Breaking the Law of Niceness

Open Quote 3 linesIf your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother (Matthew 18:15).


We’ve been discussing Christian rhetoric and theological discourse on the HB. This has been of some concern to me for some time. I realize that I need to watch my rhetoric and I need to become more aware of how people hear (or read) what I say. Believe it or not I do try.

Simul I also think that we live in a largely pietistic (NB: pietism refers to an ethos and approach to the Christian life that centers on personal religious experience and outward behavior the norms of which have not always been clearly grounded in Scripture) evangelical culture in which the highest virtue is “niceness.” By “nice” I refer to the first definition in the Oxford American Dictionary:

1.  pleasant; agreeable; satisfactory : we had a nice time | that wasn’t very nice of him | Jeremy had been very nice to her.

• (of a person) pleasant in manner; good-natured; kind : he’s a really nice guy.

I understand that some are unhappy with my use of a CT piece, which describes Mike Horton’s critique of Rick Warren as “balanced but biting,” as an occasion to discuss theological rhetoric. My point isn’t to criticize the author as much as it is to raise the question of what constitutes acceptable theological discourse and rhetoric. I’m concerned about the trend in evangelicalism to stifle plain speech, so much so that a few years ago I defended, in print, John Frame’s right to call me (and others who agree with me) “stupid.” (See “Of Nice and Men,” Nicotine Theological Journal 9.4 (October, 2005): 6-8). If I’ve said something that is truly stupid then it ought to be called that. It’s not loving to refuse to point out to me my stupidity.

My other concern on this front is that I cannot imagine how Horton could have written that piece with any more grace and gentleness and that there is a law out there, the law of nice, and I really don’t know what it is.

I know about the law to love my neighbor as myself. I understand that law, at least in some rudimentary way. There are concrete examples in scripture of neighbor love and then, of course, we have the example of our Savior. I understand the biblical teaching about dying to self. I don’t comprehend it but I do apprehend it and I pray for grace to put it into action. I’m thoroughly convinced of the necessity to die to self and to live to Christ. Jesus, help me a miserable sinner. Simul iustus et peccator. If Jesus is our example, however, or if Paul is an example or if Peter or Isaiah or Moses I don’t know what they teach me about being nice. Gentle with the penitent, yes. Encouraging, yes. But nice?

One of my concerns about the evangelical ethos of niceness is that it has more to do with macaroni salad and jello than it does with Jesus, grace, and truth. That is, it’s a cultural construct from the midwest (of which I am most decidedly a product) but it has little to do with the biblical culture of love and grace or with the cultivation of the biblical virtues of faith, hope, and love.

The ethos of niceness may also be more about how people perceive us than it is about true love. If we say what we really believe to be true people may not regard us the way we wish to be regarded. What hath popularity to do with virtue?

I’m conscious that the way things are said can be so off-putting that people cannot hear the substance of what one is saying. My classic example for this is Van Til’s critique of Barth. CVT was largely right about Barth but, in The New Modernism he never gave the reader any notion that he had any sympathy for or understanding why evangelicals might be attracted to Barth. I recall reading it and how shocked I was at CVT’s rhetoric. It was so different from the other books I was reading at the time. I think CVT’s rhetoric may have driven “nice” evangelical readers to Berkouwer. One difference is patience. I am impatient and I understand why CVT started blasting away. He had studied Barth (he read Barth’s Kirchliche Dogmatik closely and he had a case to make and he didn’t have time to wait around for folks to catch up. Of course, the problem is that virtually none of the evangelicals who would read CVT on Barth had his background in continental philosophy or his grasp of Barth’s theology (or his grasp of Barth’s German!). So CVT came off sounding brusque and even rude. Had CVT been a little more patient, had he explained a little more patiently, had he written two volumes instead one, maybe his case would have been more persuasive. I don’t know. Nevertheless, CVT loved Barth, even if the latter thought him a Menschenfresser — a comment I find ironic given Barth’s treatment of Brunner on natural law or Barth’s treatment of others with whom he disagreed.

