The Death of Civility


by Mary Lou Redding

"What is the most important thing in the world to you?" My friend’s wife was confronting him about working excessive hours, trying to help him see what he was doing to their family by his absence. He said, "I had to think long and hard before I answered. Finally, I said, 'Relationships. Relationships are the most important thing.'"

He was right. God wants for us loving relationships where people are respected and honored as the unique and dearly loved children of God that they are, that each one of us is. But more and more our interactions, even interactions among Christians, are characterized by harsh and polarizing language. In radio and television talk shows and in conversations at church, we hear Christians berating and belittling others. Shouldn’t we model a better way? Can we, as Ephesians 4:15 says, speak "the truth in love"?

Differences are inevitable. Unity in Christ does not mean uniformity; it never has. In the first years of the Christian movement, differences about keeping holidays divided the believers in Rome. They also argued whether or not it was permissible for Christians to eat meat that had been offered to idols. (Once the sacrificed animal died, it was butchered and the meat sold in the public market.) Paul enjoined the believers against "quarreling over opinions" (Rom. 14:1, NRSV). Paul went on to tell them not to judge one another, for, “Who are you to pass judgment on servants of another? It is before their own lord that they stand or fall” (Rom. 14:4, NRSV).

Since the first century, faithful, reasonable, and well-meaning Christians have differed on other serious issues. For example, for the first few centuries of the church, Christians refused to bear arms. Many Christians (some denominations) remain pacifist today, while other equally faithful and committed believers subscribe to the theory of "just" war. In the 1800s, denominations split over the question of whether Christians could own slaves. Abolitionists worked to end slavery because of what the Bible teaches, and slaveholders quoted the Bible to support their position. You can probably list many other differences of opinion and interpretations of “what the Bible says.” But our differences in politics, gender, race, and age are far less important than the fact that we all are children of God.

What is troubling about our having differences is the strident tone of our public and private discussions of them. These include denunciations and even questioning one another’s Christian commitment. The Bible tells us to avoid "arguments and quarrels" because they are "unprofitable and useless" (Tit. 3:9, NIV) and to respond to one another "with gentleness and respect" (1 Pet. 3:15, NIV). No matter what our views are, we are called to deal gently and lovingly with each other, without judging or badgering one another. We are not to call another names. Reducing others to a label keeps us from truly knowing and learning from them. Trying to argue others into changing their opinions is futile. If we cannot convince ourselves to do good things like eating more wisely or saving more, how can we hope to change someone else’s mind? This is not to say that we should not speak the truth as we understand it. But we do so always with humility, honestly admitting that as sure as we may be of our stance, there is a possibility that we are wrong.

We are not in charge of what others believe, and we can trust God’s ongoing work in each of us (Phil.1:6). When we treat others with love and respect, we participate in God’s loving work of forming each of us more fully into the image of Christ. Then these others travel on, as we do, along the path God sets uniquely before each of us.

As my friend said, relationships are the most important thing. Deciding to love others by listening to them and speaking lovingly to them is a spiritual discipline. When we choose to love by the way we speak to one another, we show that God lives in us. Paul prayed for the Roman Christians to live in love so they might "with one voice glorify . . . God" (Rom. 15:6, NRSV). We begin by loving those close to us, moving ever outward to love the world as God loves it. People said of the first Christians, "Behold how they love one another!" May those who hear our words and witness our interactions be able to say the same of us.

Prayer workshop by Mary Lou Redding. The Upper Room daily devotional guide, September/October 2010. Copyright © 2010. The Upper Room. Used with permission.