Every Monday in Citizenship Confusion, Alan Noble discusses how we confuse our heavenly citizenship with citizenship to the state, culture, and the world.

Over the last few weeks I have been profoundly troubled by a vice that is fairly common in the church. To address this issue, which I believe comes directly from the uncritical adoption of the rhetoric of the world into our speech, I’m go to shy away from my typical style–close analysis of cultural events and the ideologies. Please bear with me.

What is charity and why should we care?

At the risk of sounding dramatic, I want to suggest that charity is a virtue that is tragically and damningly lacking in the church, particularly on the Internet. This lack results in divisions, arrogance, petty bickering, causing brothers and sisters to stumble, destroyed reputations, seriously petty bickering, compromised witnesses, disgrace to the church, loss of faith, I-can’t-believe-someone-thought-it-was-worth-the-energy-exerted-to-type-those-words petty bickering, hatred, malice, and general sin.

Charity is loving-kindess. It is an openness to the other. A recognition of our own fallenness, of God’s Grace, and a re-extension of that grace outward towards all others.

It is a desire to listen before speaking. To actually listen. To listen with the intent to understand as well as we can. Not to listen in order to find a weakness or flaw to exploit.

It is a willingness to love unconditionally. Love that is not contingent upon agreement. Or on the brilliance of our argument. Or on the humiliation of the other. Or on our own rightness. Just love end of the sentence.

It is an acute awareness of our finitude. The deceitfulness of the human heart. Our physical, biological, and chemical failings. Our lack of sleep. The way coffee after 4 PM puts us on edge.

It is the prior commitment that before anyone’s mouth opens the conclusion is settled: One faith, one Lord, one baptism. One faith. One Lord. One baptism.

It refuses to be deceived, by our self-righteousness or the sinfulness of others into justifying abusive, condescending, or bitting speech.

It is the knowledge that whatever we deem worth demeaning another for, whatever we view as more important than gentleness of spirit, whatever we elevate higher than well-seasoned words is truly an idol. A false God. Because the True God has told us how to speak: always full of grace and seasoned with salt.

It is a desire to edify the other. To enter into their lives and know their needs. To speak words that build up, no matter how much the other tears us down.

Just recently I had an online conversation with a significant evangelical figure concerning the blogger and activist, Pamela Geller. This figure had shared a few of Geller’s blogs on his site, and I challenged him to examine her reliability and to reconsider promoting her online, particularly considering the vicious and uncharitable tone she uses. He responded by saying, essentially, that the real issue was the threat of creeping Shari’ah law and the Islamification of our country, not charity. Charity, was a distraction and he urged me not to get caught up on it.

The truth is that Christians across the political and theological and light spectrum consistently fail to practice charity, including (but not limited) to myself. And this really does matter. Charity is not a distraction. It is not a side issue or a decoration we put on the truth to make it palatable. Charity is not rhetorical garnish. It is the very thing we should always already be communicating.


  1. “Charity, was a distraction and he urged me not to get caught up on it.”

    That made me so angry that I felt charity slipping out the window almost instantly (proving how difficult the ideal is to attain and maintain). Still, I’d hope that I’d be able to have a charitable discussion with such a person, no matter how deleterious I felt their position to be.

  2. Alan,

    I heartily affirm what you have written. However, it is no so easy for me to tell sometimes what is gracious speech and what isn’t. In our culture, it seems to me that something is “ungracious” when it causes discomfort to others. Sometimes, we think that speech that makes us uncomfortable is ungracious.

    For example, Paul writes, “I wish those who unsettle you would emasculate themselves!” (Gal. 5:12). Jesus called his interlocutors “sons of your father the devil” (John 8:44). If we mined the OT for quotes of the prophets we would find many examples of speech that would get them booed or run out of town today for being ungracious. So how can we measure the difference between blunt, gracious speech and ungracious name calling? (Sons of the devil is pretty rough. Also, Paul calls people dogs, evil-doers, and ‘the mutilation’.)

