Will it be any better the next time? For several years, the trifecta of COVID, an election, and race tore churches apart. What was obviously missing was that pesky fellow Paul’s understanding that we ought to put the needs of others first. (See 1 Corinthians 8 and Romans 14.) Instead of becoming a hotbed of charity and kindness, churches reflected many of the same warring tendencies as society at large. Nor was this a new phenomenon; just ask any worship leader from the 1990’s about the “worship wars.” Christians, like the rest of society, sadly find it much easier to fight for what we want than to sacrifice for others. We simply dress it up in sheep’s clothing, telling ourselves that we are “fighting for what is right,” often not recognizing our own biases and our own enculturation of our faith, not realizing that we, ourselves are not actually enunciating pure Christianity but instead our own version, one with all sorts of cultural biases. In other words, the church of the past few years has been, in many — and concerning — ways, resembling society more than leading it.
The past year has felt better, though, as if everyone has been able to just slightly catch our collective breath. There is a tiny bit more peace now in most churches. Could it be that this disease has finally begun to generate its own antibodies? Could we have all taken a look at our failure to act with charity, at our conflict, and realized that we had lost at least some of our moorings? It could be. Or could it be that the sparks to light the cloud of fuel vapor are simply not currently present? It could be that, too. Or could the splitting already be complete, leaving only monocultural churches who now have nothing left over which to split? It could be that as well. We will only know if the church has made progress on its fractiousness once the next set of sparks flies. We won’t know until the next time.
Society more broadly, at least in the United States, shows some of the same. No one need rehearse the mess of tribalization and conflict that 2020-2022 generated. Could it be that societal strife has also begun to generate its own antibodies? It could be. Anecdotal reports indicate that traffic on the most extreme left and right websites is down. Even San Francisco has moved a bit back to the center. Or could it be that we are, again, simply waiting for the next set of sparks to light the vapor cloud afire? It could be. With both the church and society, we simply do not know until the next crisis comes.
That said, there remain huge causes for concern. The fundamental factors that created the tension and rancor of the past few years have hardly disappeared in a flurry of kindness. The internet remains, as Jonathan Haidt reminded us in a seminal Atlantic article in May, no longer a place of “techno-democratic optimism” but instead an epistemological disaster. Social media feedback loops continue to control and radicalize many, especially those with much time on their hands. It is fashionable to dunk on TikTok these days, but for a reason. Yan Wu and David Byler’s analysis of TikTok posts on abortion, for instance, concluded that the platform is “almost perfectly designed” to divide, driving “a steadily increasing dose of partisanship and extremism.” Nor, honestly, is the internet even necessary for this process. Cable news, whichever one’s ideological perspective, can provide much of the same high, serving as only a slightly less potent drug.
Again, churches have mimicked society, not lead it. Tim Keller commented last year:
In virtually every church there is a smaller or larger body of Christians who have been radicalized to the Left or to the Right by extremely effective and completely immersive internet and social media loops, newsfeeds, and communities. People are bombarded 12 hours a day with pieces that present a particular political point of view, and the main way it seeks to persuade is not through argument but through outrage. People are being formed by this immersive form of public discourse—far more than they are being formed by the Church.
Beyond social and cable media, the more basic challenges of human psychology remain. The loudest voices get the attention, even if they are irresponsible, eventually shifting the Overton window. Humans share a common tendency to take anything too far; as Alexander Hamilton famously stated, “The passions of a revolution are apt to hurry even good men into excesses.” Casting opponents in the worst possible light remains one of the easiest ways to win the argument, even if not to find real truth. Opponents are easier to shout down than to argue down. Insults win the crowd, even if they hold no real truth. Whoever disagrees is an idiot and a menace, not a responsible person with a different opinion. And, if all of that is not enough, humans still rarely abandon a position once we have publicly taken it.
False witness is alive and well in the world, and not only our society, but also those of us in the church, too often do not pause to think carefully, to stop before we share it. And, of course, no retraction or fact check ever catches up with the rumor or falsehood that sped out of the gate before it. There remain many causes for concern. Do not exhale just yet.
The question is ultimately one of temperance. “Temperance,” of course, for many of us immediately draws up images of 19th and early 20th century rallies, attempts to restrict or outlaw “booze,” replacing it with the teetotalers’ delight of 1920-1933 (at least in the United States). The association of the term “temperance” with anti-alcohol legislation is often overpowering. It can make a wine-lover’s head spin.
Yet “temperance” certainly has a broader meaning than alcohol. Most broadly, temperance is self-restraint, moderation, self-control. Such qualities are, of course, necessary when dealing with alcohol, but alcohol consumption hardly exhausts their value or need. Where older Bible translations used the English “temperance,” many modern translations will use “self-control.” Such self-control, such temperance, is clearly a biblical value:
“But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.” (Galatians 5:22–23)
“Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable.” (1 Corinthians 9:25)
“Therefore an overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach,” (1 Timothy 3:2)
“Their wives likewise must be dignified, not slanderers, but sober-minded, faithful in all things.” (1 Timothy 3:11)
“For this reason I remind you to fan into flame the gift of God, which is in you through the laying on of my hands, for God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control.” (2 Timothy 1:6–7)
“Have nothing to do with foolish, ignorant controversies; you know that they breed quarrels.” (2 Timothy 2:23)
“Older men are to be sober-minded, dignified, self-controlled, sound in faith, in love, and in steadfastness.” (Titus 2:2)
“But avoid foolish controversies, genealogies, dissensions, and quarrels about the law, for they are unprofitable and worthless.” (Titus 3:9)
“For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness,” (2 Peter 1:5–6)
Doubtless, there are Christians for whom temperance regarding alcohol is sorely needed, and nothing in calling out this broader definition of the term is meant to minimize the harms of alcoholism, yet it seems apparent that the most pervasive lack of temperance in Christians today is how we react to the news, in the well-documented problem of shares on social media, in the enjoyment of mean-spirited comments about the other side in the culture wars. Christians have been, sadly, no better than our culture, and arguably worse (though I suspect the true answer is “about the same”).
