On Christian Civility

“Pursue peace with all men. . .” — Heb. 12:14a

Recently, Google has begun to put Benedict Pictet’s work, Morale Chretienne, on their collection. It looks like it will be a very valuable and helpful work. The one volume that is already available discusses various issues of the 2nd table of the law. I have put together a translation of his discussion of Christian civility. I believe that there are many valuable points in this short discussion that are both thought-provoking and convicting.

“On Christian Civility” by Benedict Pictet from his book on Christian ethics.

Since God has ordained men to live in society and since He Himself assembles them in that society, He wants them also to respect the bond that unites them according to His order. Conversely, He also wants them to avoid with extreme care every occasion that tends to break that bond and so commands that they conserve the peace amongst themselves and prefer one another in honor. Thus, God has bound us to be honest and civil towards one another.

Civility is this virtue that teaches everyone to do nothing and to say nothing that would offend the well-being of society; to give way to others as much as the order of the world can allow it; to prefer others over oneself; to greet them; to visit them; and to give them all the signs of esteem and honor that one can legitimately give to them.

The rules of civility are:

  1. To exactly observe all that custom has established as civil or as uncivil and to practice the former with care, avoid the latter, and to follow the example of those who are wisest [in these matters].
  2. To accommodate oneself to the places and the nations in which one lives and to the persons to whom one speaks.
  3. To relate to each person according to the position that they occupy in the world and according to the position that you occupy.
  4. To despise no one.
  5. To honor everyone according to their merit and according to the customs of the places in which one lives.

But we must be careful as someone has noted well that “our civility must be different than that of the people of world. Namely, it should be completely true and sincere and should not be merely on the surface or flattering. It should not be filled with words, compliments, and praises. It should not take away a considerable amount of our time. It should not be a source of amusement and making ourselves useless. It should inspire piety and demonstrate modesty and show men the goodness and sweetness of Jesus Christ. The purpose of civility is only to inspire them in their departure from and aversion for the spirit of the world and to bring them to lead a life that is completely Christian.”

In order for our civility to be truly Christian, it must be founded in a principle of charity and love of our neighbor. This is what distinguishes the civility of the people of the world who are only civil:

  1. Either to pass as persons who have received an honest education, have good manners, and are polite and so that they will not be regarded as savages.
  2. Or to not attract to themselves any of the unwelcome problems that incivilities cause.
  3. Or that everyone would look up to them and seek after them.
  4. Or that others might give them civility in exchange for civility.
  5. Or because they have nothing to do.

The vice that is opposed to this virtue of civility is called incivility or rudeness. There are various degrees of it that are not necessary to recount here. I will only remark that ordinarily incivility is the most common source of misunderstandings, hatred, and quarrels, since people cannot stand it when others despise them or neglect them. Of all the offenses that someone can do to people, contempt is the one that people feel most strongly and that they can scarcely ever pardon.

Prayer
O God, who wants all men to live together on the earth, make me careful to avoid all that can break the cord that unites me with other men. Regulate all my words and all my actions so that they may be agreeable to my brothers. Do not allow me by uncivil and rude conduct to attract their hatred and contempt. But also do not allow me to offend You while trying to please them. Cause me above everything else to think about how I might make myself agreeable in your eyes in order one day to rejoice in your glory. Amen.

7 Replies to “On Christian Civility”

  1. Thank you, Wes.

    Where Pictet states that civility “.. should not be filled with words, compliments, and praises.” I was put in remembrance of a’Brakel’s comments on self-denial. Specifically: “There is no sin more common to man and more deeply rooted in the heart than a desire to be honored.”

    Interesting challenge to put others before oneself, to always be civil, yet not to feed a sinful propensity by puffing up him (or ME) with misuse of “words”.

  2. Excellent, Wes. Also a model of understading that common grace means that there is a general societial sense of civility that all share in, and, at the same time, that the antithesis means that such civility as society at large enjoys is outward and ephemeral if not seasoned with the salt of the gospel.

    It is the Christian who has the opportunity as a new man in Christ to be truly civil, to be kind and tenderhearted, showing something of the Savior. This is an appropriate bringing together of things that need to be brought together and not merely a distinguishing of things that need to be distinguished. We must have both.

  3. As this website has matured, I believe most of us have grown in our ability to show civility in the midst of disagreement. I now take five times as long to compose a comment as I did several years ago. I don’t always get it right, but at least I understand my Christian responsbility better now. So, craft your responses carefully! If you must disagree, do it from principle, clearly, firmly and graciously.

  4. Alan D. Strange,

    Common Grace is a false doctrine.

    Grace is an attribute of God. It is an attitude of favor.

    God does not have an attitude of favor towards the reprobate in any way. God Hates the wicked.

    He only loves the elect because they are not counted as wicked because of the imputed righteousness of Christ.

    Wes,

    interesting piece.

    Civility and public order definitely serve the good of the elect. It is good to encourage societal civility.

  5. Mr. Reece:

    The object of my comment was not to debate whether there is something that can be denominated as common grace. I understand that some deny such though many Reformed theologians have called common grace that benevolence of God whereby He restrains the full expression of sin (and, positively, preserves man in the broader image and the use of natural gifts).

    My purpose was to observe how well that Pictet recognizes the place and importance of common civility, as you do in your closing remark especially, while arguing the need for truly Christian civility. It is only as a Christian virtue that civility transcends the merely outward and social and exhibits Christ to our neighbor. This kind of understanding of the antithesis is a model of what we need as we wrestle with such issues and has implications for many things, including the natural law/two kingdom discussion.

  6. Alan D. Strange,

    I understand that your purpose was not to debate the veracity of the doctrine of Common Grace, but I thought that it was my duty to object since I believe it is unbiblical.

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