  3. Our citizenship is in heaven yes, until then we are on earth among the fallen and the redeemed. I have to wonder what would have happened if Christ would have used ‘charity’ when in righteous indignation he cleared the temple; I wonder what how history would turn out if David used ‘charity’ toward Goliath; or our founding father’s chose ‘charity’ instead of facing the British that ultimately framed our American history and ultimately the freedom of the American church to pioneer worldl missions without fear. Our liberties are very quickly evaporating, then … what? We are at that point in our country…

    People are capable of many things and charity can go out the window in a heartbeat. I think that charity is taken out of context when applied to the war, yes war, of good vs. evil. Culture wars are no different.There is a time and a season for everything…and our country is on the brink of non-existence because of passivity, lack of knowledge, lack of wisdom, lack of holiness and righteous indignation, not for lack of charity. The pastor sitting in a Islamic prison right now because of sheer hatred of Christians charity may not save … Iran: Christian Pastor Faces Execution for ‘Apostasy’ | Human Rights Watch -www.hrw.org ‎(New York) – Iranian authorities should immediately free pastor Yousef Nadarkhani and drop all charges against him, Human Rights Watch said today. Nadarkhani, who has been charged with apostasy and is in Rasht prison in northern Iran, faces possible execution.”
    Hose 4:6 – My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge: because you have rejected knowledge, I will also reject you, that you shall be no priest to me: because you have forgotten the law of your God, I will also forget your children.

  4. Nada,

    Two thoughts:
    1. Charity is love, and it is not optional regardless of the situation. Our lack of liberties is certainly no excuse to be unloving.
    2. Christ was not uncharitable when he cleared the temple. Harsh words can be spoken out of love. If you reread my description of charity it does not exclude the possibility of firm, direct, harsh language. But righteous indignation can only happen in love. So my thought is this: if you can speak harshly or bluntly without sacrificing charity, then it is possible that you are acting in love.

  5. Alan, I share your concern about the usual tone in which Christians are in the habit of expressing their political opinions. That’s one of the reasons I stay out of the political blogosphere. We know that Christians are called to be charitable at all times—1 Cor. 13 and 1 John make that requirement pretty clear—and if that means declining to indulge in certain modes of political discourse, then so be it. I would add a few thoughts:

    – There is certainly a place for strident polemic within political discourse, even as Christians practice it. However, it should not be our default mode of political discourse. If you shout all the time, pretty soon everybody stops listening. If you are known for being soft-spoken, people freeze and listen when you do shout. Our style should match the seriousness of the issue (and somehow we have become incapable of grading issues on their relative seriousness). Charity is not the same thing as good manners, although charity usually requires us to exercise good manners. If we are going to be rude, we had better have a profoundly charitable reason for doing so. Harsh rhetoric should be saved for the most egregious examples of moral corruption.

    – As Christians, our mission is to win people, not to win arguments. If we can win people by winning arguments, that is good. If we win arguments and lose our opponents, then we have won a Pyrrhic victory. I once knew a scientist who was a Christian, and he was often asked by Christian groups to debate scientists who were atheists. He always refused, first because he knew that the audience would be 95% Christian anyway, so he wasn’t actually going to persuade anyone in the audience. Second, he reasoned that if he lost the debate, he would discredit his own position, and his opponent would never listen to him again. If he won the debate, his opponent would be embarrassed and would never listen to him again. So he refused to participate in formal debates. I admire that kind of moral courage.

    – Humans have always been entertained by conflict—the agon, the struggle, the contest. Whether it’s an athletic competition, a tragic play, or a court case, we love to see a good competition end with a winner or a loser. Or, at least most men do. Fewer women thrive on conflict, though obviously some do. Naturally, this appetite for conflict, and the rhetoric that accompanies it, pervades our political culture. How could it not? And yet, Christians need to be careful about indulging the appetite for conflict, just as we need to be careful about indulging any other appetite.

    – It is true that much political discourse that Christians engage in is profoundly uncharitable. But when has this not been the case? Whether it’s Augustine’s polemic against the Manichees or Luther’s polemic against Rome or Milton’s polemic against monarchy, it’s hard to find an example of a Christian whose political commentary is consistently charitable. That is discouraging, but not hopeless, I hope.

  6. Thank you so much for a great list of attributes showing a charitable nature. It’s caused me to examine my own way of speaking and interacting with others who don’t share my view. I hope that it will spur me to make concrete changes where needed.

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