September 5, 2018

Cultivating Christian Civility

Declaring a truce in our conversations with others.

Mike Tucker

When I informed a friend that I was writing an article about Christian civility, he responded, “Oh, the fine art of tolerance and wishy-washy compromise!”

My friend’s definition misses the point that in the Christian life civility centers on the kingdom of God where two great commandments guide: love for God and love for our neighbors as ourselves (see Matt. 22:35-40). These commandments apply even to enemies (Matt. 5:43-48).

Civility and Reconciliation

Civility in God’s kingdom demands a commitment to reconciliation, the heart of the gospel. When conflict begins to produce bitterness, we are reminded of our obligation to follow the procedure Jesus detailed for us in Matthew 18:15-20. Reconciliation is indispensable in the lives of Christians. Reconciliation is so important that Jesus told His followers to leave their sacrifice on the altar and fix their disputes first, if they had one (Matt. 5:23, 24).

We certainly have the right to hold convictions and take strong stands on important issues. But there’s a right way to state right positions: “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect” (1 Peter 3:15). Christian civility involves disagreeing with dignity as well as dignifying those with whom we disagree.

Lutheran scholar Martin Marty has noted that many people who are quite civil do not have strong convictions; and many people who have strong convictions are not very civil. Marty suggests that we need to cultivate something he calls “convicted civility.” Christians have a responsibility to speak up, debate, and persuade people. But we are to do so with the same gentleness and meekness that characterize the teachings of Jesus.

Paul’s brief definition of Christian civility may be the best I can find: speak the truth in love (Eph. 4:15). It appears that many, especially those on social media, have attempted to follow only half of Paul’s instruction. They “speak the truth” as they perceive it, but nowhere in their speech can we find a trace of love.

The principles of civility apply to every relationship. John and Julie Gottman are numbered among the world’s preeminent researchers on marriage relationships. They describe a quality marriage as one in which both parties have determined that they will treat each other as best friends, and that they will resolve conflict in kind and gentle ways. Isn’t this the sort of thing Jesus had in mind, not just for marriage, but for members of His church?

Jesus said: “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:34, 35).

Civility and the Time of the End

The Internet is rife with vitriol and cruelty among Christians. It appears that few remember Jesus’ specific demand of face to face resolution. One man told me, “The issues are too important, and time is too short to follow Matthew 5 or Matthew 18. Immediate, direct action is required. A clear, prophetic voice is needed, regardless of who is offended!”

Years ago during one of my camp meeting assignments, I visited the youth tent. Students from one of our universities had been leading out in worship. They had ministered to the teenagers at camp meeting all week in a variety of ways.

After the song service a guest speaker opened with a scathing critique of the college students for their choice of music. The youth in attendance watched to see how the college students would react. To their credit, these students made no visible reaction to the rather caustic remarks.

Once the meeting was over I found the group’s leader and asked whether the guest speaker had spoken to him directly about the music before his public attack. The leader assured me that he had never met the speaker and had not been contacted before the criticism.

The following week I contacted the speaker via e-mail to share my concerns. The speaker maintained that the students’ sin justified the ferocity of his attack. I offered that sin is a violation of Scripture and the general law of love for God or others. I suggested that he may have been in danger of elevating his opinion regarding the music performed by the students to the same level of authority as Scripture. The speaker then discontinued our conversation.

Upon reflection it occurred to me that the only person who had directly violated Scripture was the guest speaker, who had not followed the clear instructions given by Jesus in Matthew 18, not to mention the admonition of Paul to “speak the truth in love.”

In The God Who Is There, Francis Schaeffer wrote: “There is nothing more ugly than an orthodoxy without understanding or without compassion.” Those words ring true as we listen to interactions in church foyers and read exchanges between Christians on social media.

Civility and Sanctuary

Jesus’ goal is often unmet in today’s church. But as bad as things may be in local churches, the problem is exacerbated with online communities where the most vitriolic, hate-filled speech is flung around between Christians on Facebook, Twitter, or on comment pages from the Web sites of Christian publications. The more controversial the topic of conversation it seems, the more bitter the speech.

Issues such as women’s ordination, contemporary Christian music, church governance, politics, even church unity, all seem to generate speech that is anything but unifying. The perceived anonymity of the Internet gives birth to name-calling, character assassination, and worse. The assumption appears to be that anyone who disagrees with my view on the topic is intentionally attempting to pervert or destroy the church.

How can we help? While none of us can single-handedly change the church or the world, we can, by God’s grace, begin to change our little corner. We do that by controlling the only person God asks us to control. God asks that we, by the power of the Spirit, change ourselves. He does not ask us to change others.

Where do we begin? What things should we, by God’s grace, focus on to make our disagreements more civil?

Richard Mouw, author of Uncommon Decency: Christian Civility in an Uncivil World, offers three suggestions for handling disagreement: empathy, curiosity, and teachability. Mouw writes that empathy requires us to “reduce the psychological distance between ourselves and others.”1 Empathy takes the focus off self. It allows us to view things from another’s perspective. It forces us to engage in the most basic activity required for reconciliation. It forces us to listen to each other.

Next, Mouw urges us to be curious. He writes: “We ought to want to become familiar with the experiences of people who are different from us simply out of a desire to understand the length and breadth of what it means to be human.”2 I find that I am less likely to be curious if I am more intent on being right than on being loving.

Last, Mouw asks us to be teachable. “To be empathic and curious in our relations with other people is to want to learn about them.”3 This may involve learning from people with whom we disagree. This does not mean that we give up our own opinions or deeply held convictions. But by listening and being teachable we better understand our own beliefs and increase our understanding of the world by being open to hearing how someone else’s viewpoint might be different.

Of course, being teachable acknowledges that we could be wrong. Through the years my views have changed and matured. Things I used to be so certain of I now disavow. New insights to Scripture, or simply the wisdom that (one would hope) comes with advancing age, has caused me to ree
valuate my previously held convictions. Listening to those who disagree with me has often been the impetus to changing my mind. I pray that I will always be open to the possibility that I am wrong or that my opinion needs to mature. Otherwise I stunt my growth.

Civility: A Spiritual Discipline

I must add one further idea I have been forced to adopt, to combat my own tendency to be uncivil toward those who are unpleasant in their disagreements with me. You might think of it as a spiritual discipline—a practice designed to help a person develop a more Christlike character. I call my new discipline “the forfeiture of the perceived right to self-defense.”

My tendency to defend my character or reputation puts me in a mode of argumentation and self-justification. But I have observed that defensiveness is the enemy of intimacy. When I am busy defending myself, or attempting to convince you that I am right, I am unable to listen. Listening is the key to understanding, reconciliation, and unity. Arguing over who is right and who is wrong does nothing to promote unity or intimacy. I have now lost enough to learn that being “right” is overrated, while being “loving” is vastly underrated.

This is not an easy discipline to employ. I fail at its use as often as I succeed. But when I am quiet and stop defending myself, I am usually able to hear beyond the words being shared to discern a point of pain or fear behind the words. Finding a point of pain opens the door to true intimacy. It also opens the door to the possibility of ministering to the person who was attacking me. When I defend myself, I often find I have forfeited any possibility of future ministry to my attacker.

There is no easy road to Christian civility. But true followers of Christ have no other choice. We must commit to “speak the truth in love,” or perhaps cease speaking at all.

  1. Richard Mouw, Uncommon Decency: Christian Civility in an Uncivil World (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 2010) p. 58.
  2. Ibid., p. 59.
  3. Ibid., p. 61.

Mike Tucker is speaker/director of the Faith for Today media ministry.