By Jeff Brumley
Given the bitter, high-profile way Christians slug it out on social, political and theological issues these days, it’s no mystery why young people are leaving the church or avoiding it in the first place, Baptist minister and writer Kevin Glenn says.
“They’re not seeing a big difference between the way Christians are treating each other than the world does,” said Glenn, senior pastor at Memorial Baptist Church in Columbia, Mo., and author of the new book Hand Over Fist: An Invitation to Christ-Centered Civility.
Believers are squaring off in lawsuits and in debates over human sexuality, women clergy, gay marriage, creationism, biblical inerrancy and Calvinism versus Arminianism, among others. Glenn said they’re all important issues that need to be addressed — but without the cutthroat tactics that define American politics.
“We don’t have our house in order when it comes to how … we disagree with one another,” Glenn said.
Glenn said his book is an effort to address the my-way-or-the-highway mentality and rhetoric plaguing congregations and denominations. Through a series of stories and practical tips, Hand Over Fist offers its readers a new way to conceive conflicts and an avenue out of the either-or approach to discourse in society and the church.
But he and a biblical scholar who has read the books say the effort at civility is not an easy one. The propensity for black-and-white thinking is one that inhabits liberal and conservative minds alike — and it’s done so for millennia. In fact, one need look no further than the Bible for examples of people being unkind to each other.
Offering a vision
“In ancient history, and in both the Old Testament and New Testament, we are always going to find examples of incivility,” said David Lamb, associate professor of Old Testament at Biblical Theological Seminary in Hatfield, Pa.
Even God is seen to be ostensibly uncivil, added Lamb, also the author of the 2011 book God Behaving Badly: Is the God of the Old Testament Angry, Sexist and Racist?
“We see plenty of examples — like where God smites poor Uzzah” for dropping the ark in 2 Samuel, Lamb said.
Even Jesus appeared to act uncivilly when he referred to the Pharisees as white-washed tombs and when he overturned the money changers’ tables.
“Should we expect Christians to be civil if God is not always civil?” Lamb said.
He added that it’s doubtful there was ever an age or era when civility ruled the day. But given the recent dominance of social media and the 24-hour news cycle, Lamb said it’s gotten much harder to take a civil approach to issues.
“Everything you say and do can get tweeted instantly and put on YouTube instantly,” Lamb said.
Lamb said he read and critiqued Glenn’s book because it offers a vision of an alternative and practical steps on how to get there.
“I would call it genuine listening,” he said of the approach taken in the new book. “It’s extending grace to people we might disagree with.”
‘A posture of surrender’
It all starts with a concept known as polarity management, Glenn said. It means seeing tension as a part of life, then becoming willing either to be wrong or to accept the presence of those who think differently.
The book is “asking people to take a deep breath, step back and … examine what is it in me that’s making me react or respond to the issue the way I am.” Glenn said.
The title is meant to evoke an image of surrender, Glenn added.
“Instead of taking a position, let’s actually open ourselves up to vulnerability,” he said.
Criticism of the book has included claims it promotes softening on crucial theological issues. But Glenn said it’s possible to hold onto key beliefs without ending relationships with those who disagree.
“It’s a posture of surrender and vulnerability and openness,” he said.
‘The Baptist tribe’
And it’s one that Baptists especially should consider adopting, Glenn added.
Conservative and liberal Baptist groups are bleeding members because of squabbles that have kept them in the public consciousness in a negative way.
Whether it was the controversy that lead to moderates leaving or being expelled from the Southern Baptist Convention, or lawsuits over property in states like Missouri, Glenn said, it gives the word “Baptist” a negative connotation.
“The Baptist tribe as a whole will continue to decline … as long as we keep setting such a poor example with how we converse with each other,” Glenn said.