In the Patience of Love’s Delay, Part 3
In the previous installments of this 4-part series addressing Christian patience, I suggested first that we should take heed of the need for patience in a time when God’s Word is abroad, and then that we should acknowledge with deep gratitude that God’s patience gives humans, along with the rest of creation, space and time to become what God wants us to be. The season of Advent provides an appropriate occasion for us to consider the role of Christian patience, as we turn our attentiveness to waiting and expectancy of the Lord’s coming and return.
In this article, I ask the question of what it might look like for the church to practice patience by turning to the early Anabaptist leader Pilgram Marpeck. For Marpeck, the pursuit of peace is not primarily a technique or strategy, but rather an expression of a vibrant and real Christian spirituality, itself expressed in the exercise of patience. Patience makes peace possible in the church (insofar as it is possible), and that patience is generated and made imaginable through the humanity of Christ, understood within a Trinitarian framework, enlivened by the Holy Spirit, and practiced by the church both internally and externally.
According to Marpeck, genuine patience flows from the basis of the work of Jesus, but not in a way that is limited to Jesus as example.¹ The patience of Christ with us is offered to the Christian to be accepted by faith, as a gift from God. Virtues such as patience are pure only through faith; outside of faith they are impure and an abomination before the face of God. Therefore, counsels Marpeck, “Let us see to it that we remain Christians, live patiently, and accept the victory of the Lamb to the glory of our Father and of his Christ.”² Marpeck does not understand the practice of patience primarily as a series of actions, or even a disposition as much as the receiving of a gift. Rather, God allows us glimmers of hope, which we must anticipate with patience.³ God’s generosity, not human agency and effort, is central here; generosity extended by God, by which His gifts, including patience, will “be found among true believers until the end.”4
Marpeck uses the metaphor of Christ as Physician to explain and reinforce notions of Christ’s patience; a physician commands those who care for the sick to have patience with the illness, and not to bury someone alive, or expel the sick. “Rather, one waits with patience, endurance for him to get better…Therefore, I desire to be patient with all who are bought with the costly pearl, the death, shed blood of the Lord Jesus Christ, since God requires patience and the long-suffering from us through Christ.”5 Those who are brought back to Christ the Physician will want to live out that love, patience, mercy, and gentleness in relationships with other members of the body of Christ.6
Further, Marpeck connects the Christian exercise of patience to a faithful understanding of time, which opens the possibility of living in such a way as to not run ahead of Jesus Christ or of the Holy Spirit in anything, whether banning or forgiving others, commanding or restricting activities, creating order, or changing custom. Marpeck’s concern throughout his writings is the unfaithful hastiness of Christians in their ethical, spiritual, and ecclesial lives, along with the impatience of those who resort to the use of the temporal sword. Rarely does Marpeck warn of the dangers of moving too slowly, or of lagging behind Jesus, or the Holy Spirit. He seems to think that moving too hastily is clearly the greater temptation for the Christian. Judging too hastily is not to be understood as a tactical or strategic mistake, but a theological error, a distortion of the Christian view of time which is based on the work of Jesus Christ. A theologically based view of time, the faithful pace or speed of judgment, includes an acceptance of the reality that Jesus Christ has fulfilled time, and it is to this truth that the Christian is bound, not to some notion that we can or must control what happens according to our own judgments. That is, a Christian view of time and its concomitant exercise of patience cannot be bound to the work of the state or the saints but to the work of Jesus, in whom we have seen that “love is patient in time; who can recount her patience or declare her end or her measure? In her patience and forbearance lies human blessedness. The delay of love is in its time the highest reward of waiting. For even the angels wait with longing to see (1 Peter 1:12) what fulfillment her patience will accomplish. For in the patience of love’s delay lies human blessedness.”7
Marpeck makes extensive use of horticultural images such as those found in John 15 to intensify his admonitions regarding the church’s practice of patience. Discerning the difference between weeds and the planted crop is not the only task facing the faithful Christian; discernment is also necessary to distinguish between blossom and foliage on the one hand, and mature fruit on the other, making sure not to judge people before the right time.8 Here too Marpeck makes what is by now a familiar move in his thinking; namely, asserting that the maturing of fruit is only made possible by the work of Jesus Christ.
