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Make Us One: Does unity and civility sacrifice conviction?

June 30, 2015

“Hope has 2 beautiful daughters: Anger and Courage. Anger at the way things are. Courage to ensure they don’t stay that way” -St. Augustine

“Where there is no vision, there is no hope.”- George Washington Carver

My previous post in this series called for Christians to take seriously a call for unity. Find it here

But how to do that?

To a large degree, Jesus has already provided the vision for unity and civility. Shortly before his passion, Jesus prays that his followers, present and future, would “all be one.” In the same discourse, Christian unity provides the strength for believers to be in the world, but not of the world. It is in our loving unity that Jesus says “the world will know that you are my disciples.”[1] Such a clear and compelling vision set forth by Jesus himself would surely provide enough to get the church started toward the realization of a civility-conscious vision. However, it is often hard for people, even Christians, to imagine civility as a beneficial endeavor. Perspectives can be skewed by false and fuzzy perceptions of what such a reality would and would not look like. The following blog addresses a couple of misconceptions regarding civility by examining what civility is not. More to come in a few days

What Civility Is Not

Civility is not the absence of conflict.

While preaching through a sermon series on marriage, I prepared an entire sermon on the reality of conflict in marriage and principles for couples to approach their disagreements with civility. A couple approached me after the service. The husband was most upset that I would “endorse” conflict in a marriage.

For him, an ideal Christian marriage should be one that resembled his own: a relationship free of conflict. He went on to claim that they had enjoyed more than 15 years of marriage without a single argument. Of course, the husband did all of the talking. Come to think of it, I don’t believe I have ever heard his wife speak.

The interaction raises a common misperception about unity and civility. Does a vision of Christian civility demand the absence of any conflict? Is it somehow uncivil to disagree at all, to hold convictions, and to passionately articulate and defend to convictions?

Blogger, author, and Bible teacher Frank Viola writes, “Civil disagreement and even debate, when done in the spirit of Christ, are healthy and helpful.”[2] The two terms healthy and conflict may sound like an oxymoron. Wouldn’t healthy relationships be characterized by avoidance of conflict? The answer depends on what you think of when hearing the word, conflict. Communication scholars report most people share words like war, hate, battle, failure, anger, lose, and argue, when associated with the term conflict.

From a semiotic standpoint, the word “conflict” conjures negative images and experiences. Therefore, it is naturally avoided.[3] However, the Christian community can imagine a better way regarding conflict, seeing it as redemptive, productive, and instructional.

It is often the very resistance brought on by healthy conflicts that cause relationships to deepen in trust. Conflict among fully engaged individuals is a catalyst to growth. Pastor and church consultant Mel Lawrenz imagines civility through the idea of engagement. In his vision, Christ followers remain consistently engaged with God, one another, their community, and their world. As such they are in a consistent position to establish and maintain healthy relational connections.[4]  However, Lawrenz recognizes that such relational connections are not free from conflict, for the connections are between human beings. “Conflict is inevitable as long as we are human. The questions become how to lessen the frequency of conflict and how to deal constructively with conflict when it does arise.”[5] Communication professors Tim Muehlhoff and Todd Lewis remind Christ-followers, “Conflict is common, and in a sense inevitable to all relationships.”[6] The tension present within relationships of inevitable conflict helps us keep in mind that civility is in the best sense of the word, “practiced.”[7]

Practicing conflict is hardly a new concept for the followers of Jesus. The early church was not a sanitized, conflict-free environment. Jesus was in constant conflict with the religious leaders of his day and led a band of constantly squabbling disciples.[8] Paul confronts Peter publicly over his uncivil table manners toward Gentile believers.[9] The Jewish church was deeply and passionately divided over whether or not to recognize Gentile converts to the Way.[10] Paul played referee to warring factions in Corinth, and pled with two women in Philippi who could agree on nothing else, to “agree in the Lord.”[11]

The community of the Prince of Peace has been a laboratory of civil conflict since the beginning. Yet as much as they zealously debated their differences, their practiced goals were to pursue Shalom between one another for the sake of Christ’s gospel of peace. Civility calls believers to the gymnasium of grace to wrestle vigorously with their differences. Civility also calls us to the laboratory of love wherein our diversity is contended, tested, and our conflicts seek to be resolved. The Christ-follower can emerge with greater strength, depth of character, and a clear perception of what it means to choose civility.

Civility is not the absence of conviction.

