Over the past several decades I have written much and spoken to many audiences about the importance of cultivating Christian civility. I first decided to take on this project back in the 1980s when I came across a fascinating comment in a book by Lutheran scholar Martin Marty. Many people who are quite civil do not have strong convictions, said Marty, and many people who have strong convictions are not very civil. What we need to cultivate, he added, is “convicted civility.”
The need to bring civility together with deep convictions is not just an option for Christians—it is an obligation grounded in biblical teaching. After the apostle Peter tells us that we must “show proper respect for everyone” (1 Pet. 2:17), he goes on in his next chapter to link the cultivation of this respect to maintaining strong convictions. “Always be prepared,” he writes, “to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.” And then he adds immediately: “But do this with gentleness and respect” (1 Pet. 3:15). That is the Bible’s way of telling us that God requires us to nurture “convicted civility.”
Someone asked me recently where I have personally found it most difficult to engage in convicted civility with people with whom I have serious disagreements. My answer: Within the Christian community!
When I engage in lengthy dialogues with non-Christians, I don’t feel defeated when I have not succeeded in changing their minds. I am a Calvinist. I know that real change can only come by the power of the Holy Spirit. My responsibility in those conversations is to learn the lessons the Spirit wants me to absorb and to work at clearing up misconceptions about the Christian message. The Lord will use all of that according to his own purposes.
But things are different within the Christian community. Here we expect regenerated hearts and minds to be clear about the truth. Confused theology—to say nothing of outright theological error—can cause serious damage in the life and mission of the church. There are eternally significant matters about which we cannot be content simply to disagree.
So how do we handle that kind of conflict? Are there also significant guidelines within the Christian community for engaging in serious disagreements in a spirit of “gentleness and respect” for each other? I am convinced that there are, and I will mention a few of the more important ones here.
Avoid False Demons
One obvious guideline is to make sure we are being truthful about the other person’s views. This means asking people what they believe rather than telling them. It is always important in serious theological debate to say things of this sort: “So, is this a good way to describe your view . . . ?” and “Help me understand you better on this. . . .”
G.K. Chesterton put it well when he reminded us that while worshiping false gods is a very bad thing, so is setting up false demons. One of our goals as Christians when we are arguing with each other is not to win by making rhetorical points but to seek to clarify what the real issues are in the hope of finding out where—and whether—we really disagree.
I once heard a “counter-cult” evangelical speaker describe what he understood to be the teachings of Mormonism on various subjects. After his talk I approached him, telling him that while I thought he had a number of points right, on a few matters many of my Mormon friends would not “own” the views he was attributing to them. I suggested that he might check this out by looking at a particular book by a Mormon scholar. The speaker responded to me with a very hostile tone. We don’t have time, he said, “for all of these fine points.” In dealing with Mormonism, “we are in a battle for the truth, and we have to win the battle!” The irony, of course, is that he was refusing to get clear about what his opponents actually believed—all in the name of fighting a battle for the truth!
Check Your Motives
I am reluctant to make too much use of warfare imagery in dealing with spiritual theological matters. I know that it is appropriate on occasion, but—as in the flesh-and-blood realities of international relations—it is not something we should resort to without a spirit of caution.
John Calvin has helped me much in thinking about these matters. Discussing “just war” theory in his Institutes, Calvin urged civil magistrates who were thinking about attacking an enemy to engage in serious reflection before going to war. One thing they must do, he said, is to check out their own motives, to be sure that they “not be carried away with headlong anger, or be seized with hatred, or burn with implacable severity.” They must also, he insisted, “have pity on the common nature in the one whose special fault they are punishing.”
What the Reformer was saying about actual military concerns applies as well to conflicts over issues that divide us in the church. Calvin—as a good Calvinist!—was advocating a spiritual strategy here that is designed to compensate for our sinful tendency to put the best possible interpretation on our own motives while also putting the worst possible interpretation on those of our opponents. He wants a reversal: what is the worst interpretation I could come up with for my own motives, and the best interpretation I can give of what I see in my enemy?
So here are two guidelines that we receive from John Calvin himself about how we debate with other Christians. One is that we should always be clear about what is motivating us personally when we set out to engage in conflict with someone with whom we disagree. Are we taking up the battle primarily because we like to win arguments? Are we using ideas in this case in order to enhance our ability to control the thoughts and actions of others? Or, to use Calvin’s own words, are we running the risk that in our contentions we will “be carried away with headlong anger” or “burn with implacable severity”?
A second guideline comes from Calvin’s insistence that before going to war a magistrate must show compassion toward the “common nature” that he shares with the one he is thinking about attacking. In the world of international relations, where leaders are often dealing with real enemies, that may seem like a difficult and not very productive assignment. Does, for example, an American president really have to spend valuable time thinking about a Hitler’s or a Saddam Hussein’s humanness? But in warfare we seldom attack only individual dictators—we attack large populations. So in thinking about bombing a city it is indeed important to reflect on the fact that the bombs we drop will fall on schools and family residences. Too often national leaders have failed to attend adequately to the human costs of warfare.
