CHURCH CIVILITY: Course correction urged about how we disagree

Ugly, vicious wars of words are nothing new in Baptist life, but the ease with which such comments race around the world to anyone with Internet access has prompted new calls for an end to hostilities. Few would suggest a retreat from strongly held convictions–just a reminder to focus on issues rather than people.

“I began to see what I considered assassination of a person’s character that was not indicative of what it means to be a believer in Jesus,” explained West Texas pastor Joe Stewart of First Baptist Church of Littlefield.

As the mainstream media began quoting from sarcastic comments posted to web logs and used those to represent debate within the Southern Baptist Convention, Stewart found the denomination being portrayed in a bad light.

Particularly offensive to Stewart was the ridicule of the new homemaking degree offered by the College at Southwestern, an undergraduate program of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.

“My wife is a homemaker and it was almost as if they satirized her as a person without any value. I took that to heart personally,” he said, explaining his decision to write a resolution appealing for Christian civility.

The statement was recommended by the Resolutions Committee of the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention last fall and gained the unanimous approval of messengers to the Nov. 12-13 annual meeting. Those who were gathered committed to “follow biblical mandates and Christian convictions while treating others with Christian civility and kindness,” thus demonstrating the fruit produced in Christians by the Holy Spirit.

“One of the things that impresses the world and authenticates the message of the gospel and the efforts of our missionaries is the way Christians love each other and serve together in harmony,” stated David Dockery, president of Union University, in his new book “Southern Baptist Consensus and Renewal.”
“If the world sees constant fighting, bickering, and discord, they likely will misunderstand and reject the gospel message. If the world sees Christ’s followers exemplifying love and unity, they will be open to believe the good news,” he reminded, citing John 3:16.

Another appeal for Christians to demonstrate evidence of spiritual fruit in their lives comes from Russell Dilday in his recent book “Higher Ground: A Call for Christian Civility.”

“One antidote to the poison of rancorous incivility in our country and in our churches and denominations is a rebirth of a thoroughgoing Christian civility,” Dilday wrote.

There’s no misunderstanding the purpose of the former Southwestern Seminary president in writing that “fundamentalists organized a political effort to gain control of the Convention in order to reshape it according to their perspectives.” Dilday blames these “alien” Baptists for opening the door “for a mean-spirited mindset of caustic polarization.” Still, the 145-page book draws some conclusions that are similar to the appeals within the SBC for an end to rancor between believers and his extensive bibliography of articles and books on civility supports his plea for tempered behavior.

“If followers of the Lord Jesus Christ would exhibit these nine facets of spiritual fruit [Galatians 5:22-23] in the national arena and in our ecclesial debates, it would not be long before the rude grandstanding and finger-pointing would give way to a kinder, gentler environment,” Dilday wrote.

In the years of Southern Baptist controversy between 1979 and 1993, Baptist historian Bill Leonard noted that “ridicule and sarcasm know no boundaries left or right.”

Writing in a publication of the SBC Historical Commission, he concluded: “All of us have said too much, been too shrill in our response to one another, during the last decade and a half. I suspect that a lot of faith has been undermined from the left and the right. We all stand judged.”

Publicly shared disputes are nothing new, added Thomas White, vice president for student services and communications at Southwestern Seminary.

“The sinfulness of man has always reared its ugly head in the way that we deal with other people. From the very beginning with Adam blaming Eve, to the gossiping from house to house in the New Testament, to the public battles in the Baptist papers of the 1800s, to the attack blogs of today, people have acted in very ungodly ways.”

The SBTC resolution recognized that the “application of Christian decorum often lags behind the development of new forms of technology and communication,” prompting the call for greater attention to civility.

The ease with which unfounded rumors and spurious attacks can be broadly circulated compounds the damage.

“Beyond the legal issue of libel, there are ethical considerations,” stated Kelly Boggs, editor of the Louisiana Baptist Message. “Sadly, after several years of Internet use, I have concluded that many bloggers and e-mail gossipers simply aren’t concerned with ethics.”

After offering web links to verify the bogus nature of various urban legends passed along by e-mail, Boggs said he was surprised when the more accurate information did not faze the senders.

“More times than not, I have received a reply that amounted to ‘so what,'” adding that one person indicated he didn’t have time to check out the truthfulness of information and simply passed it along because it might be true. “Ethics? Forget about it, I’m busy,” Boggs interpreted him as saying.

He recalled comedian Jon Stewart’s characterization of the Internet as “just a world passing around notes in a classroom.” And yet, when the intent of the “note” is to defame or destroy, Boggs reminded, “It is wrong whether it takes the form of a blog or an e-mail.”

Robbie Sagers, an assistant to the senior vice president at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, warned of the danger of a false sense of community that is foreign to New Testament Christianity.

“True discipleship, true community takes place not in an Internet chat room or in the comments section of a blog, but rather in person, face to face, within the church of the Lord Jesus Christ. Even the Apostle John wrote to the churches that, though he has much more to write to them, ‘I would rather not use paper and ink. Instead I hope to come to you and talk face to face, so that our joy may be complete,'” quoting 2 John 12 and also referring to 3 John 13-14.

