Convicted Civility

A refrain often heard in our world plagued with unceasing conflict is “let’s agree to disagree”. According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, to agree to disagree is to decide “not to argue anymore about the difference in opinion”. It is a declaration of a truce of sorts—a resolution by the parties concerned to leave the unsettled dispute aside for the sake of peace.

To agree to disagree is therefore a strategy for conflict resolution, which requires the parties to tolerate their opposing positions. It is an acknowledgement that dissent does not have to lead to hostility. It is a pledge to be civil in spite of fundamental disagreements. And civility is seen by many today as the key to an un-murderous co-existence of the disputing parties.

But what do we mean by civility?

Civility is much more than superficial niceness and politeness. As James Calvin Davis explains, it is “the exercise of patience, integrity, humility and mutual respect in civil conversation, even (and especially) with those whom we disagree”.[1] To this already impressive list of qualities we may add gentleness and kindness.

The discerning reader will immediately notice that the virtues that make up civility are the very same ones that the Christian faith upholds. They are the traits that every disciple of Jesus Christ should aspire to possess.

There are a number of New Testament passages that encourage Christians to conduct themselves with civility.

For example, Paul exhorts the Christians in Rome to “Live in harmony with one another. […] If possible, so far as it depends upon you, live peaceably with all” (Rom 12:16, 18). In a similar vein, the apostle instructs his protégé, Titus, “to speak evil of no one, to avoid quarrelling, to be gentle, and to show perfect courtesy towards all men” (Titus 3:2).

Although civility is a widely accepted and prized virtue, it nonetheless has its detractors.

These sceptics believe—and for good reason—that in contemporary society, civility can all too easily fall prey to the tyranny of the culture of political correctness. In the face of pervasive falsehoods and gross injustice, to agree to disagree—they point out—is no different from turning a blind eye. It is tantamount to complicity.

And when this happens, civility is very quickly transformed from virtue to vice. Civility becomes the means by which lies are tolerated and injustices condoned.

It is therefore extremely important to clarify the relationship between truth and civility. Christian civility should never be practised at the expense of truth. Neither should civility be used as an excuse to water down the truth, to remove its sting and make it less offensive.

In the 16th century, the great humanist Desiderius Erasmus accused Martin Luther of violating the standard of civilitas by his politically incorrect language (Luther had labelled the pope a heretic). This is how Luther replied: “If you understand the gospel rightly, don’t think that the matter can be done without revolt, offence and unrest. You can’t turn the sword into a feather. […] The Word of God is a sword.”[2]

Luther has a point. If we read carefully the New Testament passages that deal with civility, we will notice important nuances balancing civility and truth.

Writing to the Christians dispersed throughout Asia Minor, Peter exhorts his readers to “honour all men” (1 Pet 2:17). But, as Richard Mouw has perceptively pointed out: “‘Honouring’ here means having a regard for someone’s well-being. Not that we are simply to give people what they ask for or tell them only what they want to hear. The apostle is not prescribing convictionless civility.”[3]

In his letter to Timothy, Paul urges his protégé to teach the Word of God with unfailing patience. Yet, in the same breath the apostle warns the young pastor about church members who have “itching ears”“who will not endure sound doctrine”, but are constantly searching for “teachers to suit their own likings”.

Paul admonishes Timothy never to pander to his congregation’s whims and fancies by compromising the gospel. He instructs Timothy to continue preaching the unadulterated truth of God’s Word, and, if necessary, even to rebuke them (2 Tim 4:1–4).

Christian civility can never be practised apart from the truth. It must never accede to the dictates of political correctness. This is because genuine Christian civility is always a convicted civility.

[1] James Calvin Davis, In Defense of Civility: How Religion Can Unite American on Seven Moral Issues that Divide Us (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 159.
[2] Quoted in Teresa M. Bejan, Mere Civility: Disagreements and the Limits of Toleration (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2019), 23.
[3] Richard Mouw, Uncommon Decency: Christian Civility in an Uncivil World (Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP, 1992), 44.

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