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In this address, Dr. Richard Mouw encourages a posture of “convicted civility,” navigating conflicts with both conviction and civility. Dr. Mouw originally delivered these remarks to the 2017 General Synod of the Reformed Church in America, an annual gathering where the denomination makes decisions about how to do ministry together. At times, he speaks specifically to conflicts facing those in the room. But his message is applicable to navigating a variety of conflicts and disagreements. The speech was slightly modified for a written format.

In my career as a scholar, teacher, writer, speaker, I have spent most of the last three decades thinking a lot about the topic of “civility.” How do we engage in civil relationships with people with whom we have deep and profound disagreements? And I found a very stimulating way of thinking about this from reading a book by Dr. Martin Marty. He says, “It is a fact of public life and when it comes to religion and politics, the committed lack civility and the civil often lack conviction. And what we need is convicted civility.” I reflected on that historically, theologically, philosophically, and pastorally, and practically. And it seems to me that’s precisely the point that is regularly made in the New Testament. It isn’t that the Bible gives us convictions and then we somehow add civility to that; we need to have civility as one of the convictions.

Standing for truth with gentleness and reverence

This comes through very clearly in 1 Peter 3:15. And this is a verse I was raised on in the more evangelical part of the Reformed Church in America. As a teenager, I heard this over and over again. “Always be ready to give to anyone who asks of you a reason for the hope that lies within you.” Stand up for the truth. (They were usually thinking of our public high school biology teachers with stand up for the truth.) Don’t compromise. Don’t be afraid. Be courageous. Oppose false teachings and oppose immoral behavior. But they seldom went on to the next part. “Yet do it with gentleness and reverence.”

And we really need to be working these days on the gentleness and the reverence. And that is not easy. The writer to the Hebrews says that we have to strive to live at peace with all human beings. It is not an easy thing. It is especially not an easy thing within the Christian community.

The most difficult kind of disagreement

I’ve been involved for the last 17 years in convening with a dear friend from Brigham Young University an evangelical Mormon dialogue. I’ve been very involved with the American Jewish Committee and getting engaged in evangelical-Jewish dialogue. And I have done quite a bit in recent years with evangelical and Muslim dialogue. And a reporter asked me recently, “What’s the most difficult kind of dialogue that you have experienced?” And I said, “With my fellow Reformed Christians!”

In many ways that should not be surprising. When I meet for two-and-a-half days as I will next month with my Mormon friends, we are not going to have to come up with a consensus statement on anything afterward. We are not going to vote on anything when it is all done. But within our own communities, there is certainly a lot at stake.

All of us have taken vows to be faithful to the supreme authority of Scripture and to preserve the unity of the church, but also to be faithful to our confessional traditions. There is a lot of pressure on us to stand up for the truth and make distinctions and the like.

And so it should not surprise us that our own discussions with each other can be quite heated. My responsibility in interfaith conversations is to simply learn and work at clearing up misconceptions. But things are different within my own part of the Christian community where we expect regenerated hearts and minds to be clear about the truth.

So how do we handle this kind of conflict? I believe there are significant guidelines within the Christian community for engaging in serious disagreements in a spirit of gentleness and respect for each other. Let me talk about a couple of guidelines.

Understanding and being truthful about what others believe

One obvious guideline: we must make sure that we are being truthful about the other person’s views. This means asking them what they believe, rather than telling them what they believe. It is always important in serious theological debate to say things of this sort: “So is this a good way to describe your view?” or “help me understand you better on this.” It is about really attempting to speak the truth and to represent the views of people with whom we disagree truthfully.

G.K. Chesterton put it very nicely when he said, “Idolatry is committed not merely by setting up false gods, but also by setting up false devils.” There is a lot of demonization that goes on in the intra-Christian discussions and debates about matters on which we disagree. So one of our goals as Christians when we are arguing with each other is not to win by making rhetorical points, but to seek to clarify what the real issues are in the hope of finding out where and whether we really disagree.

