A Call for Southern Baptist Civility

It happened again this week. Another Twitter debate erupted. The issue was different  than last week, but the discourse was the same. Angry internet warriors and “watchbloggers” used ferocious rhetoric, calling for the denouncing of some person, institution, or political party. The larger American pattern of social media discourse has found its way into the evangelical church, particularly in the Southern Baptist Convention.

Austin Stone Preaching Pastor Matt Carter tweeted, “I just had a dear friend who is a non-SBC, black pastor call me and ask ‘Why is the SBC so angry all the time?’ I fear this is what the SBC is known for outside its circles. Which is sad…”

Sad indeed. Why are Americans in general and Southern Baptists in particular so angry? And why does that anger come to the surface on social media so regularly? What can we do? 

The Loneliness Epidemic

In his remarkable book, Them: Why We Hate Each Other and How to Heal, Senator Ben Sasse asserts that the state of American discourse and its accompanying vitriolic rhetoric can be linked to loneliness. Amercians are isolated because of cultural fragmentation, technological developments, and economic uncertainty. These and other factors have allowed Americans to avoid personal interactions with others, and according to Sasse’s research, the loneliness is killing us. 

Among epidemiologists, psychiatrists, public-health officials, and social scientists, there is a growing consensus that the number one health crisis in America right now is not cancer, not obesity, not heart disease—it’s loneliness.

Harvard social scientist Robert Putnam agrees, noting, “Though all the evidence is not in, it is hard to believe that the generational decline in social connectedness and the associated generational increase in suicide, depression, and malaise are unrelated.” Sasse continues, “Most Americans just don’t have community cohesion like we used to. We don’t feel that we’re connected to our neighbors in any meaningful ways. We don’t feel like we’re part of something bigger.”

The Avoidance of Thought

In his book How to Think, Alan Jacobs examines American caustic rhetoric and asserts that many od us are actively avoiding serious thought. He says, “We suffer from a settled determination to avoid thinking. Relatively few people want to think. Thinking troubles us; thinking tires us. Thinking can force us out of familiar, comforting habits; thinking can complicate our lives; thinking can set us at odds, or at least complicate our relationships, with those we admire or love or follow. Who needs thinking?” 

Jacobs then gives the blueprint for avoiding thought both in personal interaction and public discourse. First, the inner ring must be created for ones own tribe or group. Second, the repugnant cultural other should be established, meaning those in the opposing tribe or group. Third, one must surrender to the online disinhibition effect, which is the general lack of civility cultivated by online discourse. Simply put, people are apt to say something online that they would never say in person. Finally, because of social media’s limited space for meaningful dialogue, the strategy of in-other-wordsing must be adopted. This rhetorical device allows one to summarize the arguments made by the repugnant cultural other using the most negatively reductionistic language possible. Arrival at the truth isn’t the aim with this kind of behavior, nor is any sort of agreement. The goal is to destroy the other, to destroy them. 

The Problem of Pride

While Sasse and Jacobs are accurate in their diagnosis of the current American cultural moment, I believe there is a more insidious reason behind the conflict in evangelical discourse: pride. The Scriptures are clear when it comes to conflict and strife among the people of God. Conflict isn’t merely the crossing of a line in terms of sin, but an outworking of a heart that seeks its own good above the good of others. One of the roots of conflict then, is pride. 

By insolence [pride] comes nothing but strife (Prov. 13:10).

James speaks to conflict in the fourth chapter of the book that bears his name when he writes, “What causes quarrels and fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you? You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel” (James 4:1-2). James answers his own question by explaining that quarrelling and conflict was rooted in unmet desire. Strife and contention are rooted in the hearts of those that want what they want even if they have to sin to get it. Stuart Scott clarifies that desire as pride. “Pride is a focus on self and the service of self, a pursuit of self-recognition and self-exaltation, and a desire to control and use all things for self” (From Pride to Humility, 6).

Thus, when and individual is focused on self, a manifestation of that focus would is anger and contention if anyone were to disagree or hinder their agenda. The opponent would be attacking their whole life orientation with themselves at the center. James, in fact, comes to this instruction in 4:1-2 due to his understanding of the heart of the self-focused brother. “But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth. For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice” (James 3:14, 16). In other words, the self-focused one will be at the epicenter of conflict, for wherever selfish ambition exists, there will be disorder and conflict.

