Civil Liberty: How Christ Frees Us to Be Civil in Less-than-Civil Times
Civil Liberty: How Christ Frees Us to Be Civil in Less-than-Civil Times

By Shawn McMullen

You’re driving down the highway and notice a silver Honda in the passing lane traveling a few miles per hour below the speed limit, impeding the progress of the gray Toyota behind it. When the Toyota gets a break in the line of traffic, its driver veers quickly into the other lane, moves in front of the Honda, and taps his brakes, causing the driver of the Honda to brake and swerve into the berm.

The party of four at their lunch table simply can’t be pleased. They complain loudly to one another throughout the meal: the service is slow, the food is bland, and the staff is inattentive. One member of the party demands to speak to the manager and requests a credit on their bill. Finally the group leaves the table, but they don’t leave a tip.

The outreach team of a local church plans a community event targeting unbelievers. The minister of a nearby congregation hears of their plans and posts a scathing comment on his Facebook page criticizing the event, the church, and their methodology.

What do these stories have in common? The driver of the Toyota, the party at lunch, and the critical preacher are all believers—disciples of Jesus Christ. But instead of displaying Christ’s character, all three chose to respond in less-than-civil (and less-than-Christlike) ways.

 

Products of Our Culture

We’re inundated by incivility. It peppers political speeches. It incites grown athletes to behave like children. It makes the workplace a prison, the home a battleground, and the church the last place you want to be. We’ve come to expect it, as if we have little choice but to endure it—and to dish it out when necessary.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. God has a better plan and he has laid it out in Scripture. It’s not only possible to be civil and gracious in every situation, it’s God’s will for his children.

 

What Should We Expect?

While God calls us to be civil in all our interactions, we can’t expect the same from unbelievers. It would be nice if we could, but we can’t. True civility is a by-product of the Holy Spirit’s presence in the believer’s life. Those who don’t have the Holy Spirit can’t be expected to live under his direction. On the other hand, we should always expect civility from those who follow Christ.

We were near the end of a church leadership meeting when two of our leaders disagreed about a small matter, and neither wanted to concede his point. As the minutes dragged on, their conversation grew louder and less civil. After verbally insulting each other, both men sprang from their chairs and left the room. Those of us who remained looked around in stunned silence before we sadly concluded the meeting.

In the week that followed we spoke privately to both men and helped them evaluate their conduct in light of Scripture. We began our next meeting with a brief Bible study and introduced a simple covenant, asking every leader around the table to verbally agree to it. The covenant affirmed that every member of the leadership team had not only the right, but the obligation, to politely interrupt any other member during a meeting to ask, “Can you tell me how what you just said, or how the attitude you’re currently displaying, is bringing glory to God?” Our goal was to help build a culture that anticipated civil behavior in Christian leaders at all times.

 

Who Matters Most?

Much of our incivility is rooted in pride and in our hope, if not our belief, that we’re more important than the people around us.

The newscaster introduced his opinion segment with a story about an annoying passenger who sat near him on a recent flight. The passenger snapped his fingers at a flight attendant to order a drink. He snapped his fingers at another to get a pillow. He snapped at an assistant to bring his laptop. The newscaster observed with indignation, “No matter how you look at it, snapping at people smacks of pride and superiority.” He guessed the annoying passenger would never treat the president of his company or the chairman of his board in such a manner and concluded, “People never snap up. They always snap down.”

It’s true. We get away with what we can. In 1909, Harry Gordon Selfridge, founder of Selfridge’s department store in London, coined the phrase, “The customer is always right.” I’m sure he meant to promote positive customer service, but his phrase opened the door to a great deal of incivility in the retail world. As a result, people with the flimsiest of complaints boldly demand satisfaction from salespeople. Hiding behind a retail slogan, they feel superior to the person behind the counter. Sadly, many Christians have embraced the philosophy too.

But how would God have us view the issue? Paul tells us in Philippians 2:3, 4, “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of others.” You know you’re growing in Christlike civility when you treat those around you as more important than yourself; not because you know it’s the right thing to do, but because you actually believe it.

 

You Can’t Insult a Corpse

Jesus said, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23). The imagery wasn’t lost on his listeners. Anyone seen carrying his cross through the streets of Jerusalem had but one end—death. To deny self for Jesus’ sake is to die to self for Jesus’ sake.

Paul wrote, “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live” (Galatians 2:20). While he went on to explain that Christ now lived in him, we musn’t overlook the death-of-self analogy. Deithrich Bonhoffer noted, “When Christ calls a man he bids him come and die.”

