As I have been reading Ian Murray’s wonderful biography of Martyn-Lloyd Jones, I have been surprised to see MLJ’s civility in the midst of theological, philosophical, and political dialogue within the context of a Welsh debating and literary society. He was able to hold unswervingly to his convictions without naively dismissing those who questioned and prodded him.Kyle Worley is the author of Pitfalls: Along the Path to Young and Reformed. He blogs at The Strife and is an assistant editor for Manual, the men's blog at CBMW (Council of Biblical Manhood and Womanhood). He serves on staff at The Village Church Dallas and tweets at @kyleworley.
In the bygone eras of our forefathers, there appears to have been a civility and tact that was considered to be intrinsic to public dialogue. Sadly, very little of what we observe today in the media, on our blogs, and in our Twitter feeds, resembles civil discourse. Yet, many of our predecessors (heroes of our respective traditions) were excellent examples of how Christians should agree AND disagree with others.
A great example from my tradition (Baptist) is found in James Boyce’s interaction and disagreement with Crawford H. Toy. Toy, who had joined Southern Seminary in 1969 committed to the truthfulness of Scripture, had moved away from his position and had adopted Darwinistic philosophy and had begun to drink from the deeply liberal wells of Germanic scholarship. Boyce requested Toy to refrain from teaching his views regarding these matters, considering they undermined the school’s theological confession. Toy found this impossible to do, acknowledging, “my views of inspiration differ considerably from those of the body of my brethren,” and so he resigned. Boyce, a close friend of Toy’s, while standing with Toy at the railway station where Toy was to depart from, embraced Toy and exclaimed, “Oh, Toy, I would freely give my arm to be cut off if you could be where you were five years ago, and stay there.”
In this disagreement, both Toy and Boyce demonstrated a remarkable restraint from slander and an effort to honor one another in their disagreement. Powerful minds, unswerving convictions, beautiful humility…blended together to create a genuinely civil and charitable disagreement.
Countless seminary students and (sadly) far too many of our seminary professors and administrators display a remarkable unwillingness to behave like gentleman towards those with whom they disagree. Think I am making a mountain out of a molehill? A cursory view at the digital warehouse of bloggers and tweeters, be they Calvinists, Traditionalists, Moderates, Evangelicals, or YRR’s, will demonstrate the appalling lack of civility when it comes to the exchanging, testing, and debating of ideas. Surely it can be argued that the internet and its variety of mediums by which we can choose to communicate has displaced the person with whom we are agreeing or disagreeing, thereby, creating a displaced dialogue where it is easier to disparage and disgrace screens rather than souls. But for the Christian, pointing the finger at the existential dilemma of debate in the internet age, is simply evading the real issue.
Why are we not offering courses on civility in our seminaries? Sure, we teach that Christian humility should flow from Christian worship, but why not require a class on debate? Why not teach Robert’s Rules? Why not teach a class on conversational ethics? Where is our class on the Socratic method? Or, rhetoric?
We can no longer assume that students have witnessed a theological, philosophical, or political disagreement that ended with a warm embrace. If we are going to be winsome, charitable, and convictional leaders, than we need the patience to listen, the willingness to understand, the levity to laugh at ourselves, and the charity to disagree well.
(All quotes in this blog are from Timothy George’s chapter “James Petigru Boyce” in the excellent book Theologians of the Baptist Tradition.)