In April of 1862, Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote an essay for The Atlantic magazine. In it, he praised President Lincoln for his resolve in seeking to emancipate slaves; an action perceived by many in the south as a threat to their established civilization. Emerson observed that America was attempting “to hold together two states of civilization: a higher state, where labor and the tenure of  land and the right of suffrage are democratic; and a lower state, in which the old military tenure of prisoners or slaves, and of power and land in a few hands, makes an oligarchy: we have attempted to hold these two states of society under one law. But the rude and early state of society does not work well with the later, nay, works badly, and has poisoned politics, public morals, and social intercourse in the Republic, now for many  years.”[12]

Emerson continued, asking, “should not the best civilization be extended over the whole country, since the disorder of the less civilized portion menaces the existence of the country?”[13] Emerson’s polished yet passionate plea is grounded in his belief that true civility is connected to firm convictions. “There can be no high civility without a deep morality.”[14]

Pulitzer Prize winning journalist J. Anthony Lukas stated his belief that the moral decline in his city is realized because “we have let our standards of civility and truth waste dangerously away.”[15] Emerson and Lukas each in their own way convey an approach to civility that is essentially connected to conviction. It is the reversal of what W.B. Yeats describes in his poem, “Second Coming,”: “The best lack all conviction while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”[16]

Such a reversal is needed, for the concern of some is that along with civility comes passionless indifference, or even a posture of compromise. Lutheran pastor and scholar Martin Marty framed the concern as follows; “people who are good at being civil often lack strong convictions, and people with strong convictions often lack civility.”[17] If we desire to be more civil, however, it need not be at the expense of our convictions. Richard Mouw calls this “convicted civility.”[18]

Expressing civility and pursuing unity does not mean we’re prohibited from prophetic criticism of the thinking, beliefs, behaviors, and other systemic realities of the times. While it may be true that civility calls for us to affirm the right of another to express their beliefs, civility does not demand that we accept, affirm, or approve of those beliefs and their resulting actions. Saying one has the right to express their convictions is one thing; saying they are right in how they express them is something different. Civil conviction calls us to the former, not the latter.

The next post will address how civility and unity navigate questions of relational chemistry – Does being civil mean I have to like everyone?


[1] John 13:35

[2] Frank Viola, “Warning: The World Is Watching How We Christians Treat One Another,” Beyond Evangelical (web log), January 14, 2013,

[3]Muehlhoff and Lewis, Authentic Communication, 104.

[4] Mel Lawrenz, Whole Church: Leading from Fragmentation to Engagement (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2009), 12.

[5] Ibid., 21.

[6] Muehlhoff and Lewis, Authentic Communication, 104.

[7] In this sense, practice does not make perfect, but it allows for improvement and reveals the space for further improvement. It is an effort of repetition where the end is not completion, but continued execution much like attorneys “practice” law or doctors “practice” medicine. “Practicing” Christians “practice” their faith.

[8] A concise exploration of Jesus’ conflict with and between his disciples as well as the religious leaders of his day is offered in Graham Stanton, The Gospels and Jesus (Oxford [England: Oxford University Press, 1989), 44-47.

[9] Galatians 2:8-15

[10] Acts 15:1-35

[11] 1 Corinthians 1:10-17, Philippians 4:1-3

[12] Ralph W. Emerson, “American Civilization,” The Atlantic, April 1, 1862, 2,

[13] Emerson, “American Civilization.”

[14] Ibid.

[15] J. Anthony Lukas, “Something’s Gone Terribly Wrong in New York,” review of The Closest of StrangersThe New York Times, September 9, 1990,

[16] Richard J. Finneran, ed., The Collected Works of W.B. Yeats, 2nd ed., vol. 1, The Poems (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1996), 182.

[17] Martin E. Marty, By Way of Response (Nashville: Abingdon, 1981), 81.

[18] Mouw, Uncommon Decency, 14.

SCOTUS Ruling: A need for compassionate and convicted clarity

June 26, 2015

I strive to be a peacemaker. That means I often seek ways to resolve a conflict from an option beyond an “either/or” approach. I even teach principles of polarity management to churches, organizations, and in relationship counseling (pre-marital, marital, and family). I believe “principled centrism” would help us become more politically productive, and I even think that many of us are stuck in conflict because we should see many issues as tensions to be managed rather than problems to be solved.

Some issues, however, require the sort of clarity that reveals one’s “side” on an issue. Some positions cannot exist in the middle.  Sometimes, there is a line in the sand that one simply cannot straddle. Today highlights such a time.

SCOTUS has declared same-sex marriage to be a legal right in all 50 states.

I have a very diverse group of readers, parishioners, colleagues, and friends. Many from the LGBTQ community. We have frequent and at times intense conversations on the issues, but never has there been a moment when I was disrespectful, unkind, and unloving to you … nor you to me. We have been and remain friends. This was in light of the fact that I have and continue to hold that marriage is defined by both Old and New Testaments, the teaching of Jesus, the apostles, and the overwhelming consistency of church teaching as the life-long union between one man and one woman.