What CAn We Do? 

The answer to our disordered discourse is multi-faceted, according to the aforementioned authors. Sasse asserts that the solution to loneliness is the intentional limitation of technology and politics along with a commitment to interpersonal cooperation. Jacobs believes that valuing learning over victory in debate along with careful consideration of proper means of discourse in any and all formats would help Christians think and engage one another well. Regarding pride, Scripture is clear: “Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves”(Philippians 2:3). Simply put, the antidote to pride is Christo-centric service in humility.

The Loneliness Epidemic

Sasse’s solutions to the American loneliness epidemic are helpful. The limited engagement with technology would certainly aid connection with other people and generally  increase productivity. Pulling back from the seemingly default politicization of everything from movies to mealtime would certainly make relationships more pleasant. Finally, his suggestion that genuine, face-to-face communication would help recover a sense of rootedness makes obvious sense. These ideas should not be unfamiliar to the ranks of Southern Baptists preparing to gather in Birmingham, Alabama next week. We are, after all, a people marked by cooperation.

Christ’s people should, as occasion requires, organize such associations and conventions as may best secure cooperation for the great objects of the Kingdom of God. Such organizations have no authority over one another or over the churches. They are voluntary and advisory bodies designed to elicit, combine, and direct the energies of our people in the most effective manner. Members of New Testament churches should cooperate with one another in carrying forward the missionary, educational, and benevolent ministries for the extension of Christ’s Kingdom. Christian unity in the New Testament sense is spiritual harmony and voluntary cooperation for common ends by various groups of Christ’s people. Cooperation is desirable between the various Christian denominations, when the end to be attained is itself justified, and when such cooperation involves no violation of conscience or compromise of loyalty to Christ and His Word as revealed in the New Testament.

Exodus 17:12; 18:17ff.; Judges 7:21; Ezra 1:3-4; 2:68-69; 5:14-15; Nehemiah 4; 8:1-5; Matthew 10:5-15; 20:1-16; 22:1-10; 28:19-20; Mark 2:3; Luke 10:1ff.; Acts 1:13-14; 2:1ff.; 4:31-37; 13:2-3; 15:1-35; 1 Corinthians 1:10-17; 3:5-15; 12; 2 Corinthians 8-9; Galatians 1:6-10; Ephesians 4:1-16; Philippians 1:15-18.

We gather as churches, associations, state conventions, and national entities for the furtherance of the Kingdom of God. It is that very gathering that should produce spiritual harmony for the common end of said Kingdom extension. Coming together should be natural for us.

The Avoidance of Thought

Alan Jacobs provides many helpful suggestions for thoughtful interaction, especially online:

  1. When faced with provocation to respond to what someone has said, give it five minutes.
  2. Value learning over debating.
  3. As best you can, online and off, avoid the people who fan flames.
  4. Remember that you don’t have to respond to what everyone else is responding to in order to signal your virtue and right-mindedness.
  5. Gravitate as best you can, in every way you can, toward people who seem to value genuine community and can handle disagreement with equanimity. Seek out the best and fairest-minded of people whose views you disagree with. Listen to them for a time without responding. Whatever they say, think it over.
  6. Try to describe others’ positions in the language that they use, without indulging in in-other-wordsing.

His list is profoundly helpful, but as Southern Baptists, we have additional theological undergirding regarding our behavior: We are stewards.

God is the source of all blessings, temporal and spiritual; all that we have and are we owe to Him. Christians have a spiritual debtorship to the whole world, a holy trusteeship in the gospel, and a binding stewardship in their possessions. They are therefore under obligation to serve Him with their time, talents, and material possessions; and should recognize all these as entrusted to them to use for the glory of God and for helping others. According to the Scriptures, Christians should contribute of their means cheerfully, regularly, systematically, proportionately, and liberally for the advancement of the Redeemer’s cause on earth.

Genesis 14:20; Leviticus 27:30-32; Deuteronomy 8:18; Malachi 3:8-12; Matthew 6:1-4,19-21; 19:21; 23:23; 25:14-29; Luke 12:16-21,42; 16:1-13; Acts 2:44-47; 5:1-11; 17:24-25; 20:35; Romans 6:6-22; 12:1-2; 1 Corinthians 4:1-2; 6:19-20; 12; 16:1-4; 2 Corinthians 8-9; 12:15; Philippians 4:10-19; 1 Peter 1:18-19.

