FIRST-PERSON: A voice from the past urges civility

by Roger S. Oldham, posted Friday, March 26, 2010 (10 years ago)

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)--In an 1803 sermon delivered at Kettering, England, British Baptist theologian Andrew Fuller preached from Jeremiah 29:7 on the subject of "Christian Patriotism" (The Complete Works of Andrew Fuller, reprint, Sprinkle Publications [1988], pp. 202-209). Fuller may be better known as the theologian who preached the ordination sermon for William Carey, often called the "father of the modern missions movement." He also heavily influenced Charles Haddon Spurgeon, perhaps the greatest expositor of Scripture to embrace the Baptist name.

Fuller was known for a deep, personal piety, an avid love and hunger for the Word of God, and as a man who sought to integrate the totality of scriptural truth into his exposition of each individual passage. The text from which he developed this particular sermon was addressed by Jeremiah to his fellow countrymen living in exile. It states, "Seek the welfare of the city I have deported you to. Pray to the LORD on its behalf, for when it has prosperity, you will prosper" (Jeremiah 29:7).

It is no secret that our nation is deeply divided around many different issues. It is unfortunate that many who name the Name which is above every Name use the same set of rhetorical strategies to influence public debate as those who do not know the Christ who transforms. The routine rancorous rhetoric of some professing believers, even some preachers of the Baptist persuasion, continually undermines the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. The virulent anger manifested in some protests during debate of public policy is often couched in "religious" terms and slogans. This causes the opponents of the Cross to have a distorted view of what redemption actually means and does in the lives of ransomed sinners.

Fuller lived in a day of much wickedness in his own nation. He urged his fellow Baptists to "seek the peace of the city" -- not merely as "an exemption from wars and insurrections," but to seek the prosperity of the country in general. He cried out, "O my country, I will lament thy faults! Yet, with all thy faults I will seek thy good."

His sermon was developed around two main ideas. In the first part of his sermon, he "inquired" into the "duty of religious people towards their country," referencing the opening sentence of his biblical text: "Seek the welfare of the city I have deported you to." Among the duties he listed, he gave prominent attention to the rhetoric Christians employ in matters of public debate.

In a particularly noteworthy paragraph, Fuller preached, "Whoever deals in inflammatory speeches, or in any manner sows the seeds of discontent and disaffection, we shall not. Whoever labours to depreciate its governors, supreme or subordinate, in a manner tending to bring government itself into contempt, we shall not. Even in cases wherein we may be compelled to disapprove of measures, we shall either be silent, or express our disapprobation with respect and with regret."

He continued, "A dutiful son may see a fault in a father; but he will not take pleasure in exposing him. He that can employ his wit in degrading magistrates is not their friend, but their enemy; and he that is an enemy to magistrates is not far from being an enemy to magistracy, and, of course, to his country. A good many may be aggrieved; and being so, may complain. Paul did so at Philippi. But the character of a complainer belongs only to those who walk after their own lusts."

Later, Fuller noted, "It becomes Christians to bear positive good-will to their country, and to its government, considered as government, irrespective of the political party which may have the ascendancy. We may have our preferences, and that without blame; but they ought never to prevent a cheerful obedience to the laws, a respectful demeanour towards those who frame and those who execute them, or a ready co-operation in every measure which the being or well-being of the nation may require."

In language reflective of our own day, Fuller commented, "The civil power, whatever political party is uppermost, while it maintains the great ends of government, ought, at all times, to be able to reckon upon religious people as its cordial friends; and if such we be, we shall be willing, in times of difficulty, to sacrifice personal interest to public good; shall contribute of our substance without murmuring; and, in cases of imminent danger, shall be willing to expose even our own lives in its defense."

In the second division of the sermon, which, in length, is little more than a conclusion, Fuller addressed the "motive by which these duties are enforced," citing the concluding clause of the verse, "for when it has prosperity, you will prosper."

Fuller eloquently illustrated this truth, "Let not the poorest man say, I have nothing to lose. Yes, if men of opulence lose their property, you will lose your employment. You have also a cottage, and perhaps a wife and family, with whom, amidst all your hardships, you live in love; and would it be nothing to you to see your wife and daughters abused, and you yourself unable to protect them, or even to remonstrate, but at the hazard of being thrust through with a bayonet? If no other considerations will induce us to protect our county, and pray to the Lord for it, our own individual and domestic comfort might suffice."

One can easily draw the spiritual parallel between Jeremiah's prophetic word in this text and Paul's exhortation in 1 Timothy 2:1-4, "First of all, then, I urge that petitions, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone, for kings and all those who are in authority, so that we may lead a tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and dignity. This is good, and it pleases God our Savior, who wants everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth."

In both passages, we are commanded to pray for and seek the "peace of the city." In both, our motivation is that, as the city prospers, so shall we. Paul adds an evangelistic motivation as well -- our well-pleasing acts will be evangelistically attractive to the lost, and some will be saved.

