The Christian Art of Incivil Discourse

John Calvin and Sebastian Castellio used to be compatriots. Until they weren’t. Calvin was initially so impressed with Castellio that the iconic Reformer invited him to serve as rector at the college of Geneva. Things changed when Castellio started to disagree with Calvin. The two Reformers began to take aim at one another, with Castellio publishing tracts that criticized aspects of Calvin’s theology and Calvin answering him in kind. One of Calvin’s responses was entitled A Brief Reply in Refutation of the Calumnies of a Certain Worthless Person. The first line reads, “There has come to my notice the foolish writing of a worthless individual, who nevertheless presents himself as a defender and vindicator of the glory of God . . . .”

I thought of Calvin’s essay recently, when the furor over John MacArthur’s dismissal of Beth Moore’s ministry erupted. When MacArthur was asked what he would say to Beth Moore in one or two words his answer was, “Go home.” MacArthur’s remark was relatively tame compared to Calvin’s, at least when you consider that in the Reformer’s day theological disputes often ended in prison or even death for those who disagreed. I guess we live in a kinder and gentler age by comparison. But that doesn’t make disagreement more comfortable for us. Especially when it is between people that we look up to. Listening to Christian leaders that we admire when they disagree with one another can be like listening to your parents fight. We aren’t sure whose side we should take. We just want it to stop.  

Listening to Christian leaders that we admire when they disagree with one another can be like listening to your parents fight.

In our digital age, where it only takes a click of the mouse to enter the fray, it is easy to turn a disagreement into something more. Like players pouring out of the dugout to protest a bad pitch, each side piles on the other using their words as fists. The fact that our theological brawls are mostly verbal may not be as much of an improvement over the old days as we thought. It is true that we no longer burn people at the stake. But we do occasionally burn one another in effigy via social media. Words can be weapons. “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment,’” Jesus warns in the Sermon on the Mount. “But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.”

 I suppose it might be different if our verbally violent exchanges led to mutual agreement. But they do not. How can they, when the views in contention are mutually exclusive? Neither side can capitulate to the other without compromising their convictions. Each finds it equally difficult to speak in moderation. The greater the conviction, the stronger its expression. Perhaps the best we can hope for is that both will eventually agree to disagree, but neither side can say that the other is right.

Don’t misunderstand me. The tone certainly matters. 2 Timothy 2:24–25 warns that “the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful. Opponents must be gently instructed, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth.” In other words, if we are going to disagree, and we are going to disagree, we need to learn to disagree like Jesus. But what does that look like? Is it the gentle Jesus of the children’s hymn, who is meek, and mild? Some envision a Jesus who never said a harsh word to anyone. But that is not the Jesus described in the Gospels. The Jesus of Scripture called those who rejected His teaching “blind fools” and “hypocrites” (Matt. 15:7; 23:17). He grew angry when the religious leaders tried to accuse Him of Sabbath-breaking for healing a man with a shriveled hand (Mark 3:5). He made a whip of cords and used it to drive out those who bought and sold in the temple courts (John 2:15).

Some envision a Jesus who never said a harsh word to anyone. But that is not the Jesus described in the Gospels.

Likewise, the same apostle Paul, who wrote that the Lord’s servant must be gentle, is the one whose disagreement with Barnabas over ministry personnel was so sharp that the two of them went their separate ways (Acts 15:39). Was their dispute a sin? I guess it might have been, but the Scriptures don’t call it that. Paul also said that he wished those who were preaching circumcision to the Galatians “would go the whole way and emasculate themselves!” (Gal. 5:12).

If we look beyond the New Testament, we can find other examples of strong disagreement expressed in passionate language. There is Moses, the Psalms, and the prophets, of course. When the returned Jewish exiles compromised their lifestyle, Nehemiah rebuked them, called down curses, beat some of them, and pulled out their hair (Neh. 13:25). I am not saying that moving forward we should adopt Nehemiah’s behavior as a pattern for our disputes, only that we shouldn’t be so shocked to find believers with opposing views expressing themselves with conviction.

For those who already agree with his views, MacArthur’s remark was simply a tersely stated biblical correction. For those who disagreed, it was a case of mean spirited bullying and prejudice.  But given the nature of MacArthur’s convictions, it is hard for me not to see the resulting outrage as somewhat disingenuous. How could MacArthur have said any different, given what he believes? Of course, he might have said nothing at all. I suppose that would have been more polite. But when he said that Beth Moore should “go home,” I suspect he meant it literally. Likewise, I think Beth Moore was right to be equally dismissive of John MacArthur’s suggestion. Her implied response to him, posted on Twitter, stated, “I did not surrender to a calling of man when I was 18 years old. I surrendered to a calling of God.” In a subsequent tweet, she added, “Whether or not I serve Jesus is not up to you. Whether I serve you certainly is. One way or the other, I esteem you as my sibling in Christ.”

The real rancor in this dispute didn’t come from MacArthur or Moore, so much as it did from their followers and other observers who piled on via social media. Those who took issue with MacArthur criticized his tone, but what they ultimately objected to was his view. Would they have felt any better if he had expressed his remarks with a sweet smile and a soft-spoken explanation, supported by extensive Scripture references? I doubt it. What was really at issue for them was not whether he should have used a different tone, but whether he had the right to hold his convictions at all. The same is true on the other side. In the end, both sides in the controversy essentially share the sentiment that MacArthur expressed. Each would like it better if the other would go away. Neither is likely to do so anytime soon.

In the end, both sides in the controversy essentially share the sentiment that MacArthur expressed. Each would like it better if the other would go away.

So how should we manage disagreements like this in the church? We can start by recognizing that complete agreement is unlikely, if not impossible. Our differences matter and they are not always able to be reconciled. If merely holding the opposite conviction is incivility, then incivil we must be. But it may help to recognize that not every doctrinal disagreement is a matter of life and death. It has helped me to sort through these matters by drawing a distinction between three levels of doctrine. First, there is a basic shortlist of fundamentals. These are the truths that are foundational to the Christian faith. They are so essential that if you eliminate them you no longer have Christianity. These are the truths that show us which hill we should die on.

Second, there are those truths over which Christians disagree and which are important enough to warrant a separation in fellowship or practice. These doctrines are essential to one’s theological identity or express convictions which shape essential ministry practices. But we would still consider those who hold views different from ours to be Christians. The difference between MacArthur and Moore falls into this category.

Third, are doctrines that we might call disputed matters. These are doctrines about which we will agree to disagree. We cannot all be right about them. Perhaps we are all wrong. But we will fellowship and minister together in spite of our differences. These truths are important, but they are not so important that tolerating those differences does damage to our identity or compromises our practice.

Of course, distinctions like these, which look neat on paper or in a diagram, are always messier in practice. One person’s disputed matter is another’s distinctive and sometimes even their fundamental. We will not always agree. Where convictions are strong, we should expect that their expression will be equally strong. Beth Moore is right when she observes that even in our differences we remain siblings in Christ. And anybody who has taken a long trip in the family car knows that siblings don’t always get along.