Why we should embrace civility for the sake of the gospel

October 21, 2020

Last week I spent a considerable amount of time watching the confirmation hearings for Amy Coney Barrett. Remarkably, just weeks before a contentious presidential election taking place in the midst of a global pandemic and historic political polarization, the hearings were quite civil. In fact, at times they were almost boring—something few observers were expecting in light of the raucous Supreme Court confirmation hearings of the recent past. 

Though the hearings were not entirely absent of fanfare or posturing, both the Democrats and Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee were largely respectful toward one another and toward Judge Barrett across dozens of hours of televised proceedings. Again, this is all the more noteworthy because such high-stakes events typically breed theatrics instead of thoughtful discourse. But the senators, even amid their disagreements, managed to maintain both decency and decorum. And most significantly, Barrett herself was incredibly poised. Even in the greatest moments of scrutiny or pointed inquiry, she maintained a calm demeanor and responded to questions with kindness and, when necessary, self-restraint. 

In these tumultuous times, the proceedings were actually something of a bright spot. Seeing national leaders disagree in an agreeable fashion reminded the more jaded among us to keep hoping that better days are ahead for the republic. And speaking of hope, nothing was more heartening than the moment that marked the conclusion of the hearings. As they rose from their chairs at the dais, two senators, Lindsey Graham, the Republican Chairman of the committee, and Diane Feinstein, the committee’s ranking Democrat, exchanged a brief hug before exiting the room. 

Civility isn’t optional

Confirming a judge to the Supreme Court is always important. But those hearings were significant for another reason. They demonstrated something that many of us assumed was no longer possible. Last week we saw elected officials with wildly divergent political views put those differences on display. Yes, they openly criticized one another, sometimes going too far in their rhetoric and critiques. But there were no notable uncontrolled outbursts, nor did anyone speak to the nominee or opposing party with contempt. At a time when many expected chaos, a great deal of civility was demonstrated for the world to see. 

Civility often comes under attack for being impractical or unrealistic. People think civility is great when it comes to friendships and families or communities and churches, but not for politics. When it comes to politics, we’ve been catechized to see our opponents as enemies. Instead of working to defeat them, we often aim to destroy them. Politics is zero sum, winner take all. What place is there for civility?

Certainly there are many people who view politics as such a Machiavellian enterprise. But if that is all there is to politics, then politics has no place among the people of God. Jesus, after all, instructed his people to love our enemies, to pray for those who persecute us, and to do good to those who would do evil unto us (Luke 6:27-36). Ruthless, bare-knuckle politics isn’t an option for believers because we never have the option of disregarding the commands of Christ. Upholding human dignity is more important than securing political victories.

Civility and politics

Fortunately for us, the choice between political hackery and abstention from the political process actually represents a false dilemma. And though they seldom make headlines, across the country there are countless public servants and elected officials who are committed to fulfilling their sworn duties in ways that honor even those with whom they most strongly disagree. These men and women model a commitment to civility because they understand what it is and why it matters.

Christians can and should engage in politics. But they must always do so as Christians, with their priorities in the right order.

Civility does not call us away from our disagreements. Instead, it calls us to disagree in ways that promote and cultivate the kind of society we wish to live in. Whatever your politics, all of us can agree that we would like to live in a society where we are free to persuade others and to be persuaded by them. Few among us desire coercion and tyranny. Rather, we want to live in a society that promotes decency, respect, kindness, and understanding, instead of one that is cruel and uncharitable where saying or believing the wrong thing brings the risk of being fired or ostracized or cancelled.

Interestingly, public opinion has rewarded Barrett for the manner in which she conducted herself during the hearings. People found her calm and reasonable manner refreshing. They found her kindness and sincerity to be desirable traits for a public servant. We would do well to remember that the next time someone implies that the high road cannot lead one to victory or success.

Civility and the gospel

But beyond seeking success, Christians should embrace the mantle of civility for a different reason: the gospel. The Apostle Paul told us that Jesus came into the world to save sinners (1 Tim. 1:15). People, in other words, are the mission. And people are more important than politics. If your political views cause you to treat other people badly, then perhaps you’ve fallen into idolatry. You can be political without being sinful. You can be passionate without being belligerent

Christians can and should engage in politics. But they must always do so as Christians, with their priorities in the right order. Civility is not an option for believers, because civility is ultimately just a baseline for applying the most rudimentary duty of New Testament ethics—to treat others as we would have them treat us (Matt. 7:12). Embrace civility for the sake of the gospel.

Photo attribution: Pool / Getty Images News from Getty Images North America

Josh Wester

Joshua B. Wester is the lead pastor of Cornerstone Baptist Church in Greensboro, North Carolina. Read More by this Author

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24