In a similar vein, SBC President Johnny Hunt, released a statement on "civility in public discourse" in October 2009 (see www.sbc.net/PresidentsPage/JohnnyHunt/PressRelease-10-17-09Hunt.asp). Referencing the Civility Project, brainchild of conservative commentator Mark DeMoss, Hunt called on Southern Baptists to "join with me in showing restraint in our public and private speech." Citing the "coarseness of our culture and the teaching of our Savior," he said, "I also urge each of us to communicate our concerns with anyone we believe has crossed the line into mean-spirited attacks. We must never underestimate the power and influence of one voice."

In his article, Hunt also drew attention to the counsel the Apostle Paul gave to the church at Colosse, "Your speech should always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you should answer each person" (Colossians 4:6).

Hunt closed his article, "When we exercise civility in our public and private rhetoric, we bring glory to our Lord, enhance our credibility as men and women whose lives have been transformed by God's grace, and create opportunities to share the life-changing Gospel of Jesus Christ with our lost and dying world."

Civility in public discourse is not something we can legislate. It flows (super)naturally out of one's innermost being. Jesus taught his followers, "A good man produces good out of the good storeroom of his heart. An evil man produces evil out of the evil storeroom, for his mouth speaks from the overflow of the heart" (Luke 6:46).

Hear again Fuller's challenge to the people of his parish, "Whoever deals in inflammatory speeches, or in any manner sows the seeds of discontent and disaffection, we shall not. Whoever labours to depreciate its governors, supreme or subordinate, in a manner tending to bring government itself into contempt, we shall not. Even in cases wherein we may be compelled to disapprove of measures," let us clearly "express our disapprobation with respect and with regret."

As we embrace this biblical ideal, may our demeanor in the public arena -- our behavior and our words -- be the fragrance of life, the life-giving aroma of obedience to our Lord Jesus Christ. May the light that shines in us radiate out from us so that others will be drawn to faith in Jesus Christ our Lord. That's my stand. Is it yours?


Roger S. Oldham is vice president for convention relations for the Southern Baptist Executive Committee.

Following is Johnny M. Hunt's call for "Civility in Public Discourse," from Oct. 17, 2009:

"It is clear that America needs a spiritual awakening. Our country is awash in all kinds of lostness, including mean-spiritedness in conduct and speech. Ours is a culture of incivility. Rhetoric in the marketplace of ideas is marked by impatience, intolerance, and anger. Pastor Dwight McKissic recently wrote me, asking me to join him in decrying this lack of civility in public discourse. I am glad to do so. In fact, earlier this year my friend Jonathan Falwell issued a similar call, asking Bible-believing Christians to embrace the 'Civility Project.'

"The Civility Project is the brainchild of conservative commentator Mark DeMoss. This Project is a non-partisan, grassroots effort to enlist individuals across the ideological spectrum to show restraint in their public and private speech. He wrote on his Web page, 'It seems our society has become increasingly divided and polarized. Every week we are treated to scenes of bitter fighting, protests turning to violence and vandalism, name-calling, and personal attacks. Important debates are no longer fought with ideas and words but with shouting and screaming.'

"The Civility Project encourages all of us, whether liberal or conservative, Democrat or Republican, black or white, people of faith or of no faith, to 'agree that even in sharp disagreement we should not be disagreeable.'

"This is a value I believe our Lord and His apostles affirm. The fruit of the Spirit works in the life of the believer to create, among other things, longsuffering, gentleness, and self-control. The word longsuffering is more than mere patience –- it is a long-fused patience with people. The Apostle Paul urged us, as believers in Jesus Christ, to let our speech 'always be with grace, seasoned with salt' (Colossians 4:6).

"This instruction extends beyond those with whom we share a common faith in Jesus. The apostles anticipated that believers during the New Testament era would treat unbelievers with dignity and respect, even to the point of showing deference to pagan kings who actively persecuted the early church. Paul instructed us to 'pray for all that are in authority, that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and honesty' (1 Timothy 2:2). He set this teaching in the context of our Christian witness: 'For this is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who will have all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth' (1 Timothy 2:3-4).

"While Paul instructed the early churches to pray for the king, Peter took this a step further. He charged the scattered believers to honor the king. In fact, in his first epistle, he calls us as followers of Jesus to honor all people -- 'Honor all people. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the king' (1 Peter 2:17).

"Given the coarseness of our culture and the teaching of our Savior, I urge all Southern Baptists to join with me in showing restraint in our public and private speech. I also urge each of us to communicate our concerns with anyone we believe has crossed the line into mean-spirited attacks. We must never underestimate the power and influence of one voice. When we exercise civility in our public and private rhetoric, we bring glory to our Lord, enhance our credibility as men and women whose lives have been transformed by God's grace, and create opportunities to share the life-changing Gospel of Jesus Christ with our lost and dying world."

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