A number of years ago, I wrote a book on the subject of Christian civility. I was inspired to do so by a delightful line in one of Martin Marty’s books. People today who are civil, Marty observed, often don’t have very strong convictions. And people who have strong convictions often are not very civil. What we need, he said, is convicted civility. (Richard J. Mouw, “An Open-Handed Gospel” April 2008 Christianity Today)
This short paragraph is in some ways the story of my life.
Like many, I started out in a church that was strong in its beliefs. It was a great church in many ways, but it was also seriously flawed, as all churches are. I still look back and appreciate the great teaching and the emphasis on truth, and the way they supported and loved my family through difficult times. But it was a polemical church, high on the conviction side but not always high on civility.
I guess there’s been a reaction against this with many of us. I got an email the other day saying that we should refuse to label or judge others. In fact, we should label those who label others and judge them, because it’s wrong to label or judge. That kind of logic never makes sense to me. As Tim Keller said:
We can’t avoid drawing boundaries. Everyone does it, and if they say you’re not doing it, then you’re drawing a boundary by saying you’re not doing it. But what matters is how we treat the people on the other side of the boundary. We’re going to win the younger leaders if we are the most gracious and the most kind and the least self-righteous in controversy toward people on the other side of the boundary.
I’ll post soon on the subject of labels, by the way.
It’s only recently that it feels like I’ve found my home. It’s among those who have convictions like the church of my youth, but it’s a group that’s also civil like those who’ve rightly reacted against the polemics of the church of my youth. My theology professor, Stan Fowler, first modeled this for me. So has Tim Keller. And there are many others, like Jack Miller. Larry Kirk writes about how Miller exemplified this as the dealt with his own rebellious teenager:
What had enabled Jack to forgive his daughter was an honest look at his own heart. Through prayerful self-examination he had come to understand that the way he measured himself was by being a good father and pastor. His reputation had actually become an idol in his life…When one of them turned out bad it tore apart what had become the source of his life and happiness. What he had to say in effect was “Lord, I see now that the reason I am so angry at Barbara is because my reputation as a father has become too important to me. It has become an idol in my life, I give that up, I’m sorry. You are my only true source of life and righteousness.” Only by deeply looking at his heart, renouncing his inward idolatry and reaffirming Christ as the source and center of his life was he set free to truly forgive his daughter from the heart…
Here you see Miller with a clear grasp on truth, but still extending forgiveness and civility to his daughter as he looked at his own heart and realized his own need to lay aside idols. He was truthful without being self-righteous, and the first one to repent.
It’s possible to have strong convictions and still be civil, humble, and repentant. Give me someone who has convictions and is not civil and I’ll show you a polemicist, a a noisy gong and a clanging cymbal. Give me someone who’s civil but has no convictions and I’ll show you a wet noodle, a nice person who has little to offer but niceness. Give me someone with convicted civility and I’ll show you who I long to be when I grow up. Give me grace and truth. One without the other is never enough.