I watched the 2000 mockumentary Best in Show with my family a couple of weeks ago. One of the characters in the movie is Harlan Pepper, a shop owner who hopes his bloodhound wins top prize. At a reception, Pepper drones on to anyone who will listen. “I think I’ve been part of a church with Harlan Pepper,” I said to my wife.
In my lifetime within the church, I’ve met all kinds of characters. I’ve found that every church has some of the same kinds of characters. Many are easy to love, and some require forbearance. And that is one of the glories of what it means to be the church.
“Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony” (Colossians 3:12-14).
Parts of this passage soar. I have a long way to go, but I long to be someone who’s characterized by the virtues Paul lists in this passage. I admire people who are marked by compassion and kindness, who quickly forgive, and are known for their love. I want to be like them. Virtues like these seem noteworthy, even glorious. When you’re around someone like this, you know you’re around someone you can admire.
But one part of this passage seems less lofty. Paul tells us to bear with one another. He’s referring to the ability to endure something unpleasant. In particular, he wants us to develop the skill of putting up with people in the church who are disagreeable and who demand our patience. Talk about realistic. Endure those you don’t particularly like. It doesn’t seem to be a virtue on the same level as the others to me, but in Paul’s mind, it’s just as important.
That person who misses social cues? Bear with them. That brother or sister with political views you can’t stand? Be patient with them. The list goes on. Church is where we get to enjoy relationships with people who drive us a bit crazy, where we love brothers and sisters at a cost. It’s part of what it means to be a Christian.
I remember hearing that the late John Stott, pastor of All Souls Church in London, would sometimes see someone approaching him whom he found draining and difficult to like. As the person approached, he would remind himself of who they are in Christ. “Oh, what a precious child of God you are. How much God loves you.”
We naturally divide from people who are different from us and who hold different convictions on politics and the world. Within the church, these differences shouldn’t divide us. We get to practice virtues like compassion, kindness, humility, and patience, and just plain putting up with each other.
The next time I’m tempted to roll my eyes at another believer at church, or duck out the side door to avoid them, I need to remember the overlooked ministry of putting up with others. As I do, I should praise God that others are practicing this same ministry with me.