This blog series seeks to invite followers of Jesus to take seriously his prayer and call to unity. Doing so will require Christ followers to practice a form of civility much needed, but sorely lacking within the community of faith. To understand how unity and civility work together toward such an end, it is important to clarify what civility is not. The series has addressed concerns over conflict and conviction, both of which lead to questions about judgement. Does unity and civility make one judgmental? I’ve addressed this previously in a separate post, When We Are Called to Judge.
There are additional questions I’ve encountered as I’ve worked with churches and individual Christians on these matters that question the authenticity and nature of relationships. How should Christians view civility as it relates to our call to share the Gospel? Does a commitment to unity and civility demand that a Christian genuinely enjoy the company of everyone regardless of personality, past history, differing opinions, or other legitimate sources of concern?
This post endeavors to provide clarity over such concerns.
Civility is not exclusive to evangelism.
Because a diminished Christian witness as a result of incivility is part of the motivation for this series of posts, it does not follow that civility be expressed only as a means to achieve an evangelistic conversation. I know that civility will play an important part in establishing a relationship that earns us the right to share our faith with others (I’ve never seen rudeness lead to redemption). However, if kindness and gentleness are only expressed as means to conversion, one could argue that civility becomes a manipulative tool for proselytizing, not an expression of genuine interest and respect in pursuit of a relationship.
No one enjoys being objectified as a project, conquest, or otherwise proverbial notch on someone’s belt. However, when we are the subject of another’s thoughts, interest or admiration, a relationship is formed that over time may deepen in trust and security. Leonard Sweet describes this process in the following way: “Objectivity becomes subjectivity because of relativity.” Civility’s role in evangelism is important as long as the relationship is pursued out of interest in the individual as a subject of mutual respect, and not out of interest in the individual as a statistical object or missionary project.
Civility does not demand we prefer the company of everyone to whom we are civil.
The research done in preparation for these posts yielded a surprising discovery. People commonly assumed being civil and united meant becoming friends. Naturally the question arose, “Do we have to be civil if we don’t want to be their friend?”
This requires a confession and a concession on my part. I confess that while I love my church family and would be there to support and help any of them, there are some of them who simply irritate me. To be fair, I am certain I irritate some of them as well!! Therefore, I concede that while civility has great potential for positive Christian witness, redemptive communication, and improved health within the family of faith, the downside is that we cannot always pick our relatives. As a result, this process has the potential to galvanize non-essential differences to the degree that while we understand the need to respect each other, seek to understand each other, and work to love each other, there is no guarantee it will make us like each other.
Civility is not limited to those we already know.
Furthermore, civility is not limited to those we know. Because the word describes what is good for “the city,” it carries the notion that civility will be expressed to strangers with whom we have little connection. In this way, civility contains elements of fellowship, wherein we are civil to those we know, as well as elements of hospitality, wherein we extend gentleness and respect to strangers. While it may indeed be optional to prefer someone’s company, to be kind, gentle, and hospitable are expressions required for followers of Jesus. Christine Pohl offers a compelling summary:
“Hospitality is not optional for Christians, nor is it limited to those who are especially gifted for it. It is, instead, a necessary practice in the community of faith. One of the key Greek words for hospitality, philoxenia, combines the general word for love or affection for people who are connected by kinship or faith (phileo), and the word for stranger (xenos). Thus etymologically and practically, in the New Testament, hospitality is closely connected to love. Because philoxenia includes the word for strangers, hospitality’s orientation toward strangers is also more apparent in Greek than in English.”
While we are not required to like everyone, we are expected to express love to each other, whether brother, sister, friend, opponent, or stranger.
Having clarified several important and potential misconceptions regarding civility, the next posts will bring a vision for unity and civility into sharper focus by analyzing important defining elements of Christian civility. Stay tuned!
 Leonard Sweet, “Relational Objectivity” (lecture, Doctor of Ministry Cohort Advance, George Fox Evangelical Seminary, Portland, August 24, 2011).
 Christine D. Pohl, Making Room: Recovering Hospitality as a Christian Tradition (Grand Rapids: W.B. Eerdmans, 1999), 31.