I mention that I have been deeply engaged for 17 years now in dialogue with representatives of the LDS community. I saw an advertisement that a counter-cult speaker was going to be giving a talk to an evangelical group on the truth about Mormonism. And so I went to hear and he actually said some helpful things. But he also said some things that I know my Mormon friends simply would reject.

My good friend Robert Millet from Brigham Young University had recently written a wonderful little book published by a Mormon press entitled, So What Happened to the Cross? (in Mormonism). He talks about the need to spend more emphasis in Mormonism on the finished work of Jesus Christ on the cross of Calvary, which is a theme that has actually been presented in some addresses to 14 million Mormons around the world by a couple of the general authorities in Salt Lake City.

The speaker at the talk I attended said that Mormons hate the cross of Jesus Christ. I went up to him afterwards and said to him, “You made some good points tonight but you really ought to read some stuff by Mormons and listen to some of the talks that are being given to Mormon audiences. Because Mormons do not hate the cross of Jesus Christ. More and more they have been emphasizing the finished work of Christ on the cross of Calvary.” And he said, “that is the problem with you intellectuals, you want to make all these nice distinctions. We don’t have time for that. We are in a battle for the truth, and we’ve got to win.”

There is something ironic about saying that, in a battle for the truth, we have to utter falsehoods and to speak less than truthful things. We have an obligation not to bear false witness against our neighbor and that applies very much to the kinds of arguments that we have with each other.

Spiritual preparation for conflict

I actually want to draw wisdom with you from folks in our own Reformed tradition, especially John Calvin. And I am going to begin by pointing to a wonderful passage in Calvin’s Institutes where John Calvin is talking about just war theory. He is saying that sometimes nations need to go to war against each other. But when a leader of a nation is thinking about going to war, there has to be a kind of preparation that takes place. And this is what he says:

“It is the duty of all magistrates here to guard particularly against giving vent to their passions, even in the slightest degree. Rather if they have to punish, let them not be carried away with headlong anger or be seized with hatred or burn with implacable severity. Let them also as Augustine says, have pity on the common nature in the one whose special fault they are punishing. But if they must arm themselves against the enemy, that is the armed robber, let them not lightly seek occasion to do so. Indeed let them not accept the occasion when offered unless they are driven to it by extreme necessity. And let them not allow themselves to be swayed by any private affection, but be led by concern for the people alone. Otherwise they very wickedly abuse their power which has been given them not for their own advantage but for the benefit and service of others.” 

Now John Calvin was a good Calvinist. He understands that there is within each of us a deep sinful tendency to put the best possible interpretation on our own motives and the worst possible interpretation on the people with whom we disagree. What Calvin is saying here is, as an act of spiritual preparation and discernment, reverse that process. Look into yourself and ask yourself questions like this: do I just want to win? Am I trying to think up clever rhetorical points in order to win the argument? Am I guided by implacable severity? Am I guided by desire to put the person down with whom I disagree?

This is really the Psalm 139 exercise. The Psalmist says, “Lord, you understand all thoughts and your thoughts are above our thoughts.” But there comes a point where the Psalmist actually sounds kind of arrogant. He says, “Lord, I hate your enemies with a perfect hatred.” Then it is as if he stops and he says, wait a minute. And the very next thing the Psalmist says is: “Search me and know my heart. Try me, test me, and know my thoughts. And see if there is any wicked way in me. And lead me in the way everlasting.”

Look into yourself, John Calvin is saying, and make sure that you are not being guided by sinful motives, sinful passions, sinful desires, sinful projects. And then he says, “And then reflect on the common nature that you share with the person with whom you disagree.” Think about the other person, and reflect on how God views them rather than the way you currently view them.

Seeing people through God’s eyes

One of my favorite spiritual writers is Saint Thérèse of Lisieux. As a 15-year-old girl, she wanted to become a Carmelite nun and go to a Carmelite cloister. She was too young to be allowed to do that. But she came from a wealthy family in France and pestered the bishop. So the bishop finally sent her to Rome. She pestered the Pope, and the Pope finally allowed her go into a Carmelite cloister. She died before she was thirty, but she kept a regular journal in that cloister.

