Make Us One: Does unity and civility sacrifice conviction?

“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.

3 thoughts on “Make Us One: Does unity and civility sacrifice conviction?

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