Not long ago I was invited to preach at a denominational conference whose purpose was to encourage “civil discourse” in the church. The brochure for the event described its aims:
While our times call for passion and conviction, they also summon us to civility. . . . Civility is a simple concept. We are civil with each other when we respect each other’s basic right to hold a position that differs from our own. . . . The original purpose of manners in society as a whole was to provide such safe places. When two warriors came together, they shook hands to demonstrate that they did not bear weapons. . . . Even in today’s world, we frequently rely on the habits of civility to keep life human and humane. Without the protocols of the law court, for instance, how often might tempers overcome justice?
To be sure, I readily understood the impetus for the conference. Anyone who has hung around churches long enough has had ample occasion to long for relief from squabbling, rancor, friction, and fissures. Nonetheless, I told the organizers that I was not the person to preach at such a conference because I do not believe in civility. After hearing me out, they generously reiterated their invitation. So this is what I told the assembled congregation at the opening worship service: I do not believe in civility. I do not believe that, in the words of the brochure, “While our times call for passion and conviction, they also summon us to civility.” I believe that, as Christians, we are summoned to something larger, more exciting, more challenging, and yes, more elusive than mere civility.
Civility is not a Christian concept. It is a thoroughly secular notion. Notice that the examples in the brochure are drawn from the secular sphere. Do we have nothing more to offer than to follow the examples of good manners, of combatants shaking hands, of disputants settling matters in court? Have we no witness to make that differs from those?
The word civility connotes a refined, ritualized cover-up. Civility is the polite encounter of our studied selves. It is a meeting of masks, the public smile that hides the private sneer. And that is not all bad, because sometimes that thin veneer of civility is the only thing that keeps people from going for each other’s throats.
I do not believe, however, that what we most need in the church is more civility. We have all witnessed a great deal of civility in church gatherings. For instance, warriors in church meetings shake hands to show that they do not bear weapons, only to wait until they are out in the parking lot with their friends, where they can whip out those weapons and tear up their adversaries in absentia.
Or two colleagues striving together find themselves disagreeing, then pulling against each other, and finally at odds. Then, after a brief and hot war, a long, cold truce ensues. The combatants know they should be civil, so they continue to smile, with clenched teeth, when they see each other. They still talk when they find themselves together, but never again do they delve beneath the surface together; never again do they meet in any significant way. To be sure, civility beats some of the alternatives. Nonetheless, we are summoned to something larger than mere civility.
Called to Confess
First, we are summoned to confession. We have not loved one another as God first loved us. Contrary to the still more excellent way that Paul commends to us, we have not been patient or kind; we have been envious, boastful, arrogant, rude. We have insisted on our own way. We have been irritable, resentful. We have rejoiced in the wrong (particularly when our enemies have been in the wrong), and we have not rejoiced in the right. Let us confess these things.
Jesus said, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:35). Given the current state of much of the church, that is a summons to confession.
What a long way we have come from the witness of some of our forbears. In the early years of the church a pagan Roman made in awe the now-familiar observation “Behold, how these Christians love one another!”1
In the third century, Cyprian wrote a letter to a friend:
This seems a cheerful world, Donatus, when I view it from this fair garden under the shadow of these vines. But if I climbed some great mountain and looked out over the wide lands, you know very well what I would see. Brigands on the high roads, pirates on the seas, in amphitheaters men even murder to please the applauding crowds, under all roofs misery and selfishness. It is a really bad world, Donatus, an incredibly bad world. Yet in the midst of it I have found a quiet and holy people. They have discovered a joy which is a thousand times better than any pleasure of this simple life. They are despised and persecuted, but they care not. They have overcome the world. These people, Donatus, are the Christians—and I am one of them.2
These early testimonies to the distinctive Christian witness invite us to confession. What would people say about the witness we have made to the love of God in Jesus Christ by the way we have treated one another? “Behold, how these Christians savage one another!”
“It is a really bad world, Donatus, an incredibly bad world. And in the midst of it I have found a rancorous and hotheaded people. These people, Donatus, are the Christians, and I am one of them.”
I used to be impatient with people who identified being Christian with being nice. In fact, over the years it became a pet peeve. Those who admire a person often pay tribute with words like these: “He was not a particularly religious man. But he always had a kind word for everyone. He treated all of his employees with respect. I don’t think he ever went to church after his youth, but I’ll tell you, he was a Christian.” It irked me to think that the Christian life could be reduced to such affirmations.
