Lutheran Martin Marty once said, “People who have strong convictions these days aren’t very civil, and people who are civil often don’t have very strong convictions. What we need is ‘convicted civility.'”
A few years later, Fuller Seminary President Richard Mouw turned this concept into his book, Uncommon Decency: Christian Civility in an Uncivil World. Mouw was inviting Christians to contribute more to the solutions than the problems our culture wars often perpetuate. He encouraged us to communicate in new ways when we disagree with others on the issues that matter most to us.
Since then many Christian and other leaders are still trying to learn the spiritual practice of convicted civility. In NACSW life, we have our moments of losing sight of this practice, but by and large, I feel that we maintain strong convictions and at the same time live in a civil manner reflective of the love and grace of the Christ we seek to follow.
Still, we know this practice is difficult. Last Fall, a colleague and I undertook a study of the lived experiences of people of Christian faith who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender. A year into this study we are learning that LGBT Christians love sharing their testimonies of grace, their sense of vocation, and their struggles of living in Christian community when their brothers and sisters might not want to hear their stories.
As social workers and researchers, we are seeking to learn what competent practice means when serving people who are LGBT. The opportunity this has presented is further dialog among members of NACSW, including our LGBT sisters and brothers, as we seek to be fully faithful and fully loving.
In recent years, Regent University professor Mark Yarhouse has been promoting convicted civility with regards to conversations about homosexuality. He goes to great lengths to promote civility in Christian conversations about how we engage each other and LGBT sisters and brothers in these challenging conversations. At the same time, he maintains strong personal convictions in support of traditional Christian teachings about sexuality and marriage.
As NACSW and other groups engage these conversations, more Christians are stating that Yarhouse’s convictions do not represent the only Christian perspective. There are some with deep Christian convictions who struggle to understand the Scriptures’ teachings on sexuality and are convinced that living faithfully does not mean knowing the answers for others. There are others with deep Christian convictions who support homosexuality as part of God’s gift and calling. There are still others who believe the Bible may not be as clear as we have traditionally been taught about the nature of sexual sin and yet believe it is perfectly clear in terms of demonstrating love and care for all God’s children.
There are multiple Christian convictions and we have to be willing to listen to each other’s voices on this journey of civility. Knowing that my colleagues with a more traditional biblical and cultural view do not share my convictions should not keep me from reaching out to them and my hope is that while holding true to their convictions, they can hear with respect and openness the voice of LGBT Christians. It is part of my conviction that true civility, and true Christian community, demand it.
Our multiple perspectives on experiences and views of sexuality should not detract us from our common vision of supporting faithful professional growth and development together. I spent too many years avoiding meaningful conversations of difference because I was afraid my perspective would not be valued. Today, I have a much greater trust that God is honored by our attempts at working together to be faithful. My hope is that what begins as conversations of convicted civility will be transformed by God’s grace into much more meaningful dialogues of discernment.
As such, may we learn to listen in new ways and hear God’s voice anew. Here is my prayer as we venture forth on our journey of faith together.
O God, as we seek to integrate our faith in all aspects of our lives, may listening to one another give us an opportunity to better listen to You. May we begin with a common commitment to loving you and loving all of your children. May we begin with valuing each other and believing we have much to learn from each other. And, may we begin together at the feet of your Son, the Christ, who calls us to serve all. Amen.
Jon Singletary, PhD, MSW, MDiv serves as the Diana R. Garland Endowed Chair for Child and Family Studies and as Associate Dean for Graduate Studies in the Baylor School of Social Work. His research focuses on a variety of social issues as they intersect with faith. He served as pastor and in a variety of congregational ministry settings before joining the Baylor faculty 12 years ago. At Baylor he has directed the Center for Family and Community Ministries. Jon has been a member of NACSW since 2001.