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Healing Words: Biblical Models of Civil Discourse

James Herrick

How to be civil in the midst of deep theological disagreement

Professor of Communication, Hope College
August 18, 2014

As a professor of rhetoric and argument, I’ve spent a good deal of time thinking about the tense interactions that can arise out of a clash of views.

Moral issues such as homosexuality and political conflicts such as the red state–blue state phenomenon often separate Christians—even Christians—into rival camps.

Theological differences continue to test the limits of Christian civility.

As we all know, differences of opinion can easily escalate into hurtful conflicts. While there are plenty of prescriptions for civil discourse, we may well ask:

Does the Bible itself offer guidance for talking through disagreements within the church, and addressing objections to the Gospel from outside the church?

A critic might respond that a concern for the nature of our interactions is rooted in the Western political tradition and its love of talk, not the biblical revelation and its clear moral vision. Isn’t a direct appeal to the Bible all we need? Doesn’t anything more run the risk of shifting our confidence from God’s revelation to our own reason?

In response, I would like to argue that how we communicate is just as important as what we communicate, and that nuanced models of civil discourse are found in the New Testament. The Bible provides guidance for how we should talk through disagreements within the church, and how we advocate for the Gospel to those currently outside the church.

Paul: A Model of Civility

Reading through Acts it is hard to miss Paul’s highly developed ability to engage a wide range of people in tactful, productive communication about the Gospel. He models Christian civility despite the fact that his message often created considerable tension. The New Testament epistles reflect careful attention to managing disagreements and conflict within the church.

Generating Disagreement

It is important to note that disagreement stems from various sources.

1. Some discord arises because of sin.

In Corinth, for example, a particularly scandalous sin was apparently being tolerated by at least some members of the Christian community. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 5, “It is actually reported that there is immorality among you of such a kind that does not exist even among the Gentiles, that someone has his father’s wife.” This dramatic disobedience created stress within the church and tension between Paul and the Corinthian believers (v. 1).

2. Other disagreements stem from ignorance.

For example, in Mark 9 the disciples are caught arguing about an odd (but perhaps all-too-familiar) topic—which one of them is the greatest! Jesus says in response, “If anyone wishes to be first he shall be last of all, and servant of all.” (v. 35) The disciples were ignorant about true greatness, and their ignorance led to conflict.

3.  Disagreements can also result from a clash of worldviews—belief systems that make sense of experience.

Acts 19 suggests that some Ephesian Jews embraced a worldview that presented barriers to the Gospel; apparently their understanding of the kingdom of God was in error. For three months Paul “spoke boldly, reasoning and persuading them about the kingdom of God…” When opposition arose, Paul “argued daily in the Hall of Tyrannus” where the dialog “continued for two years” (v. 9)!

Biblical Models in Resolving Conflict

While other sources of disagreement may be discovered in the Bible, these three provide a useful entry point for discussing biblical models for resolving conflict. I’d like to focus on three corresponding models of discourse that I call the prophetic, the didactic, and the dialogic.

The Prophetic Approach: Calling Out Sin

The prophetic approach comes into play when tensions rise because of sin or entrenched immorality. The Epistle of James identifies partiality toward the wealthy as a potential cause of divisions in the church. In chapter 2, James explains why such partiality has no place in the Christian community. In chapter 5, however, his tone changes: James warns the rich about the sins of greed and injustice, and the judgment that awaits them. While still motivated by love, James incisively names sins and calls for repentance.

The prophetic approach is not the recommended model of civil discourse in most circumstances; it is employed when sin is evident and no other approach is available.

The Didactic Approach: Patient Instruction

The didactic or teaching model is helpful when differences arise from ignorance or misunderstanding. Even highly educated individuals can be woefully uninformed, though they may not know it. In John 3, Jesus teaches the learned rabbi Nicodemus that a relationship with God comes only through spiritual transformation. Despite Nicodemus’ skepticism, he and Jesus have a respectful conversation. Jesus is, however, teaching Nicodemus, not exchanging theological views with him.