Sagers recalled an insight from cultural commentator Andrew Keen as applicable to Southern Baptist bloggers and blog readers. In his book “The Cult of the Amateur: How Today’s Internet is Killing Our Culture,” Keen wrote of bloggers forming aggregated communities where they congregate in self-congratulatory clusters.

“They are the digital equivalent of online gated communities where all the people have identical views and the whole conversation is mirrored in a way that is reassuringly familiar. It’s a dangerous form of digital narcissism; the only conversations we want to hear are those with ourselves and those like us,” Keen observed.

“I have witnessed many a character assassination on web logs, and most of them smack of sour grapes, envy, or both,” stated Nathan Finn, an assistant professor of church history at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.

As a regular blogger on Southern Baptist issues, Finn represents a generation that regularly turns to the Internet as a primary source of news.

“I have seen politics discussed, devotions distributed, theology debated, worldviews dissected, and loads of information disseminated through Christian web logs,” he wrote in an opinion piece for Baptist Press.

He said the fact that anyone with a blog can share his opinion with whomever is interested a “very Baptist” concept. And yet like every other form of communication, Finn observed that abuse occurs, often turning a blog into a rumor mill.

“All the dirt you used to call the resident church gossiper to get is now available at the click of a button.” Futhermore, Finn wrote that slander—often posted anonymously—and outright lies are common. “Accusations are thrown around all the time on web logs, normally amounting to little more than innuendo and half-truths (and very often non-truths).”

Finn called on fellow bloggers to guard against falsehood, stating, “Bearing false witness against one’s neighbor is a s sinful as it gets, and in this age of information and globalism, everyone is your neighbor, including the denominations, leaders, and institutions you disagree with.”

Even the rush to label people as “moderate” or even “liberal” when disagreeing with a person’s views causes Finn distress.

“Stick to the facts, for the sake of your own credibility, the reputation of Southern Baptist bloggers in general, and for the glory of the living God whom we all serve.”

Joe Stewart has no problem with fact-based analysis on blogs, many of them engaging readers in give-and-take commentary.

“I’m not against criticizing decisions or having a differing opinion,” Stewart told the TEXAN, “but when you make it a personal objective to crucify one individual for personal reasons, that is out of the bounds of civility.”

And so the resolution passed by SBTC messengers restated the need for all communication and conversation to be a personal reflection of Jesus Christ, while ate the same time retaining the right to state biblical convictions without reservation and personal convictions without hesitation.

“Civility is not a call for relativism, a repudiation of inerrancy, a lack of biblical conviction, or the absence of an evangelistic strategy,” Stewart penned.

In fact, he pointed to the doctrinal integrity, missional activity, and “agreeing together in the Lord” as qualities for which the SBTC is known when writing the resolution.

Stewart and Sagers both spoke of the need to pray before posting a blog or commenting on another person’s remarks.

“Such self-reflection, I am convinced, would solve many problems and misunderstandings that arise ubiquitously on the Internet, if only because of the reality that such comments will follow one for the rest of his days through a Google cache search,” Sagers said.

He warned that a web-savvy chairman of a pastor search committee is able to pull up such comments in seconds.

“It’s good to remember that such words aren’t being spoken to a close friend at a downtown coffee shop, but rather to potentially anyone in the world, and they are words that are recorded forever.”

Dockery described the tension between living out one’s faith in truth and love, holiness and unity.

“A unity that exists without truth is mushy, misguided, and meaningless,” he wrote. “Yet, truth without a concern for love and unity is hardly consistent with scriptural truth,” recalling that Jesus prayed not only for spiritual unity but also for sanctified truth.

Dilday’s definition of civility is applied more broadly as he interprets the decision of Southern Baptists to withdraw from the broader fellowship of the Baptist World Alliance as an example of squelching differing points of view out of a fear that orthodoxy will be threatened.

Dockery puts his focus not so much on the Baptist family at large but on Southern Baptists in particular. He warns that efforts in the name of Christian unity must be balanced by “a renewed commitment to truth in an age of relativism and religious pluralism, to doctrinal fidelity, and to faithfulness to the Christ-centered message of the gospel.”

A lowering of standards for Christian behavior began at the local church level, said White, who co-edited the recently released “Restoring Inteqrity in Baptist Churches” where he and other writers make the case for the consistent practice of the Lord’s Supper and their restoration of church discipline as a part of a regenerate church membership.

As individual members are held to biblical standards of behavior, they expect more of their leaders and demonstrate the fruit of the Spirit, White said.

“This might reduce some of the attacks and mean-spirited attitudes demonstrated in public.”

He point to 1 Corinthians 6 as a model that has been “completely lost” as “Christians seemingly fail to consider what public actions do to the public witness of the church. They act from selfish motives rather than just being wronged for the sake of the gospel.”

White expects many of the “mean-spirited blogs” will continued under the banner of “a lone crusader fighting against big brother.”

In his public relations role for Southwestern and as an individual believer he takes the stance of Gamaliel in Acts 5:38 toward bloggers he perceives as bad, quoting: “’Keep away from these men and let them alone; for if this plan or this work is of men, it will come to nothing; but if it is of God, you cannot overthrown it—lest you even be found to fight against God.’”

Public opposition to negative blogs can legitimize them, White noted, keeping the fires of controversy going.

“In my opinion, we must attempt to take the high road and see whether they are of men or of God,” White said.

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