Diary of a Wimpy Church?

Now that national elections are over, I have taken the time to reflect on a consistent theme in American politics of late: the presence (or absence) of civility in campaign speeches, advertisements, and debates. I found that each party accused the other of violating civility—a banner that political campaigns often run up the flagpole but rarely salute, to almost no one’s surprise.

But particularly interesting was how this issue arose within a Christian context. When Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, closed in prayer at the end of the first day of the Republican National Convention, he said his theme would be “reconciling…truth with civility.” In January the cover of Christianity Today read, “Civil Christians in an Age of Rancor” and featured an article by Wheaton College political science professor Amy Black dealing with Christian civility during political seasons, also the subject of a book she wrote.

Then in August the news broke that Pastor Rick Warren cancelled the presidential candidate forum at his Saddleback Church in Southern California to hold a religious liberty forum instead. Warren’s reason? A lack of civility between the two political parties.

Many journalists, however, apparently did not feel beholden to the ideals of civility. They continued to beat up on conservative evangelicals who spoke out on candidates or public issues. When Christian action-film actor Chuck Norris and his wife, Gena, made a video ad against President Obama, Daily Kos blogger Ken Warren (pen name “Kwik”) lambasted them in a September 4 piece, complaining, “These people really believe President Obama is the Anti-Christ….Makes you wonder if these old action heroes took one too many blows to the head back in their hey days [sic].”

On August 22, CNN’s Piers Morgan used an interview with comedian (and Christian) Jeff Foxworthy as an opportunity to slam anti-gay-marriage statements made by another Christian actor, Kirk Cameron. Morgan accused conservative evangelicals of “inflammatory” rhetoric against the gay agenda and suggested that being labeled a Christian in America “has become almost a bad word.”

Of course, followers of Christ don’t get their marching orders from journalists or society. In fact, as I read Scripture, it seems clear we are to influence society, not conform to it.

The Bible says we are to speak the truth with love and boldness, mindful of setting an example for other believers “in word, in conduct, in love, in spirit, in faith, in purity” (1 Tim. 4:12). We are to speak “the truth in love” (Eph. 4:15) because without love, we sound like a noisy gong or “clanging cymbal” (1 Cor. 13:1). On the other hand, to speak loving words while avoiding the truth is both cowardly and spiritually ineffective.

Some segments of society will fight us, sometimes vociferously and sometimes violently, even when we speak in love. Jesus was the epitome of love mixed with boldness, and He was crucified. However, He did not evade the truth even when His life was on the line: “Now some of them from Jerusalem said, ‘Is this not He whom they seek to kill? But look! He speaks boldly’” (Jn. 7:25–26).

The apostle Paul is repeatedly described as a messenger who spoke the gospel message with boldness (Acts 9:27; 14:3; 18:26; 19:8). And when he did, it often provoked raucous opposition and, in one case, a city-wide riot (19:23–30).

In fact, some New Testament verbal encounters would probably be labeled as “hate speech” today. Jesus, for example, did not mince words when He rebuked the Pharisees:

Now the Pharisees, who were lovers of money, also heard all these things, and they derided Him. And He said to them, “You are those who justify yourselves before men, but God knows your hearts. For what is highly esteemed among men is an abomination in the sight of God” (Lk. 16:14–15).

The apostle Paul dressed down an occult magician, calling him “full of all deceit and all fraud, you son of the devil, you enemy of all righteousness” (Acts 13:10). Yet Scripture says he delivered the message “filled with the Holy Spirit” (v. 9).

The apostle Peter confronted Simon the Sorcerer, who wanted to buy spiritual power, using language that would make today’s civility buffs queasy (8:20–23).

So where does this situation leave us?The current conversation within the church about civility is important, but it could drift into a wimpy, half-baked approach to Christian apologetics if it is not seasoned with a heavy dose of biblical realism and disciplined theology.

We certainly are to practice gracious speech, but access to the corridors of power may also require us to be blunt in interpreting for our leaders the “handwriting on the wall” (Dan. 5:22–28). And to the politically correct ear, those messages can sometimes sound downright uncivil.

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