A Call for Civility

Civility was the theme of the Western National Leadership Training event in Jackson Hole, Wyoming in mid October, sponsored by the Synod of the Rockies, Presbyterian Church(USA). The theme was timely nationally in light of congressional gridlock, the shut down of the federal government and the threat of debt default – as a result of legislators’ refusal to talk to one another, and also for a Protestant denomination that has been arguing non stop for decades over issues of sexual practice and orientation, ordination, Biblical authority and theology. The arguments have not always been civil. Convictions, opinions and feelings are deeply held and conversations are often heated. Organizations have sprung up within the denomination representing conservative and liberal, or progressive, advocates on each of the issues. When the church’s General Assembly removed the 1996 amendment to its constitution that prohibited the ordination of gay and lesbian Presbyterians to the Ministry of Word and Sacrament, and the congregational offices of Elder and Deacon, allowing Presbyteries and Congregations to make ordination decisions based on candidates’ fitness apart from sexual orientation, conservatives launched an initiative to encourage dissent, or to form a denomination within the denomination to operate independently and maintain the prohibition, or to leave the denomination altogether. More than a hundred congregations, including some of the largest in the denomination, have left and others are considering leaving. One of them has sued its Presbytery and obtained an injunction against Presbytery officials from interfering. The topic of Civility and remaining in relationship in spite of significant disagreement and conflict could not be more relevant.

Event planners invited Dr. Richard Mouw and me to make presentations and engage in conversation with each other. Rich Mouw recently retired as President of Fuller Theological Seminary, is a distinguished scholar and popular spokesperson for the neo-Evangelicals in the Presbyterian Church. His positions on the defining issues are consistently conservative. He is a loyal, if occasionally dissenting Presbyterian and he is thoroughly and consummately civil. His opening presentation, “Can Presbyterians be Civil” began with a review of John Calvin’s writings on the topic of civility. Calvin, Mouw observed, and everybody knows, could be intolerant and harsh. His involvement in the execution of Michael Servetus is no secret and all that many people know about him. But Calvin also taught respect, tolerance and civility among Christians engaged in theological disputations.

In my first presentation I suggested that some incivility in the church is a reflection of the decline in civility and rudeness in American culture. I also suggested that Christians owe one another more than basic civility, that we all operate under the mandate to love one another with enough visible authenticity that the world will understand, and be attracted to, the faith we profess. I also acknowledged that Presbyterians, perhaps more than any other Protestant denomination, have a regrettable history of resolving our internal conflicts by walking away from one another and forming a new denomination, as seems to be happening at the moment.

In the final session Rich and I had a conversation, using Leonard Swidler’s Dialogue Decalogue – ten guidelines for engaging in constructive conversation with someone with whom one differs or disagrees.

One of the highlights of the event for me was an anecdote in Mouw’s first presentation. He explained that Charles Hodge, late 19th century Reformed theologian at Princeton Theological Seminary, a fierce opponent of theological liberalism, found the theology of Friedrich Schleiermacher so wrong and distasteful that he wrote 15 full pages rigorously critiquing Schleiermacher’s ideas. But, Mouw pointed out, Hodge added a footnote at the end of his long critique in which he explained that it was Scleiermacher’s personal practice to gather his children around the family piano after dinner to “sing praises to the Lord Jesus.” Hodge said that he was confident that Schleiermacher, who had died shortly before Hodge’s summa was published “was now singing praises to the Lord Jesus face to face.”

I have been an active advocate on the liberal side of most of the critical and divisive issues the church has faced in the last fifty years: race, the role of women, poverty, sexual orientation, the environment. I am no stranger to strong debate, criticism and incivility. I was deeply touched by Hodge’s maintaining a respectful and civil relationship with one with whom he could not have disagreed more. I was touched by Rich Mouw’s kindness and civility. It gave me hope for my church.

And it made me newly impatient with our embarrassing, sinful insistence that our opinions on this or that are so essential that we can no longer remain in the same church together. If, according to Jesus, our unity, our visible love for one another is the way the world will know about and be attracted to Christian faith, I have a growing sense that what the world sees is not very attractive and even repulsive. It must make Jesus weep.


  1. J. Richard Briggs, MD says:

    Looking at the Earth from afar, as if standing on the moon, seems to focus more clearly the oneness of humanity and the irrelevance of the many issues that seem so divisive in our church today. It appears to me that Jesus has this perspective and it seems to be easier to understand as we age and mature. Whereas aging is mandatory, the maturation part has been difficult for some.

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