However, since news broke of the Court’s decision, I’ve been asked for a response and for clarification on my perspective. The statement shared below was written by Russell Moore, of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. It is “signed” by nearly 100 Christian leaders from a variety of denominational perspectives and is being published through Christianity Today. Although I understand some who identify as Evangelicals will not identify with this declaration, it does convey in clear, compassionate terms the convictions that I and the majority of Evangelicals hold on this issue as well as the love we have for individuals who do not share these convictions.

Here We Stand: An Evangelical Declaration on Marriage

As evangelical Christians, we dissent from the court’s ruling that redefines marriage. The state did not create the family, and should not try to recreate the family in its own image. We will not capitulate on marriage because biblical authority requires that we cannot. The outcome of the Supreme Court’s ruling to redefine marriage represents what seems like the result of a half-century of witnessing marriage’s decline through divorce, cohabitation, and a worldview of almost limitless sexual freedom. The Supreme Court’s actions pose incalculable risks to an already volatile social fabric by alienating those whose beliefs about marriage are motivated by deep biblical convictions and concern for the common good.

The Bible clearly teaches the enduring truth that marriage consists of one man and one woman. From Genesis to Revelation, the authority of Scripture witnesses to the nature of biblical marriage as uniquely bound to the complementarity of man and woman. This truth is not negotiable. The Lord Jesus himself said that marriage is from the beginning (Matt. 19:4-6), so no human institution has the authority to redefine marriage any more than a human institution has the authority to redefine the gospel, which marriage mysteriously reflects (Eph. 5:32). The Supreme Court’s ruling to redefine marriage demonstrates mistaken judgment by disregarding what history and countless civilizations have passed on to us, but it also represents an aftermath that evangelicals themselves, sadly, are not guiltless in contributing to. Too often, professing evangelicals have failed to model the ideals we so dearly cherish and believe are central to gospel proclamation.

Evangelical churches must be faithful to the biblical witness on marriage regardless of the cultural shift. Evangelical churches in America now find themselves in a new moral landscape that calls us to minister in a context growing more hostile to a biblical sexual ethic. This is not new in the history of the church. From its earliest beginnings, whether on the margins of society or in a place of influence, the church is defined by the gospel. We insist that the gospel brings good news to all people, regardless of whether the culture considers the news good or not.

The gospel must inform our approach to public witness. As evangelicals animated by the good news that God offers reconciliation through the life, death, and resurrection of His Son, Jesus, we commit to:

  • Respect and pray for our governing authorities even as we work through the democratic process to rebuild a culture of marriage (Rom. 13:1-7);
  • teach the truth about biblical marriage in a way that brings healing to a sexually broken culture;
  • affirm the biblical mandate that all persons, including LGBT persons, are created in the image of God and deserve dignity and respect;
  • love our neighbors regardless of whatever disagreements arise as a result of conflicting beliefs about marriage;
  • live respectfully and civilly alongside those who may disagree with us for the sake of the common good;
  • cultivate a common culture of religious liberty that allows the freedom to live and believe differently to prosper.

The redefinition of marriage should not entail the erosion of religious liberty. In the coming years, evangelical institutions could be pressed to sacrifice their sacred beliefs about marriage and sexuality in order to accommodate whatever demands the culture and law require. We do not have the option to meet those demands without violating our consciences and surrendering the gospel. We will not allow the government to coerce or infringe upon the rights of institutions to live by the sacred belief that only men and women can enter into marriage.

The gospel of Jesus Christ determines the shape and tone of our ministry. Christian theology considers its teachings about marriage both timeless and unchanging, and therefore we must stand firm in this belief. Outrage and panic are not the responses of those confident in the promises of a reigning Christ Jesus. While we believe the Supreme Court has erred in its ruling, we pledge to stand steadfastly, faithfully witnessing to the biblical teaching that marriage is the chief cornerstone of society, designed to unite men, women, and children. We promise to proclaim and live this truth at all costs, with convictions that are communicated with kindness and love.

Read the declaration along with a list of those who signed here

Make Us One

June 25, 2015

“If there was ever a time for a unified voice from the Body of Jesus, It’s now.”

That was the thought I had as I read a passage that I’ve read maybe hundreds of times. This time, however, it moved me to tears.

In John 17:15-21 Jesus prays,

“I do not ask You to take them out of the world, but to keep them from the evil one. 16 They are not of the world, even as I am not of the world. 17 Sanctify them in the truth; Your word is truth. 18 As You sent Me into the world, I also have sent them into the world. 19 For their sakes I sanctify Myself, that they themselves also may be sanctified in truth.

