On Civility & Decency in Public Discourse
Look, I’m a Christian and a Christian pastor, and the Bible is utterly clear about certain standards of discourse. My words must imitate God’s words. They must be gracious, kind, truthful, seasoned with salt, and they must not be vicious, malicious, vindictive, biting, cruel, or foul. But we cannot say this and then breathe a sigh of relief and go back to assuming everything will be fine. We cannot make everyone in the world sign this statement and then pretend all is well. Something is missing. We need a dictionary. What does “truthful” mean? What does “vicious” mean? What constitutes cruelty and vindictiveness and what constitutes salty and gracious?
It’s not enough to make everyone promise to be good or civil or decent. Ok great, now who gets to decide what those words mean? Who are the referees? Where is the rule book?
Christians, and Christian leaders in particular, are frequently and far too easily manipulated by their enemies by these true standards into caving and compromise on matters that the Bible is equally clear we must not cave or compromise on. And they cave and compromise by bowing to alien standards. They cave and compromise by submitting to doctored dictionaries, ransacked rule books, and ruffian referees. Because we have a natural inclination to submit to authorities, we are the idiots who tend to acquiesce to any old rapscallion in a zebra shirt. If a whistle blows we defer. If a siren blares, we comply. If a gavel rattles, we conform. But this is not wisdom. This is not biblical. This is not obedient.
This is because God has spoken clearly and revealed to us that many authorities are wicked. Many authorities are wolves in sheep masks. Many dictionaries are scams. It is wrong for Christians to be naïve. It is wrong for Christians to be taken in by con artists, the greatest con artist being the Devil himself. He may come as an angel of light, he prowls like a lion looking for dinner, and Christians must be wise as serpents, innocent as doves. And therefore we must insist on biblical decency, biblical kindness, biblical truth, biblical standards. All of our appeals to dictionaries and referees and rule books must have an ultimate appeal, and the name for that ultimate appeal is God Almighty.
But there are very practical ramifications for our failure to insist on biblical definitions. And what I mean is that there are certain conversations that should not be happening. There are certain subjects for which the Bible requires a certain form of incivility. Hear me carefully: I’m not saying that a Christian has liberty to dispense with the fruit of the Spirit, but I am saying that the same Spirit that produces love, joy, and peace is also a sword that hacks certain sins to pieces. When Paul says to mortify your members which are on the earth, like say, fornication, the clear and obvious meaning of those words is: kill that sin. Treat that sin with utter incivility. You must not be civil with sin. You must kill it dead. To be civil with fornication is to grant fornication a place at the table. To be civil with adultery is to give adultery the right to exist. But adultery has no right to exist. It is a standing, defiant middle finger pointed at the God of Heaven – and to my point here: it is a standing, defiant middle finger pointed at a truly decent and civil society.
Do you want civil discourse? Do you want decency in the public square? Then there are certain conversations that should not be happening. There are certain conversations that grant legitimacy to their subject matter by virtue of them happening in calm tones around tables while sipping coffee. Jesus was not exactly looking for a “civil discourse” when He flipped over the tables in the temple. There are certain things that must not even be talked about: “But fornication and all uncleanness or covetousness, let it not even be named among you, as is fitting for saints; neither filthiness, nor foolish talking, nor coarse jesting, which are not fitting, but rather giving of thanks” (Eph. 5:3-4).
Paul does not mean that a Christian can never let these topics be spoken in any way, since Paul just listed them (named them) himself. What Paul means is that they must not be discussed as reasonable topics. They must not be considered or debated in a way that grants them any credibility or legitimacy.
This whole topic is playing on a certain ambiguity with the word “civil” or “civility.” God does require that His people honor those around them as bearing the image of God. There is a sort of common “civility” that accompanies that recognition. But this civility cannot be detached from the law of God. When an armed intruder is shot by a homeowner, the homeowner is not being “civil” in one sense, and he absolutely is being “civil” in another sense. He is being civil in his duty to protect his family from harm. He is also being civil to the intruder by stopping him from carrying out far greater evil. The executioner who administers a lethal injection to a criminal who has been lawfully tried and convicted is acting with “civility.” He is (strictly speaking) carrying out the civil sentence against the criminal and upholding a standard of civility for his society.
So this is why Gay Pride parades ought to be illegal. Drag Queen story hour ought to be illegal. And they should not be topics for discussion at city council meetings. They should be laughed straight off the docket. Freedom of speech does not include freedom to debauch the public square. Freedom of expression does not include freedom to flaunt obscenity. Why? Because allowing those kinds of debased expressions are attacks on decency itself, innocence itself, and civility itself. You cannot allow the incivility and indecency of simulated (or actually) sodomy or orgies or drag queens in public and then claim that you want civility and decency in the public square. When you let rampant, flamboyant sexual gutter-juice parade itself in public, you have already inshrined indecency and incivility in the public square and you are in the process of driving all decency out. You cannot allow public urination and defecation and claim freedom of expression and that everyone is free to be there. No, the public mockery of human decency and the exaltation of human degeneracy with #pridemonth and gay flags on every nicknack imaginable is the stench of an outhouse driving anyone with a sense of smell far away. And all that is left of the so-called public square can only be justly called a pubic square, a shameful and insidious joke on all of us.
Christians and all who love liberty must cultivate a godly incivility for those things which are clearly identified by God as direct and vicious attacks on a civil society. We instinctively know that we cannot be civil with murderers and rapists and at the same time be civil with their victims. In order to protect true civil discourse, and a truly civil society, there are certain discussions, activities, and events that must be outlawed and suppressed.
But in order to do this, appeal must be made to the dictionary. And when they bring their dictionary and breathlessly explain that ours is out of date, what will you do? Will you blush with embarrassment because now we are defined as hateful bigots? Or will you have the courage to pull out your Bible and say, “Thus says the Lord…” But this is the only way to protect true decency and civility in the public square. All attempts to guard this through appeal to human reason or a vague common good are scams. Those dictionaries were written by sharks and frauds, even though they left a bunch of Bible verses in there early on. Christian America, we’ve been taken in too many times. There is no neutrality. There is no decent common ground. The only common good is given by the only Good God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. He is good, and if we will acknowledge Him, He will make our paths straight. Only He can give us a civil and decent public square. All other ground is sinking sand.