All that we have and are we owe to God. Ours is a holy trusteeship in the gospel. We are thus obligated to serve God with our time, talents, and material possessions, including our phones. Thus, Southern Baptist Twitter has been entrusted to us for the glory of God and for helping others.

The Problem of Pride

In Matthew 18 the disciples had just come down from the mountain of transfiguration where Jesus visibly demonstrated that he was the Son of God. They understood that he was the Messiah and they thought that meant an earthly kingdom and thus they began to maneuver for position in the kingdom. They weren’t trying to speculate about how they would serve Christ.  They wanted to be exalted, pure and simple.

Jesus brought a child into their midst as an illustration and said  something extremely significant. He said the greatest in the kingdom must be the least. Children in that society were valued, but they had no influence or status in the society, so Jesus is turning their proud hearts over and stomping on them. It would appear that Jesus is extolling humility as the path to true greatness. Greatness is not achieving a status whereby people serve you for your glory. Greatness is serving others for the glory of God.

So, it would appear that Jesus teaches his disciples to first reject pride in following him and secondly, he teaches them to cultivate childlike humility and serve his kingdom, ultimately bringing God the greatest glory and people the greatest good. An outcome of this kind of service would be the diffusing and removal of conflict within the Southern Baptist Convention as well. Simply put, if we were primarily concerned with how to effectively serve Christ’s Kingdom, we would treat one another differently.

A Way Forward

As we prepare to gather together at the Southern Baptist Convention next week, I think the practical advice of Senator Sasse and Dr. Jacobs can help us craft a strategy for interaction. Ultimately, however, Scripture carries the clearest instructions for us. Here I offer five suggestions:

  1. Give It Five Minutes Before Responding (In Any Forum): This comes from Alan Jacobs, and is inherently wise. Proverbs 12 states clearly, “There is one whose rash words are like sword thrusts, but the tongue of the wise brings healing.” Let’s not be rash with our words. We can cause a lot of bleeding when we don’t give it time. Proverbs 15:23 demonstrates the converse, “To make an apt answer is a joy to a man, and a word in season, how good it is!” We can be a blessing with our words when they are fitting. For the sake of wisdom, give it five minutes.
  2. Strive for Understanding: Proverbs 18:13 reminds us, “If one gives an answer before he hears, it is his folly and shame.” It is foolish to respond before we understand what another is trying to communicate. Listening to instruction is also a theme in Proverbs (1:2,3,7; 4:13; 8:33; 9:9; 15:32), as well as in James. “Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; [20] for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God.” We could all strive to understand through being quick to hear.
  3. Repent of Pride: From James 3-4 we learned that conflict is often rooted in pride. Scripture speaks clearly about rejecting the sin of pride (Prov. 8:13; 11:2; 16:18; 21:24; 29:23). The more we look and sound like the culture in our discourse, the more we prove our worldliness. “For all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life—is not from the Father but is from the world” (1 John 2:16). May we be a repentant, humble people in the way we engage one another.
  4. Repent of Corrupting Talk: Repenting of corrupting talk comes from Ephesians 4:29-32, “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion (give it five minutes), that it may give grace to those who hear. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.” Could we be grieving the Holy Spirit of God in the way we interact? Let us refuse to let corrupting talk come out of our mouths. Let us put away bitterness, wrath, anger, clamor, and slander for the sake of a tender heart with one another.
  5. Pray: Let us pray as Paul instructed Timothy, “I desire then that in every place the men should pray, lifting holy hands without anger or quarreling” (1 Timothy 2:8). Let us pray for the extension of the gospel, as Paul instructed the church at Thessalonica, “Finally, brothers, pray for us, that the word of the Lord may speed ahead and be honored, as happened among you” (1 Thess. 3:1). Let us pray as Paul prayed in Colossians 1:9-12, “And so, from the day we heard, we have not ceased to pray for you, asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so as to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him: bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God; being strengthened with all power, according to his glorious might, for all endurance and patience with joy; giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in light.” Let us pray.

While the larger American pattern of social media discourse may have found its way into the the Southern Baptist Convention. We are citizens of a greater Kingdom, and we have been tasked as Kingdom ambassadors (2 Cor. 5:20) to represent our King well. Even on Twitter.

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