Suppose I die and you attend my visitation. You approach the open casket and look down on my body. You say to me, “Shawn, I never really liked you. You were a mediocre preacher and a poor leader. And one more thing. All that humor from the pulpit? You were never as funny as you thought you were.” How do you think I would respond to those comments? You guessed it. I’d let them pass. I wouldn’t be offended at all. Why? Because you can’t insult a corpse.

It seems to me this same principle applies to every disciple of Jesus. We die to self in order to live for Christ. We have nothing to lose and nothing to prove. When people attempt to hurt us, insult us, or make us feel unimportant, we don’t respond in kind. It’s not that we grit our teeth and refuse to lash out even though we’d like to. We don’t retaliate because we have no reason to retaliate. We’ve died to offenses even as we’ve died to the world. A wise man once said, “Fools show their annoyance at once, but the prudent overlook an insult” (Proverbs 12:16).

 

Free to Be Civil

Paul wanted the Galatian Christians to live freely in God’s grace and not to relapse into a religion based on works. So he reminded them, “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free” (Galatians 5:1). Our freedom in Christ frees us from offense and allows us to live in civility with one another. Here are several ways we can do this.

Focus on God’s glory. What if we paused before responding to an insult or injury and asked, “What can I do in this moment that will glorify God?” What if our goal in every interaction became to make sure God is honored above all other things? Let’s ask God to create that mind-set in us.

Give the benefit of the doubt. Often the insults, injuries, and offenses we perceive are not intentional. We may be filtering the reactions and comments of other people and receiving them in ways they were not meant to be received. Here is where we seek God’s wisdom to understand the words and actions of others (see James 1:5), and in the meantime, we follow James’s advice: “Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry” (James 1:19). This allows us to assume that a comment or action is not meant to be harmful until we have clear evidence to the contrary.

Lay aside pride. Incivility often is driven by ego. So another simple step we can take toward Christlike civility is to ask ourselves, “How would I respond to that action or comment if I were completely devoid of pride?”

Be a peacemaker. “Blessed are the peacemakers,” Jesus said, “for they will be called children of God” (Matthew 5:9). “If it is possible,” Paul urged, “as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone” (Romans 12:18). While we’re clearly called to be peaceable people, we must remember that peace in the church is not more important than purity in the church.

If you are a church leader, you will at times need to respond in ways that are neither easy nor peaceable. You will stand for truth and for God’s glory no matter the cost. But even in those difficult times, you can allow Scripture to guide your words and actions: “And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful. Opponents must be gently instructed, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth” (2 Timothy 2:24, 25).

Make unity a priority. The apostle Paul challenged the believers in Ephesus to “Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:3). He urged the disciples in Corinth to be “perfectly united in mind and thought” (1 Corinthians 1:10). Clearly unity among Christ’s followers was a key issue to the apostle.

And no wonder. Paul learned it from the master teacher, Jesus Christ, who prayed, “I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one—I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me” (John 17:22, 23).

Unity is essential to the mission of Christ. And that unity is clearly displayed when Christ’s followers behave with civility—toward one another and toward unbelievers. Much is at stake here.

 

Golden Opportunities

Think of how God would be honored and Christ exalted if we viewed every insult, every disagreement, every misunderstanding, every personal attack as a golden opportunity to show an unbelieving world—and the believers around us—just how powerful the grace and mercy and love of God really are. When faced with incivility, perhaps we should first go to our knees and thank God for sending such an uncomfortable, potentially hurtful incident our way; for without such incidents, we would never have opportunities to show others the true measure of Christ’s love. From that vantage point, we can rise in God’s strength to respond with forgiveness and forbearance.

 

Shawn McMullen serves as editor of The Lookout and contributing editor of Christian Standard.

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2 Comments

  1. Don Shelton
    February 28, 2018 at 5:53 pm

    Great article . . . so important for our day. You might pick up a copy of Stephen L. Carter’s book Civility and note his reference to [civility] depending on our being a servant to others and seeing God’s image within them. That gives them value.

  2. March 1, 2018 at 4:14 am

    Dear Shawn,
    “In everything give thanks, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus” (1 Thessalonians 5:18).

    I don’t think we’ve ever met personally, but I surely was challenged and helped by this article. My wife, Bev, and I have been missionaries here in Taiwan for more than 49 years now, and we are constantly faced with trying to be civil in everyday situations. The Taiwanese are very kind, personable people if you are their friend, but they can do some very trying things if you are driving among them or are unknown to them. All of that is said just to let you know that your article was helpful to me personally as I strive daily to “take up my cross” and grow in Jesus (2 Peter 3:18). In Christ’s Love, Ted Skiles

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