypocrites are detected — in this way, on the other hand, the sincerity of believers is tried. For as this gives occasion for discovering the fickleness of those who were not rooted in the Lord’s Word, and the wickedness of those who had [feigned] the appearance of good men, so the good afford a more signal manifestation of their constancy and sincerity.”

Finally, Calvin says something shocking: disunity is providential. How can that be? He says:

But observe what Paul says — there must be, for he [suggests] by this expression, that this state of matters does not happen by chance, but by the sure providence of God, because he has it in view to try his people, as gold in the furnace, and if it is agreeable to the mind of God, it is, consequently, expedient…We know, also, that the Lord, by his admirable wisdom, turns Satan’s deadly machinations so as to promote the salvation of believers.

Hence comes that design of which he speaks — that the good may shine forth more conspicuously; for we ought not to ascribe this advantage to heresies, which, being evil, can produce nothing but what is evil, but to God, who, by his infinite goodness, changes the nature of things, so that those things are salutary to the elect, which Satan had contrived for their ruin.

So God uses the works of Satan and his followers for our good, to refine us and to prove our salvation. As a result of this, we ought to remain firm and constant obeying God’s word in the face of disunity.

Denomination Blues” (Washington Phillips) by The 77’s Unplugged (Michael Roe & David Leonhardt), YouTube, Alternative Rendition, lyrics, history