The most extreme example I have heard of the equation of “Christian” with “nice” was a man’s description of his dog in those terms. She never growled at anyone, he said. She never even barked. When she wanted to go for a walk, she gently nudged her master’s arm. In summation, he declared, “Put it this way: in every way she was a Christian dog.” I relished that comment because it played into my pet peeve so beautifully. I’ve known some nice dogs, but they were all heathens and happy to be so. I guess I never expected more from a dog. But this gentleman was not content to have had a nice dog. No, he had to affirm that since the dog was nice, she must have been Christian.
In short, my pet peeve growled whenever the Christian life was reduced to mere niceness. Of course, I still believe that being Christian is more than simply being kind to others, but I have had to reassess my peeve. In a society like ours, where self-interest, rudeness, and insensitivity increasingly govern relationships, kindness to one another is a form of witness in itself. When the Roman historian Tacitus wrote the history of the early Christian era, he observed:
I am entering upon the history of a period rich in disasters, rent with seditions, savage in its very hours of peace. . . . All was one delirium of hate and terror. He who had no foe was destroyed by his friend.3
In such a world the early Christians’ way of treating others with kindness and respect was a powerful witness to the love of God shared in Jesus Christ. That witness is what led the pagan to comment in awe, “Behold, how these Christians love one another.” So when we see the ways in which we fail to make a similar witness in our own savage and terrible time, we are summoned to confess
Forbearing One Another
More than this, we are summoned to forbearance. Paul writes, “Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (1 Cor. 13:7; italics added). Tellingly, the word endure can mean both “to last” and “to put up with a lot.” Here Paul is affirming both—love lasts because it puts up with a lot. Forbearance, however, is a much richer word than civility. Civility has to do with the thin crust of appearances, with a protocol that is the equivalent of military rules of engagement. Relationships marked by civility can remain shallow. Indeed, such etiquette provides the only way that some relationships can remain civil: they stay in the shallows. By contrast, forbearance connotes a depth of relationship. It risks the depths. Forbearance does not allow for a distinction between outer appearances and inner reality.
A while back I preached a sermon in my congregation in which I asked, “Is there someone in this church you can’t stand? Is there someone here who has betrayed you, or disappointed you, or who offends you, or angers you; someone you don’t want to have anything more to do with, or someone who just grates on you? If there is not yet such a person here for you, then that is an indication that you need to draw closer, because it is when we have encountered people that we would normally not choose to associate with—it is then that we have a chance to become more than just another pleasant gathering of congenial people. It is then that we have a chance to be a church.”
After that sermon, a relatively new member of our congregation said, “Gee, I don’t think that sermon was addressed to me because there is no one here in this church like that for me.” Well, she’s been around us a little longer now, and a while ago she said to me, “Remember that sermon I told you I couldn’t relate to? Well, I think I get it now.” I said, “Good. Now God can do something with you.” After all, it is when we recognize our deep differences that God can do something with us all. We then have an opportunity to be something more than civil—an opportunity to forbear one another. Indeed, we then have a chance to be a church.
Loving Those Not Chosen
I remember my shock at hearing a psychologist say that a church is valuable because it is a place where we can learn to stand one another. It seemed too meager a claim. Since then, however, I have come to see that the psychologist was making no small observation. As members of a church, we did not choose one another, so we have an opportunity to learn what it is to receive the stranger. If we learn to accept one another despite our differences, we can learn to accept anyone.
The church, like the family, is a milieu in which we can learn to live with people we did not choose. Loving the ones we are stuck with reminds us of the love of a God who is stuck with us all.
Moreover, it seems to me that we are summoned to reconciliation. Given the state of affairs in much of the Christian church, reconciliation may seem a distant possibility. But we should never lose sight of it. We cannot be true to our call if we are content to fall short of it.
But if we truly confess all the ways we have fallen short, we may not be all that far from reconciliation, after all. Reconciliation begins in confession.