Saint Thérèse of Lisieux was passionately in love with Jesus, and she talked a lot about Jesus. She wanted to see things the way Jesus sees them. She wanted to feel about things the way Jesus feels about them.

And at one point she says this:

One of the nuns managed to irritate me, whatever she did or said, the devil was mixed up in it. For it was certainly the devil who made me see so many disagreeable traits in her. Because I did want to give way to my natural dislike of her, I told myself that charity should not only be a matter of feeling but should show itself in deeds. So I set myself to do for this sister just what I should have done for someone I loved most dearly. Every time I met her, I prayed for her and offered God all her virtues and her merits. And I was sure that this would greatly delight Jesus.” And then this wonderful line: “For every artist likes to have his works praised, and the Divine Artist of souls is pleased when we do not halt outside the exterior of the sanctuary where he has chosen to dwell. We go inside and admire its beauty.”

Acting civilly toward other persons is something like art appreciation. My wife is an art historian. Our son says that means his father has sat on the steps of some of the great art museums of the world. I have to work a lot harder than my wife does at art appreciation, but I do work at it. Art appreciation does not come easily for many of us. And what Saint Thérèse of Lisieux is saying is that the kind of art appreciation that goes into engaging fellow creatures of God, fellow followers of Jesus Christ, is not just to talk about the unity of the church in some abstract way, but it is to talk about a very real effort to understand and to appreciate each other as works of the Divine Artist.

While I went to Western Seminary, I worked the night shift at the Donnelly Mirror Company. I was a prism inspector; every hour, I had to inspect at least 50 or 60 prisms for rearview mirrors, which they produced for General Motors. It was tough on the eyes, and so at the end of every hour, you had to stop and just relax a bit. I had Hebrew vocabulary cards and church history books that I would bring with me because I really wanted to take that time studying. But there was a night watchman who came around, and I really did not like him very much. He didn’t seem to me a very interesting conversationalist, and he always wanted to talk. I did not find him very interesting. I resented the way he wanted to talk to me all the time.

One evening, I was studying for a church history test the next morning, and Jeb came up and he said, “You really like books, don’t you?” And I said, “Yes, Jeb, I really do like books, and I really have to read them as well.” And he said, “Yeah, Ernie liked books, too.” “Ernie, who?”  “Ernie Hemingway.” I said, “What do you know about Ernest Hemingway?” “Well,” he says, “I was his hunting and fishing guide for a whole summer. We would be out there fishing all day and come back to his little pup tent. Ernie had this flashlight and he had a book. I would go to sleep and wake up, and there was Ernie, still reading that book. That Ernie, he really loved books.”

All of a sudden, I saw Jeb very differently. I’d been an English major as an undergraduate, and this was a guy who actually slept in a tent with Ernest Hemingway. I wanted to talk to him because he was a friend of Ernie.

Sisters and brothers, we need to see the people with whom we are gathered here as friends of Jesus, as the works of art of the Divine Artist. And that has to transform not only the ways in which we see each other, which is a very important part of the process, but then the ways in which we engage each other: with gentleness and reverence as friends of Jesus who have been created and shaped and restored by the sovereign grace of God.

The importance of humility

Talking about the love of neighbor, John Calvin says, the neighbor whom we are commanded to love includes even the most remote person, extending beyond the ties of kinship or acquaintanceship or of neighborhood. “It is a love,” he says, “that should embrace the whole human race without exception in a single feeling of love with no distinction between barbarian and Greek, worthy and unworthy, friend and enemy, since all should be contemplated in God and not in themselves.” And then he quotes Augustine approvingly, “I was always exceedingly delighted with that saying of Chrysostom, ‘The foundation of our philosophy is humility;’ and yet more pleased with that of Augustine: ‘As the orator, when asked, What is the first precept in eloquence? answered, Delivery: What is the second? Delivery: What is the third? Delivery: so if you ask me concerning the precepts of the Christian religion, I will answer, first, second, and third, Humility.’”

