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One of the best books I read this past year is The Patient Ferment of the Early Church: The Improbable Rise of Christianity in the Roman Empire by Alan Kreider (Baker Academic, 2016). Kreider argues that the surprising and unlikely growth of the early church, a marginalized group in the shadow of the Roman Empire, wasn’t the result of seeker-sensitive worship or a passion for evangelism. It wasn’t even the fruit of a well-planned mission strategy. It wasn’t anything that would top the list of today’s popular church growth techniques.
Oddly enough, it was patience.
According to Kreider, this “strange virtue of patience” was unique to Christianity. In sharp contrast, the Greco-Roman culture prized ambition, achievement and efficiency (sound familiar?). But patience was the first and primary virtue Christian thinkers like Justin Martyr, Clement of Alexandria, Origin, Tertullian, and Cyprian all wrote treatises on, calling it “the greatest of all virtues.”
The early church’s commitment to patience was rooted in the character of God, most visible in the life and ministry of Jesus. Since patience is central to the triune God’s character and action, Christians committed to embodying this patience in community with one another. This meant not only bearing with God and one another, but it was about being a peculiar community that embraced others—“people of every sex, race and age” who walk “the heavenly path” together (Lactantius).
The early church thus became a community of hope and endurance, able to endure suffering and resist (re)acting in fear and violence. Christ followers weren’t in a hurry, and they didn’t feel the need to manipulate outcomes. They were able to live so counter-culturally because they rested in God’s faithfulness and trusted that the future was securely in God’s hands. All of this resulted in a beautiful ferment—a “bubbling energy” from the bottom up that, slowly and quietly, fueled the Spirit’s movement and produced incredible growth and impact.
This is a valuable history lesson for the North American church in this cultural and political moment. What if our churches were known for being communities that embodied patience amid a frantic and instant society that’s all about bigger, better, faster? That’s consumed with hurry and striving and getting things done?
And yet I must confess to feeling some internal conflict about all of this. Because also sitting on my bed stand is a copy of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Why We Can’t Wait. It’s a much thinner volume than Kreider’s work, although no less profound or compelling.
So Kreider tells me that patience is the greatest virtue of the early church, but I’ve got Dr. King in my ear, especially his Letter from Birmingham Jail, offering a loving but sizzling critique of white moderates like myself who are guilty of not being impatient enough when it comes to taking up the cause of justice. King writes,
For years now I have heard the word “Wait!” It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This “Wait” has almost always meant “Never.” We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that “justice too long delayed is justice denied.” (p.91)
So I find myself asking, Is patience a virtue or a privilege? Is patience a practice to be cultivated in our faith communities, or does it become an excuse, especially for those of us who are privileged, to delay justice for those who suffer and maintain the status quo?
I suppose it can be both. It depends on the power dynamics between people and groups. If I’m in a place of power over someone or a group of people (or part of the dominant culture), and I insist that victims of injustice “wait and be patient” for right to be done, then it’s a matter of privilege. This was one of Dr. King’s points with white moderates who kept saying “Wait!” but who “never felt the stinging darts of segregation.” But when you experience firsthand the oppression of injustice, there is a “legitimate and unavoidable impatience” among those who suffer. King is right: “The time is always ripe to do right!”
It also depends on one’s motive and intent, as well as the impact it has on others (Jemar Tisby emphasizes the importance of focusing on impact over intent when it comes to racial justice). The Christian virtue of patience, rightly understood, must never be an excuse for perpetuating injustice or a way of avoiding our own suffering or the suffering of others. Too often the call for patience can mask a hidden motive of not wanting to endure the cost of doing the right thing and taking up the cross to follow Jesus. But the patience we see embodied in Jesus is not a kind of passive waiting that avoids pain or suffering; it is compassion made visible, an active kind of waiting that enters into the thick of life to “suffer with” those around us.
And this is really the heart of what Kreider says about the way the early church embodied patience in their life together. It was “the combination of relaxation and urgency” that enabled them to endure hardship, to bear with one another, and to do good in the world right now even as they rested their hearts in God, waiting patiently for Christ’s return and his kingdom of peace and justice to arrive in its completion.
What do you think? Let’s have a conversation. Do you see patience as a virtue or a privilege? And how might we, as disciples of Jesus, be peculiar communities that embody a “relaxed urgency,” a patient persistence, resting our hearts in Christ even as we courageously confront injustice all around us?