“All Have Sinned and Fallen Short”
One scene in the film Patton portrays General George Patton having dinner with some Russian generals after the end of World War II. Patton never trusted the Russians. He saw them as his enemies. After dinner, the ranking Russian general offers a conciliatory toast. When he is finished, Patton stands and says to the translator, with a smile, “Tell him I’m not going to toast any son of a bitch.” The shocked translator turns ashen. Patton and the Russian general continue to smile. Then the translator conveys Patton’s message, and the Russian general’s response. The translator says to Patton, “He says you are a son of a bitch.” After a pause, Patton lifts his glass and says, “Yeah, well, I’ll drink to that!” Then they drink together.
As portrayed in the movie, Patton was no model of Christian virtue. But in this instance, he was on to something: We are all sons of bitches (or daughters of bitches, children of dogs, one and all). “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” is the way Paul put it. And in that confession is the seed of reconciliation.
A Baptist minister once told me about a rancorous fight in his congregation. Two factions were really going at it. Finally, someone stood up, eyed the parties on both sides of the dispute, and said, “If we can stand both of you, we think you should be able to stand one another.” And, in a way, that is not too different from what Jesus says to Christians: “If I accept you, seeing as I do more flaws in you than you have begun to imagine, then might you not be able to accept one another?”
A Reconciling God
We have no right to say no when the God we all worship has already said yes. We did not choose one another, but God has chosen us all. We may not want to have anything to do with one another, but that is not an option left open to us, because this God of ours has called all of us beloved children. In the end, we may have absolutely nothing in common, except the only thing that finally matters: a common loyalty to Jesus Christ.
Noted preacher James Forbes has observed that the ones we most cannot stand are the very ones we most need. It is a cruel and blessed irony that the ones we can’t stand are the ones who can teach us most about this God we worship. Obviously, we can learn from what they say. But more, in encountering them, we can learn something about this reconciling God of ours.
Throughout their professional lives theologians Karl Barth and Emil Brunner fought an epic battle befitting two giants. After their long careers and years of conflict, Brunner became gravely ill. Barth wrote a letter to one of those who ministered to Brunner:
If I were more active after my two-year illness I would take the next train to press Emil Brunner’s hand again. If he is still alive and if it is possible, tell him that I commend him to our God. And tell him the time when I thought I should say No to him is long since past, and we all live only by the fact that a great and merciful God speaks his gracious Yes to all of us.4
Indeed, if God has said yes, who are we to say no? In that confession and that affirmation, is there not the basis of reconciliation?
We may wish that we could make of the church some otherworldly gathering of high-minded folk in which smaller concerns and seemingly petty conflicts do not intrude. But if we are going to meet God, if we’re going to serve Christ, it will be here, in a real church, in a real world, among real people who mean to love one another but often find it difficult to do so. After all, we do not worship a distant and unsullied God. We worship a God who was willing to get and down and dirty in the gritty places where we actually live.
I used to be fond of quoting the veteran of church wars who said that church fights are so fierce because the stakes are so small. But I have come to recognize that this observation is misleading. The occasion for church fights may be small, but the stakes are very large. Nothing short of the realm of God is at stake in how well we embody in our everyday lives, in our common interactions, God’s work of reconciliation in Jesus Christ.
We are called upon to meet one another at deeper levels, levels at which we discover that mere congeniality does not suffice, for that’s a glue not strong enough to hold together the kind of community we are intended to be. We deal with important issue
s in the church, matters of life and death. Much is at stake. So we will discover plenty of occasions to disagree and ample opportunities to practice reconciliation.
So, I do not believe in civility. I do not have to, because I believe in something larger, more exciting, more challenging. I believe in the God who, like it or not, has gathered us all into community and has given us the gift of reconciliation in Jesus Christ.
1. Tertullian (c. 160–c. 230), Apologeticus. The exclamation quoted by this church father is rendered as “See how these Christians love one another” in Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations (Little, Brown, 1980).
2. Cyprian (d. 258), a Christian martyr, was bishop of Carthage (c. 248–258).
3. Tacitus (c. 55–c. 117), The Histories. Writings of Tacitus, Tertullian, and Cyprian are cited as sources in standard 20th century histories of early Christianity.
4. A portion of the April 4, 1966, letter from Barth to Peter Vogelsanger is quoted in Eberhard Busch, Karl Barth: His Life from Letters and Autobiographical Texts, John Bowden, trans. (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1976), 476–77.
Copyright © 2004 by The Alban Institute