Many interactions by Christians, both with other Christians and with non-Christians, can only be called sinful – in the spite, in the unkindness, in the lack of charity, in the lack of love. But does a recognition of intemperance not get us to, as Jonathan Edwards often enjoined, “the sin underneath the sin”? Is a lack of temperance regarding our own tempers, our own passions, our own base impulses not the root problem underneath so many of our public sins? We need to grow in self-control, in moderation, in the ability to carefully listen and consider before we speak. We need to grow, in a word, in temperance. And this time it has little to do with alcohol.
But the dynamic is the same. In fighting against anger, against unkindness, against letting our guard down and being petty, mean-spirited, unkind, and often even straight up abusive towards others with whom we do not agree, in fighting those things, we are fighting an addictive sin. It is fun to sin, otherwise we would not do it. And the feedback loops of adulation only multiply it.
To grow in this, both as individuals and as the church of God, will require more than hope, more than simply trusting that the current “catch our breath” moment will hold. The trends against civility are simply too strong. Instead, we need a new temperance movement. When the dominant misinformation strategy is to “flood the zone with…”, it is easy to give up, to say (Pilate-like), “Who can know anything? What is truth?” But it is precisely this moment that makes discernment all the more important.
We must recapture some of the militancy of the old temperance movement. One should question its goals. As a lover of red wine, I do. But one should not question its passion, its commitment to the cause. Temperance advocates were holding rallies, demonstrating, developing education classes, working for the reform of a society that needed it. The temperance movement was active, engaged, ready to get out there and work for it.
Similarly, we cannot expect to simply sit still, catch our breath, and hope that temperance in our media consumption and in our public discussion will magically appear. Far the opposite, we must fight for it. We must pray for it. We must work for it. We must sacrifice for it. And, whatever our society does or does not do, Christians and the church are called to it.
I should be clear what I mean. I am not calling for a militancy to ban Twitter (though I am more and more tempted to think it might do some good!). I am not calling for militancy to shut down or cancel. Free speech is too treasured a right. In fact, I would personally argue that one of the main problems with the current culture war is that both sides have decided to be ultimately statist, each simply trying to use the power of the state as the easiest lever to grab, to use against the other, only for opposite agendas. Both seem to want to use the state to silence their opponents.
What we need is a militancy within ourselves, a self-sacrifice to restrain ourselves, a convincing of our own hearts, a heart change that will bring temperance as its result, not a shouting down and silencing of different opinions, not an insulating of ourselves against challenges. Instagram, Facebook, and everyone else will keep serving us this same inflammatory content as long as our eyes linger in the places that monetize it. The only way out of this is if we don’t even linger on the wrong thing. Does that seem too much to ask? Yes, unless we have a fundamental heart change in ourselves that works out in the instant dismissal of the thing.
And then a new militancy to convince — not legislate — others that this is a better way, that they should also develop temperance — because they want to, not because they have been compelled.
This is no call for mealy-mouthed, lowest common denominator discourse, discourse that in the name of temperance avoids disagreement. Disagreement, even sharp disagreement, is often necessary and good. In no way should we simply let falsehood pass by. In no way should we fail to stand up for what we believe and what is right. In no way do we have to avoid all conflict. We simply need to engage each of those with temperance.
In fact, the temperance movement lost its way when it became abolition. The movement was, as Steve Garber reminded me in a recent conversation, originally about temperance, not abstinence. It lost its way when temperance regarding alcohol became prohibition of alcohol. Ironically, the temperance movement lost its long-term direction when it became intemperate, lusting after abstinence and abolition of alcohol instead of temperance.
So it is also with disagreement and conflict. The call is for temperance in disagreement, for self-control, for reading and listening well, then disagreeing with kindness and respect. Some would, in the call to avoid conflict, overplay temperance, trying to abolish any disagreement or unpopular position, creating a bland public and private discourse that cannot search for truth. Discourse could become so “temperate” that there would be no standard, that everything would be allowed to pass. Or discourse could stamp out all disagreement in favor of one majority position, thereby becoming official or unofficial censorship. These would, likewise, cease to be temperance.
Temperance is the attitude of respect and careful consideration and judgement with which the disagreement is carried out. It is a spirit which is kind, gentle, self-controlled, which evidences the fruit of the spirit. We ought not think such a spirit will simply emerge, either in ourselves or in our churches. Instead, we must campaign for it, work for it, sacrifice for it. In that sense, in fact, temperance is like every other biblical virtue. It is hard won against sin, not easily achieved, in ourselves or others. But it is worth it.