Civility was the theme of an event sponsored by the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Synod of the Rockies in mid-October. The theme was well timed in light of congressional gridlock, with legislators refusing to talk to one another, and also for a Protestant denomination that has been arguing for decades over issues of sexual practice and orientation, ordination, biblical authority and theology. The arguments have not always been civil.

When the church’s General Assembly in 2011 removed a rule that prohibited the ordination of gays and lesbians, conservatives strongly dissented. More than a hundred congregations, including some of the largest in the denomination, have left. One congregation has sued its presbytery and obtained an injunction that prohibits presbytery officials from interfering in the life of the church. The topic of civility and remaining in relationship in spite of significant disagreement and conflict could not be more relevant.

Event planners invited Richard Mouw and me to make presentations. Mouw, who recently retired as president of Fuller Theological Seminary, is a distinguished scholar and popular spokesman for the evangelicals in the PCUSA. His positions on the defining issues are consistently conservative, but he is a loyal Presbyterian and consummately civil. He began his remarks with a review of John Calvin’s writings on the topic of civility. Calvin, he observed, could be intolerant and harsh. His involvement in the execution of Michael Servetus is no secret. But Calvin also taught respect, tolerance and civility among Christians engaged in theological disputations.