What can we learn as a church from Marpeck’s understanding of Christian patience? How can a congregation exercise the kind of theologically understood patience which Marpeck developed in his sixteenth-century context? Briefly, he works out his theology of church discipline as an extension of the same logic he applies to the use of coercion by temporal authority.9 That is, Marpeck’s basic argument is that “[t]he temptation to exercise worldly authority through the use of the sword is of the same kind of sinful bondage as the temptation to make premature judgments in the church through the hasty use of the ban.”10 Marpeck employs those horticultural images of foliage, blossom, and fruit along with references to speed to make his theological argument for the practice of patience in church discipline. He points out that those who live in sin bring forth their own fruit, in due time, that fruit being open vice – foliage or blossoms do not provide a conclusive basis on which any kind of judgment can be brought. Further, just as it takes time for sin to produce its real fruit, so too does it take time for faith to bring forth its fruit. In both cases, the exercise of patience is crucial for the body of Christ – in avoiding sin as it seeks to be faithful in relation to the non-coercive practice of church discipline, and in the non-coercive passing on of the faith. Judgment of sinners, of sinful behavior is not to be avoided, according to Marpeck.
However, of much more urgency is the problem of being far too hasty in judgment. Judgment of sinners, while important, must never happen before the right time, i.e., when fruit appears, not when foliage or blossoms appear. “Whoever, therefore, establishes, commands, prohibits, coerces, drives, punishes, or judges before the time for good or evil is revealed, lays claim to the authority, power, and office of the Holy spirit of the Lord Jesus, Christ and, contrary to love, goodness, and grace, runs ahead of Jesus Christ.” To run ahead of Christ, to indulge in judgments that are too hasty, to forego the exercise of patience, is to multiply the occasion and practice of sin in the body of Christ. “Whoever presumes to decide and judge, before the revealing of guilt, is a thief and a murderer (Jn. 10:1). He runs ahead of Christ, who alone is the revealer of good and evil in the heart.” To indulge hasty and uncertain judgments is itself sin which leads to anxiety and fear of unrighteousness, when in fact Christians are to be debtors to nothing but love. Marpeck considers it more important to avoid those who judge too quickly that to avoid those who are being judged, since to judge too hastily is “contrary to the patience of Christ.” In avoiding hasty judgment (negatively put) and practicing patience (positively put), the church opens the possibility of what Marpeck terms as “improvement” in the Christian life; judgments made in love and patience are always concerned with improvement, but never before their time. Such exercise of patience is the essence of loving Christian service, according to Marpeck, seen in the true spirit of love that never seeks its own, but always the service and use of others,11 for in the patience of love’s delay lies human blessedness. May it be so in our congregations as we wait in worship for the coming of our Lord.
Dr. Paul Doerksen is Associate Professor of Theology and Anabaptist Studies at Canadian Mennonite University.
John Rempel, ed., Jorg Maler’s Kunstbuch, 386.
Marpeck, Later Writings by Pilgram Marpeck and His Circle, 41, 42.
Marpeck, The Writings of Pilgram Marpeck, 394.
Ibid., 72, 73.
Marpeck, The Writings of Pilgram Marpeck, 354.
Snyder, “An Anabaptist Vision for Peace,” 192.
Rempel, Jorg Maler’s Kunstbuch, 312, 313.
Stephen Boyd, Pilgram Marpeck: His Life and Social Theology, 110–12.
Gerald Mast, “Patient Separation in Marpeck’s Theological Rhetoric,” 86.
Marpeck, The Writings of Pilgram Marpeck, 324-333, 347.