But here we are focusing on debates within the Christian community, where what we share in common with the folks we disagree with is more than simply the fact of our humanness. We share a unity in Christ. And the Lord has made it very clear that he wants us to make real efforts to give visible expression to that unity.
I am very familiar with what many Christians will respond at this point. A genuine Christian unity is not merely of the organizational variety. God does not want us, for example, to preserve denominational unity at all costs. We must also be one in our understanding of the truth of God’s Word.
Again, I know that argument well, and I have much sympathy for it. I want to hold fast to the historic faith, especially as it is expressed in our Reformed standards of doctrinal unity. And let me say it here: in the current arguments about sexuality I take my place on the “conservative” side of the spectrum. I have articulated the “traditional” viewpoint regarding same-sex practices in different contexts. But I have discovered the importance of not grouping all the folks I disagree with on these matters in the same theological category.
No Easy Answers
Several years ago I talked with a pastor—a self-identified “liberal” in a mainline denomination— who was very upset with me about my views regarding same-sex relationships. In an effort to understand more clearly why he was so angry with me, I asked him about how he interpreted Romans 1, which I take to be a key biblical passage on the subject. “I just don’t read Romans 1,” he said. “In fact, I don’t read Paul at all. I can’t stand him. I never preach about his epistles. He is wrong about homosexuality—and about many other things as well!”
I don’t feel a strong desire or obligation to affirm my unity in Christ with someone who holds to that kind of perspective. Whether his personal faith is genuinely Christian is not something I am going to judge. But when it comes to theology, the view he expressed is well beyond the borders of acceptable doctrine.
But it is different for me with other folks whose views I disagree with regarding homosexuality. I have engaged in public debates on several occasions in Presbyterian contexts with a good friend with whom I disagree about both same-sex ordination and marriage. But if I ask her how she interprets Romans 1, she immediately says, “OK, Richard, let’s look at the text.” She carefully goes through the chapter offering her interpretation of Paul’s intent at each point. I read that text quite differently, but our arguments take place under the authority of Word. I believe her when she insists that she wants to honor biblical teaching. And I know that she is firm in her affirmation of the Trinity, the full divinity of Christ, the substitutionary atonement, and so on. I argue with her about same-sex topics while also affirming the deeper unity that we have in Jesus Christ.
So does that mean we have to stick together denominationally when it comes to decisions about what practices—ordination, performing ceremonies—we are going endorse? I don’t have easy answers on that. But I do know that splitting denominations over theological questions—even very serious ones—is not without its dangers. In the early decades of the twentieth century, for example, J. Gresham Machen, who had served as a brilliant theologian at Princeton Theological Seminary, led a group of orthodox Calvinists out of the mainstream Presbyterian denomination to form the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and Westminster Theological Seminary. I am a theological admirer of Machen. I agree with much of what he stood for theologically and have been significantly influenced by his writings. But I also worry much about what happened after his group departed from the larger denomination. Machen’s movement very soon experienced several “splits” within its own ranks.
Kind, conservative Calvinists have often behaved rather poorly in engaging people with whom we disagree on theological matters. And it is a fact of history that when we take our leave from folks whom we consider “liberal” we often start arguing with each other about finer points of doctrine and practice. What this says to me is that the issues are not simply about theological formulations. There are deeper spiritual matters at stake.
When the apostle Peter counsels us to nurture “gentleness and respect,” he is pointing us to those deeper spiritual matters. The same concern is at work John Calvin’s comments about warfare. “Headlong anger” and “implacable severity” are sinful patterns to which we are all too inclined in our defenses of orthodoxy.
You are reading this in a year when the current national political campaign in the United States—and yes, I know many Canadian friends who follow these developments very closely—is, by any accounting, one of the most mean-spirited that many of us have witnessed. (Both major political parties share the blame in this.) “Gentleness and respect” are not terms we would use to describe the debates among the major candidates this year. Nor can all of this be dismissed as a brief interlude in North American life that we will soon pass beyond. Something new is happening in our public life, and it is deeply disturbing.
As followers of Jesus Christ, we should be pointing our neighbors to a better way of managing conflict. But unfortunately it is often more of the same within the Christian community. To make that observation is not to downplay the importance of serious theological debate. Being clear about the reason for our hope is an obligation that requires as much theological clarity as we can muster as finite human beings. But it also requires a clear spiritual awareness of the theological mean-spiritedness that comes all too naturally to those of us who talk much about defending the truth of God’s Word.
It would be a great contribution to the cause of Reformed orthodoxy in our day if we could show the larger world how it is possible to argue with each other about important matters in a spirit of gentleness and respect as we pursue the truth together!
Questions for Discussion
- Why might we find it even harder to engage in civil conversation with those who disagree strongly with us within the Christian community than within in the wider world?
- What do you think accounts for the hostility that so often characterizes people who comment online?
- How important is denominational unity, or unity within congregations? Is it possible to worship with brothers and sisters you strongly disagree with?
- Mouw suggests that managing conflict within the Christian community is a spiritual matter. What implications does that have for how we relate to each other, especially when we disagree?
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