After Luke tells us that two factions had formed in the early church about what to do with Gentile believers, he says in Acts 15:6-7, that “the apostles and the elders were gathered together to consider this matter” with “much debate.” What do you think this debate between groups with opposing positions sounded like? Did people get offended? Were there any slammed doors? Were there tears? Doesn’t that seem to be how impromptu debates tend to end these days? Or, maybe they were people who knew how to have meaningful discourse while keeping things civil.
The word “civil” means “courteous and polite.” What if “courteous and polite” were the adjectives that news outlets used to describe their work? “CNN, the C stands for Courteous!” or “Fox News: Real News. Really Polite!” The sad truth is that courteous and polite doesn’t attract viewers the way that inconsiderate and rude does.
Imagine if there were an alien race of intelligent beings that didn’t quite have the technology to visit our planet, but were only able to learn about us by listening to American “News” Channels (and yes, News is intentionally in quotes). What would they assume about the state of human to human public discourse? Would they assume that we are a reasonable race of people? Would they be excited about coming and sharing their ideas with us? I would have to guess not. They would probably assume that there was no such thing as “civil discourse” on this planet, especially when people disagree. Would you blame them for coming to that conclusion?
Unfortunately, civil discourse, and especially civil disagreement, is not only lacking in news outlets, it is sorely lacking between families, friends, and sadly, even in churches. We have bought into the lie that people who disagree with us are our enemies and that we need to fight them. However, this couldn’t be more antithetical to the way of Jesus.
Richard Mouw (who happened to be one of my professors in seminary), has lived as an excellent example of someone who can disagree and remain civil with those he disagrees with. He has written multiple books that encourage Christians to do the same. In one called, Adventures in Evangelical Civility, he writes, “our civility is grounded in a genuine conviction that we have much to do by way of preparing for the city that is to come. Practicing a calm and steady humility is not merely a way of biding our time until the end-time arrives. It is itself a crucial way of anticipating the final chapter of the narrative, an important preparation for the eschaton.” Dr. Mouw suggests that civility isn’t just a helpful way to stay out of trouble in today’s world, but it is a crucial signpost of the kingdom to come. Gentle, calm, courteous, and polite humility is the way of Jesus. It’s my prayer that you and I would become people who practice real civility especially with the people we disagree with.