“So, which of these two represents your church?” asked the guy sitting next to me. Apparently, the book I was reading gave away the fact that I was a believer. I’d been sitting in an airport bar waiting for an update on my delayed flight and trying to ignore the over-loud droning from the ubiquitous TVs tuned to one of the cable news channels.
Until he asked, I hadn’t been paying enough attention to pick up on what was being discussed. What I did overhear—what was nearly impossible not to overhear—were the insults and name-calling being shouted by both participants in the panel discussion. I glanced up at the screen to see that the discussion had in fact been between two pastors, each contending for what was the correct “Christian response” to a certain political event.
Having admitted that I wasn’t listening to the bulk of the discussion, the man was a bit taken aback that I nevertheless had a firm answer: “Neither.”
As it happened, the book that had given away my secret identity as a Christian was entirely appropriate to the moment. It was a commentary on The Book of Homilies, a Reformation era text written largely by Thomas Cranmer. One particular section explained why I could offer such a confident answer to the man without even knowing what was being discussed:
“Let us so read the scripture, that by reading thereof, we may be made the better livers, rather than the more contentious disputers… For it is better to give place meekly, then to win the victory with the breach of charity, which chanceth when every man will defend his opinion obstinately. If we be the Christian men, why do we not follow Christ, which saith, ‘Learn of me, for I am meek and lowly in heart’ (Matthew 11.29)? A disciple must learn the lesson of his Schoolmaster, and a servant must obey the commandment of his Master.”
You see, the men on the television screen may have had perfectly Christian points to make, but, insofar as they made those points in an uncharitable and disrespectful way, they were not representing Christ.
For Christians, civility isn’t just an option or even a tactic. It’s an imperative. Far too often, civility is contrasted with conviction, as if the latter is a matter of principle while the former is simply politeness or, worse yet, a pretext for compromise.
Viewing the matter in this light misses a key point: namely, we’re taught in Scripture to speak evil of no one, to avoid quarreling, to be gentle, and to show perfect courtesy toward all people (Titus 3:2). Thus, instead of being the sign of strong principles, it is being uncivil that marks compromise with the spirit of the age.
That’s why I’ve taken to using a term I’m sure I picked up from Richard Mouw, convictional civility. The more we seek to be obedient to Scripture, the kinder we become. J.C. Ryle makes this point:
“The love of the Bible will show itself in a believer’s readiness to bear evil as well as to do good. It will make him patient under provocation, forgiving when injured, meek when unjustly attacked, quiet when slandered. It will make him hear much, put up with much and look over much, submit often and deny himself often, all for the sake of peace.”
It certainly doesn’t fit well with the cacophony of 24/7 cable gabfests, but, if Christians adopted this posture, it would speak louder than any insult or harsh word ever could. That’s not to say our kindness would necessarily be effective. True principles look to higher ideals than just what works. As I’ve written before, kindness isn’t a strategy, it’s a duty. As the authors of Winsome Persuasion: Christian Influence in a Post-Christian World remind us,
“The biblical agenda given to Christian counterpublics does not merely provide utilitarian goals, such as electing candidates or establishing laws, but also relational goals, such as restoring civility, promoting shalom, and loving those who oppose us.”
Indeed, of all the points of Christian ethics that the world is now deeming outdated, perhaps nothing is as countercultural as this convictional civility. If you don’t believe me, take a look at the Pew Research Center’s recent polling on political discourse in the U.S. The most interesting takeaway for me were the numbers surrounding respect. From the report:
“Majorities in both parties say it is very important that elected officials treat their opponents with respect. But while most Democrats (78%) say it is very important for Republican elected officials to treat Democratic officials with respect, only about half (47%) say it is very important for officials from their party to treat Republican politicians with respect. There is similar divide in the opinions of Republicans; 75% say Democrats should be respectful of GOP officials, while only 49% say the same about Republicans’ treatment of Democratic officials.”
These numbers show that while everyone demands respect for themselves, few have the appetite to grant it to others. Too often, Christians uncritically reflect this tendency with our discourse sounding more like a Rodney Dangerfield act than the Sermon on the Mount. We’re acting like just another interest group among many, looking for a pound of flesh from the political opponents who slight us.
The less we feel heard, the more we shout like we’re on a cable news panel. As Alistair Begg once quipped, “Sadly the Christian witness is too often just like the average English-speaker in a foreign country who is confident that he will be understood if he just speaks a little louder!”
To be clear, I’m not against robust debate. Christians are certainly called to contend for the common good in the public square, and to do so with vigor. The question isn’t whether or not we should argue, but how we should go about making those arguments. “The single biggest way a subversive can change America is not by disagreeing less,” insists Arthur Brooks, “but by disagreeing better—engaging in earnest debate while still treating everyone with love and respect.” Convictional civility is the quest to do just that.
So, let’s ask ourselves: how can two pastors on a news show represent the church and the church’s Head, Christ? They can represent Him not just in the words they say but in the way in which they say them. Of course, everyone agrees that we must not leave out the truth in a debate in a quest for fake respect. Yet, for far too many of us, love seems to be optional. But Christians are called to do more than speak the truth; we’re called to speak the truth in love.
Dustin Messer is a theology teacher at Legacy Christian Academy in Frisco, TX and a minister at All Saints Dallas and author of Secular Sacraments: Finding Grace in the World and Sin in the Church. .