One look at the comments section of an online article or someone’s Facebook page will prove we have lost the ability to be civil. There is no civility in our anonymous, detached, virtual-reality world.
We need to be reminded the second-greatest command, to love our neighbor, extends to our virtual neighbors online.
What may have begun online has no doubt seeped into our wider culture. We not only are a divided nation; we also are an angry nation. This anger mostly is aimed at those we feel are the enemy because they think differently or, heaven forbid, actually vote differently than we do.
We have lost civility in our public square, and we need to recover it quickly. The church constantly talks about being counter-cultural, and there is no greater way to be counter-cultural in this day and age than to be civil, kind and generous.
Being civil and kind does not mean you are soft, and having convictions and standing for God’s truth does not mean you have to be unkind or harsh. We are called to give an account of the hope we have in Jesus and to do so with gentleness and respect (1 Peter 3:15).
The church must be known by her convictional kindness. As Christians called to be “salt and light,” we must proclaim the truth of God, call men and women to repentance, and hold up the grace found in Jesus Christ alone with love and compassion for those we encounter. We are called to witness in the public square, to seek the common good and to do so with civility and kindness.
The church should lead the way in this return to decency. I am saddened when I cannot tell the difference between a Christian pastor and another commentator as they yell at each other on cable news.
The unity of the body of Christ does not mean we will agree on every issue, but it does mean we approach our disagreements with kindness and civility.
Our posture outside of the body of Christ also should be kindness and civility, for at least two basic reasons.
First, all people are created in the image of God and therefore are valuable and are to be treated with dignity and respect.
We may not agree on any opinion another person holds, and they may not treat us with respect or civility. But we must honor the dignity of the image of God within them. We have no choice but to show kindness when we see others as created in God’s image and therefore worthy of respect. Civility can be recovered when we see others as first and foremost created in the image of God.
Second, all people are loved by God.
Jesus doesn’t love only people who look, think and vote like us. Jesus didn’t come to save only people of whom we approve.
We should ask God to give us his heart for others, especially those we have difficulty loving as Christ loves us. As believers, we are called to love our brothers and sisters in Christ, our neighbor and even our enemy. There is no escape clause in the command to love.
When we begin with the truth that this person is loved by God and therefore should be loved by us, we will show them respect and kindness.
Civility and respect
There will be people, even within the church, that we disagree with. There will be people and churches—as we have seen within the Baptist General Convention of Texas—we may not want to cooperate with because of the nature and depth of our disagreements, but we must treat them with civility, and we must respect them.
I’m not naive enough to think there won’t be divisions, and sometimes there is a point where we must go our separate ways. Paul and Barnabas come to mind. But we can do so with respect.
I’m also not calling for us to lose our convictions for the sake of being nice. There are times we must disagree and follow our conscience. I am saying we must do so with gentleness and love.
The church of Jesus Christ must lead the recovery of civility, kindness and respect in the midst of disagreement. God has given us the foundation, in seeing others as created in his image and loved by him, to recover basic decency in these disagreements and divisions.
Zac Harrel is pastor of First Baptist Church in Gustine, Texas.