The importance of humility goes back to the posture of Psalm 139: looking into ourselves with willingness to engage in self-critique and self-examination. But here we are focusing on debates within the Christian community where what we share in common with folks we disagree with is more than simply the fact of our humanness: we share a unity in Jesus Christ. And the Lord has made it very clear that he wants us to make real efforts to give visible expression of that unity–in the current arguments about sexuality, for example.

For the record, I take my place on the conservative side of the spectrum and have articulated the traditional viewpoint regarding same-sex relations and practices and different contexts. But I have discovered the importance of not grouping all the folks I disagree with on these matters in the same theological category.

About ten years ago I got into an argument with a Presbyterian minister who accused me of being a homophobe, and I wanted to get through the right kinds of questions. At a certain point I said to him, “well how do you interpret Romans 1?“And he said, “I don’t interpret Romans 1. I don’t like Romans 1. I don’t like Paul. I never read Paul. I never preach from Paul. I just don’t pay any attention to that at all.” I have to say, it is pretty hard to go on in a discussion within a Reformed framework when a person starts with that position.

But my good friend Barbara Wheeler and I have gone around the Presbyterian world trying to model how you can disagree on questions of same-sexuality and still engage each other and hang in there together. If I say to Barbara Wheeler, “how do you interpret Romans 1?” she will say, “Richard, let’s open the Word and let’s read Romans 1.” And we will go through it. She and I don’t agree on the interpretation but it is an argument that takes place under the authority of God’s Word. And I want to say that it is not only a good thing to have arguments that take place over difficult questions under the authority of God’s Word, but we desperately need those arguments today. I need to be in dialogue with Barbara Wheeler and others with whom I disagree, especially if they are people who are willing to engage the text and to discuss together what it means for us to be obedient to what God has revealed about God’s self in the Scriptures.

As followers of Jesus Christ we should be pointing our neighbors to a better way of managing conflict, but unfortunately it is often more of the same within the Christian community.

To make that observation is not to downplay the importance of serious theological debate. Being clear about the reason for our hope is an obligation that requires as much theological clarity as we can muster as finite human beings. That means that we need to keep engaging each other, while avoiding the theological mean-spiritedness that comes all too naturally to those of us who talk much about defending the truth of God’s Word.

We need these arguments. We need to be engaging each other for the sake of pastoral outreach to people who are wrestling with these issues, many of them in our own congregations.

The human impact of church conflict

I got a phone call last year from a friend of mine who is an elder in a very conservative congregation in the Reformed Presbyterian world. “Richard, I’ve just got to talk to you,” he said. “We had the worst elders meeting you could imagine last evening, and it went from 7:00 to midnight. We took a tentative vote at the end, and I voted against everybody else on this and I just need to check it out with you.”

Here’s the situation,” he said. “Several months ago a married lesbian couple with two children started attending our worship services. And a month or so ago, they came to the pastor and they said, ‘We have decided to follow Christ. We have become Christians and we would like to join the church and we’d like our children baptized.’ Our elders meeting last night was all about what we should do. The final recommendation that everyone but me voted on in favor of was this: that they can only join our church if they get separated and get divorced.”

He said to me, “I just have a question. I just need you to answer this question: Am I crazy for not wanting to vote in favor of that?”

I don’t have all the answers on this. But I want to make three observations about that conversation and what it implies for all of us, dealing pastorally in the Christian world in contemporary life.

The first observation is this. I told him he was not crazy. I told him that I admired his sanity. There is something very strange to my Reformed ears about saying that this is the only way that this couple and their children can join the church. It is very strange to my Reformed ears, as someone brought up in this denomination hearing the witnesses of missionaries to Africa and the Middle East about polygamy and the like.

Secondly, as we think about a case like that, we should also make sure that we are thinking about those two children. You know we as Reformed Christians in our confessions and in our liturgical forms believe that to apply the waters of baptism to a child is an occasion on which God does something. We are not just making parental vows to bring them up right. And we are not just holding up the baby, that’s ok to do this, holding them up and saying this is the newest member of our congregation, be sure to support our church education program. But God has done something.

