A real life picture of a Facebook debate.
Americans are living in a fairly chaotic and volatile time. Our two political parties have never seemed so polarized. Many see the government’s actions in response to the virus as either too weak and insufficient or way too strong and unnecessary. As the election nears, the alarmist rhetoric from both sides of the aisle sounds more and more like a bad counterfeit of the book of Revelation. The prophets are condemning the other side to hell while shouting to the watching world, “The end is near (if our candidate isn’t voted in)!”
Our chaotic time has created (intensified?) a chaotic style of discourse as well. Whether online or in-person, we’re surrounded by people screaming at, accusing, and disrespecting those with different views than them on the big things (e.g. abortion, racism, economic structure) and the little things (e.g. masks). No one seems to know (or care) how to get along.
How Ought a Believer Behave in 2020?
So, this brings us to a good question to ponder, “How ought believers in Jesus behave in such times of governmental controversy and conversational pollution?” What do we need to be reminded of in 2020?
To get straight to it, here are six good counsels to start.
(1) Have a Posture of Ready Submission to the Government
The government is a gift from God for which we should be thankful (Rom. 13:1). The government’s authority is established by God so we should be ready to respect her officials and obey her rules (Rom. 13:7) when it acts legitimately and doesn’t forbid what God commands or command what God forbids (as my pastor likes to put it). Yes, there are times were obedience to Christ demands we disobey the government (Acts 4:18-20), but the default position of a Christian’s heart must be submission, obedience, and honor to the land’s rulers ans laws. For a really helpful sermon on this, see here.
(2) Be Ready for Good Works
Don’t allow the problems “out there,” which you can do little to nothing about make you ignore the problems “right here” that you can do a lot about. By all means, pay attention to what’s happening in our world “out there” and be active, but know this: Christians should be busier in doing good to their neighbor in person (e.g. practicing hospitality, helping someone follow Jesus, etc.) than they are owning the libs online.
(3) Speak Evil of No One
Informed disagreement is vastly different than speaking evil (e.g. disrespecting, slandering, baseless accusations). Christians are encouraged to the former, but prohibited from the latter. This includes (especially) those with different political views than you or those in government positions. Make sure your mouth delivers only light and life.
(4) Avoid Quarreling
Again, informed, civil, and respectful debate is different than engaging in verbal fistfights. The goal of civil debate is to persuade folks who think differently with thoughtful arguments and even being open to learn in the process. The goal of quarreling is to score points with those who already agree with you by using all sorts of soundbites, slogans, and “gotcha” tricks with no intention of seriously listening or learning. Avoid quarreling like you do dumpster fires because, like them, they’re only hot and stinky.
(5) Be Gentle
This must be a hallmark characteristic of any Christian communication whether it be preaching those who believe or attempting to persuade those who don’t; whether it be speaking with those who respect you or those who disrespect you. Allow the world to rant and rave and yell and threat, but Christ’s people must not descend into such juvenile, thoughtless habits. May our speech, in writing or speaking, online or in person, be always gentle (1 Peter 3:15).
(6) Be Perfectly Courteous Toward All People
There is more to being a Christian than being polite, but not less. It behooves those bought by Christ’s blood to show basic respect, manners, and civility toward others who bear his image. This means we should not be known for interrupting, shouting, yelling, name-calling, not listening carefully, or other disrespectful practices. Whether or not folks agree with what you say, they should at least always walk away thinking, “What a respectful person they are.” If you find yourself wary of this, think of the alternative. Do you think it is ever a good thing for a person to walk away from conversation with us saying to themselves, “What a disrespectful and rude person they are.” Remember, there is nothing virtuous about saying true things in a jerky way. Keep the truth, leave the jerkiness.
Four Brief Notes About the Above Counsels
First, if you think the above sounds too politically correct and soft-footed, then take a quick look at Titus 3:1-2:
Remind them to be submissive to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good work, 2 to speak evil of no one, to avoid quarreling, to be gentle, and to show perfect courtesy toward all people.
If you have issues with the counsels, then know whom you’re disagreeing with.
Second, one good thing about the internet is your writing and interactions are written down to look at later. Consider taking the above list and hold your own interactions up to it. Where are areas in your conversation where you see God’s grace? Praise God for those! What are some habits you need to repent of?
Third, I think we need to realize that a lot of our online and in-person debate characteristics are taken from the world instead of the Lord. Many of us look more like (insert high profile conservative here) instead of Jesus. So, I ask you, “Who is forming you? In whose image are you being conformed?”
Fourth, some may be thinking, “But this is a time to stand up for the sake of religious liberty, the life of the unborn, and other important rights being threatened!” To that, I say: you are absolutely correct! Informed believers should be speaking life-giving (both eternally and temporally) truth and not be cowered into silence! It is important! And that is all the more why the above counsels are needed because our message is muted when we ignore them. If you seek quarrels, people will avoid you. If you speak evilly of people, people will ignore your message. If your life isn’t adorned with good works, people will note your hypocrisy and think your message of little power. If you don’t pay attention to how you are communicating, then many will not pay attention to what you are communicating. Yes, this is a time to speak up and therefore it is all the more important to pay attention to Scripture’s commands concerning our conduct. We should not want to obscure life-giving truth with ugly tactics.
As usual, there’s more to say and more nuance to explain, but here’s the bottom line: God has a lot to say about what we say (our message), but also how we say it (our manner); both our beliefs and our behavior. As followers of Jesus, we want to make sure that we take both seriously.
As a final thought, I think it will help keep us from danger if we make sure we are always more critical of ourselves than we are of others. Let’s not allow the world’s great evils make us blind to our own folly and neglect of Scripture’s commands. As John Stott once said: “We should not ask, ‘What is wrong with the world?’ for that diagnosis has already been given. Rather, we should ask, ‘What has happened to the salt and light?’”