Practicing Civility in an Uncivil World

“Civility: formal politeness and courtesy in behavior or speech” (Oxford dictionary).

I’m afraid that this word has dropped out of many of our vocabularies, for behavior and speech today are often anything but polite or courteous. 

As I often do before writing this column, I read what others are saying.  While Richard Mouw’s book Uncommon Decency: Christian Civility in an Uncivil World has sat on my bookshelf for a couple of decades, I noticed that he recently revised this book. He explains why in the introduction. 

Mouw says that, when he first wrote the book, “I was thinking mainly about the incivility that was running wild on the international scene, especially insofar as religious differences seemed to be at the root of much of the mean-spiritedness: growing tensions—soon to be vicious warfare—between Muslims and Christians in Bosnia; Arabs versus Jews in the Middle East; Catholic versus Protestants in Northern Ireland.”

In his new edition, Mouw notes that incivility is now much closer to home:  “Bloggers sit daily at their keyboards to spew forth hatred. ‘Experts’ shout at each other on our 24/7 cable news channels.”

I don’t think we need a walk through the whole Bible to convince us that civility should be part of witness. Focus just on Galatians 5:  “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness and self-control.”  While civility is not specifically mentioned, I believe words like forbearance (patience), gentleness, and self-control suggest civility is among the fruits of the Spirit.

My concerns are best demonstrated by asking two questions:  Are the fruits of the Spirit influencing our society today?  And what do we see within the Christian Reformed Church?

Maybe the Canadian approach to plurality results in greater civility – or maybe it’s just because the election season doesn’t drag on  – but it is clear that the civility barometer in the U.S. is dropping precipitously.  I don’t need to quote examples of the incivility that has been spewing forth in the presidential campaigning. 

Is it because society is becoming increasingly godless, as T.S. Eliot wrote in Choruses from ‘The Rock’?

But it seems that something has happened that has never happened before: though we know not just when, or why, or how, or where.
Men have left GOD not for other gods, they say, but for no God; and this has
never happened before
That men both deny gods and worship gods, professing first Reason,
And then Money, and Power, and what they call Life, or Race, or Dialectic.
The Church disowned, the tower overthrown, the bells upturned, what have we to do
But stand with empty hands and palms turned upwards
In an age which advances progressively backwards?

Are we standing with “empty hands and palms turned upwards,” shrugging our shoulders, admitting that the church has lost its voice and influence on society? 

Our Reformed understanding compels us to step into the public square, but we must find another way than by shouting back, complaining about certain candidates on our social media pages, or pretending we don’t hear the vile words because we secretly like the underlying messages.

It is time for more, not fewer, candidates to emerge from the church and seek public office.  It’s not about winning; it’s about demonstrating the fruits of the Spirit.

And what about civility within the CRC?  I subscribe to one CRC-related social media group and, while many seek the high road of civility, I’m amazed at how quickly words are used that convey superiority, harshness and anger. Is civility evident in our council rooms, classis meetings, at synod?

So, how are we to promote the practice of civility in an uncivil world? As Franklin Roosevelt once said “Peace, like charity, begins at home.”  If we practice civility in our homes and churches, we will be serving as Christ’s witnesses to the world.

About the Author

Steven Timmermans served as the executive director of the Christian Reformed Church in North America from 2014 to 2020.

Steven Timmermans se desempeñó como director ejecutivo de la Iglesia Cristiana Reformada en América del Norte de 2014 a 2020.

Steven Timmermans는 2014 년부터 2020 년까지 북미에서 기독교 개혁 교회의 집행 이사로 재직했습니다.

See comments (2)


Thank you, Steven, for your article on civility.  I imagine that few will disagree with your article whether they be church members or nonmembers, or even those who profess faith in “no god” as suggested by T.S. Elliot. 

While on one hand it, seems that all, including Christians, endorse this uncivility by their actions and applause of uncivil actions and statements by campaigners for political office or in debating religion.  It’s a fact, that the European community looks across the ocean and marvels how uncivil and polarized Americans are, even as we are in the midst of a presidential campaign.  These aren’t Christians (in Europe) that marvel at what is taking place here, but the European community at large.  I marvel at my own Christian family members as they wish death to a variety of public figures, doing so from what they call Christian concern.  We should not think that this uncivility only takes place in our so called pagan society.  The truth is that we are no better (in our churches) than our society at civility, as well as being virtuous.

And of course this uncivility has Biblical endorsement.  It doesn’t take a deep reading of the Old Testament to see this uncivility riddled throughout, even by the God of the Old Testament.  And of course all one has to do is read Paul’s uncivil scathing rebuke of homosexuals and other sinners (in Romans 1) to understand the Christian and societal uncivil bias and prejudice toward homosexuals today and down through the ages.  There is no doubt that many, and maybe most in our denomination are biased against a homosexual lifestyle, with the result of being highly uncivil toward gays today.  There may be Scripture verses that call for greater civility (you quoted one), but at the same time there are others that call for intolerance of non Christians and their own values (which are often Christian values).

So, Steven, I applaud your concern that Christians, especially CRC Christians, be more civil.  I think our churches applaud your concern, as well, even as the world does.  We all want to be more civil, whether Christian or not, it’s just not easy (even for Christians).  Even as T.S. Elliot debunked “reason” as a false god, yet reason tells us all that uncivility garners no winners, and Christian or not, we would be wise to listen to reason.

After readingthis and Mouw's book, you may also want to pick up M.Scott Peck's A World Waiting to be Born: Civility Rediscovered.  This Christian psychiatrist's definition is a bit more complex, but developed in a most helpful way.  "Conciously motivated organizational behavior that is ethical in submission to a Higher Power (God)."  Wonderful insights for all from marriage to politics.