But even if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame. (1 Peter 3:14-16)
I mentioned last week that social media has not been an unmitigated good for our public discourse. In fact, it has in many ways been decidedly bad. Whereas people once shared their opinions on the issues of the day only in appropriate contexts—and reserved sharing more unsavory or controversial opinions for very selective occasions among those who shared those opinions—today people not only demand the opportunity to speak but also claim a right to be heard. What’s more, most of the new fora for such sharing of opinions are of the online variety, where it is possible to deliver spite and vitriol in previously unheard of quantities, all from the safety and relative anonymity of a keyboard behind a computer screen. It is easier to dehumanize one’s opponents when looking them in the face is unnecessary.
I’m not pointing fingers here at those of particular political, social, or religious persuasions. Each of us undoubtedly holds to certain opinions that someone else would find intolerant, intolerable, unpalatable, strange, or even mean. And yet, simple politeness has for generations allowed us to function as a society despite great diversity of views on any number of subjects. Only in the age of social media do we find ourselves increasingly unable to peaceably coexist with those who do not share our views. One might argue that the contagion dates back further, at least to the advent of cable news programs which long ago discarded reasonable argument in favor of having people yell at—and past—each other.
Certainly we can do better, and Christians in particular are called to do better. In an age when biblical ethical and moral standards—to say nothing of the exclusivity of the gospel message—are held in disrepute, Christians who wish to represent their views in the public square and ultimately win converts will do themselves no favors by being harsh, boorish, or mean-spirited. In the above passage Peter calls us to be ready to defend our faith, but to always do so in a gentle and respectful manner. In the following chapter he makes a similar statement negatively, commending those who suffer for the sake of the gospel but not if they are guilty of some crime (cf. 1 Peter 4:12-16). The Christian message is offensive enough on its own without us making things worse through poor attitudes or actual evildoing.
We must also take care to deal similarly with those within the church with whom we might differ on secondary and tertiary matters of doctrine. Just as children (and adults) who are well-behaved and polite with others sometimes treat their family members with great discourtesy, it is possible even for Christians who are careful to treat outsiders kindly to be more harsh and unreserved with fellow believers. I have sometimes been guilty during theological or related practical discussions of a curtness that is unbecoming, and would have done better to extend that same winsome kindness to all. Christ does not call his people to waffle on important matters of truth, of course, but he does demand that we express those truths in the best possible way.
I sometimes think that everyone should have to spend some time working in an environment where their religious, social, or political views are in the minority, as I have done during my entire career as a conservative Christian working on university campuses. Knowing how rare my views are in this context has a way of limiting the manner and occasions on which I choose to opine on religious, political, and social matters. Most of all, it has a way of forcing me to strive to represent my Lord and his people in a way that is endearing rather than offputting. This is strategically advantageous, it follows Peter’s directive quoted at the beginning of this article, but perhaps most importantly it leads me to treat people as the bearers of God’s image that the Bible says they are.
So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. (Genesis 1:27)
Every human being—no matter who they are, where they come from, or what their views are—bears the image of God. Thus all deserve to be treated with kindness, gentleness, and respect. When we do so, we might even see some of them consider and eventually believe the message of Christ.