God has signed and sealed the promises of his covenant with the child to whom we have administered the water of baptism. And I think it is a very important question. In that situation, that concrete situation, we really mean to say that God refuses to sign and seal God’s covenant promises to those children unless the two people who are the most important people in the world to them right now separate and get divorced. I’m just not prepared to say that theologically. And I think we need to think about our theology of the covenant, the theology of baptism, the theology of the sacraments, and even our theology of church membership as we wrestle with these challenges.

And then the third thing I want to say to you is, don’t consider this story to be a weird case that somebody else had. We are all going to face situations like that. In fact, people in your congregations, wherever your congregation is across the theological spectrum, are facing those issues. They may not talk about it but they are facing it.

Here’s an example: I spoke at a very strong evangelical Presbyterian congregation. And afterward, I was sitting at a table with a couple from that congregation. They commended me for standing up for the traditional view and influencing things for the good, saying, we need people like you who are really willing to follow the Word of God.

I started to get nervous about their commendations, and I thought I had better inject a somewhat different tone into the conversation. So I said, “Yes, thank you, but we really need to think new pastoral thoughts on this in the lives of our congregations. It is a simple fact that we evangelicals have in the past and in the present been inexcusably cruel to persons who experience same-sex attraction.”

They looked at each other, and there was something that happened in the look that happened between them. And it was as if the husband said to his wife, “Yes, tell him.”

She said, “Thank you for saying that. Our son is gay and he is in a committed relationship. When they came home, when they came out, and they told us that they were going to move in together and they wanted us to know, my husband and I talked about it and prayed about it. And we said to them, ‘Give us about 15 minutes and we feel like we’ve just got to explain to you where we disagree with you on this. And after that explanation, we will never talk about this again because we love you; we love both of you. We want to love you not on any condition that you have to agree with us on this. We want you to know that we want you to come home any time you want because we love you and we want to be with you.’”

And then she said, “Dr. Mouw, they came home for Christmas and they agreed to go with us to a church service on Christmas Eve.” She started to weep, and he did too. And she said, “As we were walking out of the church on Christmas Eve, my son put his arm around me and said, ‘Mom, I am so glad we came to church this evening.’” And she said, “We just want them to be a part of the church.”

As somebody who works within the tradition on this, I have an obligation to their son and his partner. I have an obligation to them to be sure that I am not being glib in my views, that I am not simply relying on arguments that I have felt compelling in the past, that I have to wrestle with these questions and I need to be in conversation with people who are willing to engage these issues even when they disagree with me under the authority of God’s Word. We need that kind of thing.

Finding new ways to serve Christ in the present day

So my prayer for the RCA, the denomination that has nurtured me, the church where I received the waters of baptism and where I made my public profession of faith in Jesus Christ, is that this denomination will find new ways together to serve the Savior in our present-day culture with its racism, its sexual trafficking, its demeaning of creation, its mean-spiritedness, its neglect of the poor, the marginalized, the stranger in the land, and its promiscuity across the spectrum of orientations and attractions in our present cultural context. And that as Reformed Christians we will receive a new passion for the proclamation of the gospel.

I’ve got to quote the Canons of Dort here. The second head of doctrine, article five (you folks have a new translation of it, but I love the old translation). It goes like this: “The gospel must be proclaimed promiscuously and without distinction to all peoples.” This is the only example you will ever find of Calvinist promiscuity being commended. We have a special call today together to proclaim promiscuously and without distinction the call of the gospel to come to the cross of Calvary where we receive the kind of power, the kind of renewal, the kind of transformation, the kind of confidence that allows to say: “That our only comfort in life and in death is that we are not our own, but we belong body and soul to our faithful Savior Jesus Christ who has fully paid for all – all of our sins with his precious blood and calls us hereafter to serve Him in the cause of the gospel and the kingdom of Jesus Christ.”

Richard Mouw 

Richard Mouw is president emeritus and professor of faith and public life at Fuller Theological Seminary.