20 I do not ask on behalf of these alone, but for those also who believe in Me through their word; 21 that they may all be one; even as You, Father, are in Me and I in You, that they also may be in Us, so that the world may believe that You sent Me.”

We have been sent into the world as a united witness to Christ. Our unity is a witness to the Tri-Unity of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. I cried because I realized the extent to which this prayer and call from Jesus is unheeded by his church.

Unheeded by me …

I started to imagine … what if?

I’m a visionary. Some would call me a dreamer. That’s okay with me.

One of my dreams is for the community of people that identify themselves as followers of Jesus Christ to recognize and respond to the need we have for unity.

Unity, not uniformity. I understand that each Christian has ideals, preferences, interests, and experiences that are widely diverse. The scriptures don’t even expect uniformity, since Paul uses the diversity of a human body in 1 Corinthians 12 as a way to explain the various functions, methods, approaches, and roles everyone has as part of the Body of Christ. Yet, Paul goes on to explain that the various parts are brought together and called one Body under the Headship of Jesus.

One Body, many parts, all united in Jesus. Pretty clear, right?

Easier said than done … then and now.

In my theological education, I deliberately studied among people who had different beliefs than me. As a result, I have friends that are Baptist, Methodists, Presbyterians, Quakers, Pentecostals, non-denominationals, Mennonites, Lutherans, Episcopal, and others. Even these categories have their own internal variations. In our studies, we disagreed on many non-essentials, but were surprisingly united on the essentials of Evangelical faith.

I’m a Baptist. I have been my whole life. Studying with all the people mentioned above made me an even stronger Baptist. I love my Baptist heritage and remain committed to the distinctives of the Baptist identity within which I was raised, although that doesn’t mean that I agree with everything I see, hear, and read coming out of the national offices in Nashville. In fact, my Baptist tribe is splintered in many directions as evidenced by the church I pastor – Southern Baptists worship, work, and witness alongside Heartland Baptists, as well folks from the Baptist General Convention of Missouri. It gets tricky, since Baptists aren’t always known for their ability to agree … the old joke is that if you have three Baptists in a room you’ll end up with five opinions! Still, we have made it work at my church because of a commitment to lean into the unity we find in the essentials of our common faith in Jesus Christ. The same is true of  Christians from other denominations with whom we minister. But this did not happen easily, nor is it natural. It is an intentional and daily practice.

Unfortunately, it is so much easier to emphasize the points of disagreement and lose sight of where we are unified. Unity is hard work for the Body today, just as it was for those that Jesus prayed would be one (John 17:1-26), and for the warring factions of the Corinthian Church (1 Cor. 12:13-27). Still, Jesus prayed for oneness, and Paul called for unity, so I will keep praying and envisioning a diversely unified Body of Christ.

I have a friend who is a very talented mosaic artist. Much of her work is in finding the right kind of diversity of color, texture, shape, and size in the individual pieces. She tells me that a mosaic’s unique beauty is in proportion to the difficulty of its assembly. She says her best works are stained with blood from her fingers.  Her mosaics come to mind as I think about this problem.

The difficulty with the Body of Christ is its diverse population of broken humanity brought together through the grace of Jesus.

In contrast, the beauty of the Body of Christ is its diverse population of broken humanity brought together through the grace of Jesus.

On one hand, the broken pieces are sharp, rough and differ from one another, drawing blood from the hands working to create an image of unified diversity. The Body is a problematic project, “susceptible to division and fragmentation,” as John Stott observed.  On the other hand, the broken lives redeemed by Jesus create a mosaic of grace that reflects the creative unity of our Master Artisan. That’s where I am hopeful. I pray the various broken pieces of humanity that are redeemed by Christ can come together in a manner that reflects his likeness to a world in need of his grace and truth.

What if we as followers of Jesus took seriously the call to become one Body? What would it take? I’d like to offer a few suggestions over the next several posts. I hope you will find them helpful.

  1. Does unity and civility require us to abandon a strong stance on conviction?
  2. What if we lost our fear of being “wrong?” Not morally wrong, but wrong in a “teachability” sense.
  3. What if we realized how wide a platform for unity we have?
  4. What if we recognize the strength of our unity is the sum of our diversity?

Disagreement without Demolition

June 9, 2015

This week, I was reminded of the rarity, difficulty, and importance of civil disagreement. I’m preparing to present a workshop next week in Dallas, Texas based on my book, Hand Over Fist: An Invitation to Christ-Centered Civility. While working on the presentation I came across this helpful article from Dennis Haak. The piece offers very practical tips on how to remain agreeable during a disagreement. Thanks, Dennis, for this and many other great sources of wisdom.

Click here for Discernment 102: How to Disagree Agreeably

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