Let’s consider another case. Was it right to eat food left over from idol sacrifices? A delicate source of tension in the church calls for nuanced teaching. In 1 Corinthians 8, Paul instructs the Corinthian believers that eating such food is not a sin, but also teaches that protecting a weaker brother’s conscience is crucially important. While Paul educates the Corinthians with authority, he does not adopt the prophetic approach. His careful instruction cultivates discernment and maturity, as well as hospitality toward the weaker believer. Paul might have ended this controversy with a decisive dictate; he chose instead to model patient instruction.

The Dialogical Approach: Reason in the Synagogue and Marketplace

The dialogic approach is fitting when disagreement is rooted in a clash of worldviews. In dialogue, teaching gives way to argument, instruction yields to persuasion. In Acts 17 we read, “While Paul was waiting … at Athens, his spirit was provoked within him as he saw that the city was full of idols.” The Athenians were polytheists and idol worshippers. Paul recognized that idols represented the tip of a worldview iceberg in Athens. His chosen response to this situation is rational dialog—he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons, and in the marketplace every day with those who happened to be there” (v. 17). Paul adjusted beliefs through patient interaction.

It is interesting to note that, though Paul was rightly troubled by Athenian idol worship, and though his famous speech in the Areopagus mentions the need for repentance, he avoids the prophetic approach. He does not address the Athenians principally as sinners, but as worshippers. Moreover, while idol worship reflected ignorance—as Paul himself acknowledges—he does not adopt the posture of a teacher. The response to his dialogic approach is predictably mixed: “Some of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers conversed with him,” others called him a “babbler,” and still others a “preacher of foreign deities.” Regardless, many wanted to hear more (17:18, 32).

Paul apparently recognized that Athenian idol worship was an outgrowth of an ancient and comprehensive belief system. Polytheism and idol worship were matters of cultural inheritance, not merely of immorality or ignorance. Paul invites his listeners to restructure their worldview around a new core belief—one God who has revealed himself in one man. The Athenians’ idol worship was not that of the Israelites in the time of Elijah; Israelite idol worship reflected rebellion against God. Paul adjusted a cosmic compass; Elijah destroyed a corrupt practice (I Kings 18).

Learning Civil Discourse from Paul

I would like to conclude by pointing out five qualities Paul exhibits which enhance our biblical models of civil discourse.

1. Paul demonstrates courage.

He is willing to accept the risk of advocating unpopular views. On more than one occasion he risked his life to present his message, and on several occasions suffered severe physical abuse for proclaiming the Gospel. His message, however, had a transforming effect on Roman culture. When we are willing to courageously speak the truth, public discourse is enriched.

2. Paul demonstrates honesty.

He is committed to telling the truth. For Christian advocates, honesty means not compromising our message to achieve a particular end, avoiding persuasive tactics that cloud the truth, eschewing careless interpretations of scripture, and not wearing the mask of moral indignation when giving vent to personal prejudice.

3. Paul showed respect for others as thinking people.

Both respected those he agreed with and those he opposed. To interact respectfully with others is to affirm their capacity to reason. Paul undoubtedly loathed idol worship, but he showed respect for the Athenians as reasoning people—rather than dismissing them for their practices, he reasoned with them. Love expressed as respect is the foundation of Christian civil discourse, even when we strenuously disagree with a point of view. This may be what Peter is emphasizing when he affirms that our defense of “the hope that is in us” should be made “with gentleness and reverence.” (I Peter 3:15-16)

4. Paul also practiced what I call “regard for contexts.”

He sought out settings in which conversation about the Gospel could develop. Locating the Hall of Tyrannus was more than just a practical matter—it showed that Paul recognized that a constructive conversation requires a suitable setting.

5. Finally, Paul exhibits patience.

It can take considerable time to help someone recognize a wrong belief or give up a hurtful practice. Paul patiently instructs the Corinthians despite the fact that they were for him often a difficult group. He devotes an extraordinary amount of time to reasoning with the citizens of Ephesus. Teaching sound doctrine and adjusting erroneous worldviews take time and patience.

Practicing biblical civil discourse requires the skill of discerning the approach called for in a particular situation. This means asking about the source of the disagreement and seeking to match our talk to that source. Moreover, Paul’s virtues of courage, honesty, respect for persons, regard for contexts, and patience enrich the biblical portrait of constructive interaction around disagreement. Each of our three models and five virtues is subsumed under the umbrella of love for others, without which our talk becomes meaningless noise.