You probably aren’t surprised to learn we get a lot of mail here at the Baptist Standard. For generations, Baptists have interpreted their foundational doctrines—soul competency and the priesthood of all believers—to embrace a corollary: the right to write a letter to the editor. That’s good. Soul competency and individual priesthood affirm God’s grace in the life of each Christian. So, we expect to learn from each other as grace works in our lives. And even when we read letters with which we disagree, at least we learn about others’ perspectives. At the Standard, we also value letters to the editor because we value our fellowship with the believers who write them.
An occupational hazard of being a newspaper editor is receiving mail from people who think you’re (a) dumb, (b) mistaken, (c) doing a crummy job, (d) preparing to roast in hell or (e) all of the above. Readers never see the majority of those letters, because people who set out to prove points (a) through (e) usually blow past the Standard’s 250-word limit before they even get warmed up. Then, by the time I offer to publish a condensed letter, they’ve calmed down and don’t feel compelled to condemn me to a fate worse than death.
While I hate to admit it, I’m lousy at predicting what will set readers off. (One exception: Anything about worship music generates tons of mail.) When I fret, nothing happens. Then, when an “innocuous” edition comes out, the letters pour.
Those are the weeks when friends offer sympathy, but I tell them I’ve got it easy compared to pastors. Readers can take me to task, but they live elsewhere, and I worship in the company of my friends. But a pastor gets criticism and then has to stand in the pulpit on Sunday and see the faces of the folks who are after him. Now, that’s a challenge, and it’s a pity more people don’t appreciate how hard it is.
Lately, I’ve been increasingly bothered by a trend in letters to the editor, church relationships and public discussion in general. We can’t disagree agreeably.
Theoretically, people should be able to express different opinions and still get along. In practice, however, cordial disagreement is the exception rather than the rule. Confronted with a contrary opinion, people go from placid to mad faster than you can shout, “You’re an idiot!”
Denies our heritage
Across society, this reflects a dangerous breakdown of civility. In the church, it undermines unity. Among Baptists, it denies our heritage.
Civility glues democracies together. That’s why our haste to anger and inability to remain civil imperils the nation. For example, witness the rampant partisanship of Congress. Incivility impedes our lawmakers’ ability to find solutions to our worst problems.
The night before he was crucified, Jesus prayed that the church, his followers, might be unified. Jesus clearly saw Christian unity as the outward testimony of his mission to express God’s love to a hurting world. His logic is simple: How will the world know God loves them if Christians can’t love each other? Yet when Christians fight each other and congregations split apart, the world doesn’t see a symbol of God’s love, but just another group whose practices are like worldly organizations, only more vicious. Our incivility belies our witness.
Baptists, of all Christians, ought to value disagreement. Remember soul competency and the priesthood of all believers? For 399 years, Baptists have been champions of religious dissent—not, as some may think, because we like to argue, but because we believe God entitles each person to an opinion. And when we’re at our Baptist-best, even when we disagree, we listen for the voice of God in the one who vocalizes another opinion.
May we be free to speak, quick to hear and slow to judge. If Baptists lead the way to civil disagreement, our nation will be stronger, our churches healthier and our witness more credible.