In that respect I wonder if some of the issue here isn’t about minorities and majorities? The pietists are in the majority in N. America. Is it the case that they get to set the rules of conduct and discourse and they get to punish those who violate them? In our culture, especially in evangelicalism, being pleasant and agreeable is important, but it shouldn’t be the most important virtue, not for a Christian. Jesus was often disagreeable. He was often unpleasant. Most of the time, when I read Jesus, he seems to aim deliberately to make me uncomfortable. I quite suspect that Jesus wasn’t a “nice guy.” He was (and is) true God and true man but I doubt that he would have fit into the evangelical sub-culture very well. Paul wasn’t very nice, not by the apparently prevailing standards of evangelicalism. Have you read the book of James? How nice was that? He was downright nasty to the Jerusalem Christians! I’ve often thought that if a minister preached that sermon today he would likely be on his way out the door before the next Sunday.

I have some intuitive grasp of what “nice” probably entails but the essence of it eludes my grasp. I know I need to be more gracious, more patient, more understanding, more charitable but I doubt these have much to do with being nice. Whatever I don’t understand about being nice I certainly know what God’s Word says to do if you’re offended.

    Post authored by:

  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

    More by R. Scott Clark ›

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  1. I’ve long thought that one of your best qualities is your willingness, when you think someone is in error, to give them the truth with both barrels. Whatever you do, don’t turn into a nice person!

  2. Dr. Clark,

    I regularly read the Heidelblog and I am always impressed with the way you interact with your critics, supporters, and the curious. You patiently respond to criticism with grace and truth, you gently help those who have questions understand your arguments, and you correct error with a loving firmness. And I’m quite sure that you reply to nearly every comment on this blog.

    I am reminded of an interaction I had with you about 6 years ago when I was serving as a deacon in the URC in Torrance, CA (I now live in Colorado). You were there to preach the Word, and I had just arrived to open up the church and prepare the facility for worship. I greeted you and asked if you would be “speaking” to us today. I will never forget your response: “No, I’m here to preach the Word of God.” At that point in my life in the church I clearly did not have a very solid understanding of God’s ordained Means of Grace. You firmly stated your point and corrected my error, I was embarrassed and humbled, but my understanding of the office of Minister of the Word was corrected.

    Since that time, my respect for the office of Minister as well as my understanding of how God works through His Means of Grace has grown exponentially.

    So, thank you, Dr. Clark, for not hesitating to boldly speaking the truth. It changed my life.

    Aaron Sams
    Colorado Springs

    • Hi Aaron,

      Well, I’m a little embarrassed. I hope that I was more gracious than this might (quite unintentionally!) read. I can be a jerk, however, and if I was, I apologize. I appreciate the encouragement very much.

      If God made something good come out of my remarks it’s evidence that God is still using Baalam’s ass.

  3. Dr. Clark: This is spot on. Thank you. The “being nice” as the ultimate filter is just a sign of the further pansification of American Christianity. I always find myself asking, “do they even read Jesus or Paul?”

  4. Thanks. As one who loves John Knox, it’s nice to see something that puts him in a proper context … even if you didn’t mention him.

    Of course, the fundies that I’m no longer part of also try to be straight shooters (and are sometimes just plain mean) and get hit for telling the truth when the truth hurts.

  5. For those of you who are old school gamers, the following statement may resonate with the truth at which Dr. Clark’s essay is grasping:

    “Lawful Good. It doesn’t mean Lawful Nice”.

    (Usually accompanies a stern looking photo of the Dark Knight)

  6. Dr. Clark,

    Another way, I think, to put this particular law is as an appeal to decency. I’ve long considered it to be a common fallacy. An appeal to decency, in my experience, is rarely an appeal to God or his biblical law. It’s usually an attempt to avoid or deny facing some truth or aspect of reality.

    Slime-balls will be slime-balls. Que sera, sera.

    • Eric,

      Maybe it’s a sign of my age but I still believe in decency. I don’t think “niceness” is equivalent to “decency.”

      Decency is a little less amorphous than “niceness.” I suspect the latter is a shifting standard, subjective standard.

      • Hi Dr. Clark,

        Niceness isn’t decency? Hmmm….Have to ponder that one for a while. I do value your view, even if I can’t yet wrap my mind around it.

        I have honestly embarrassed myself before, realizing too late what the expected norms of conversation and behavior are. Depending on one’s definition of decency, I certaintly can agree that some overlap between common grace and common decency exists. But when someone actually appeals to decency, in my experience so far, 9 times out of 10, they have not, in my opinion, made their case.

  7. As I’ve been trying to get a handle on the controversies in my denomination, I have often wished that people would be more straightforward and less “nice.” Obviously, discretion is important, and I don’t wish to minimize that; but having someone tell you straight what he actually thinks is still terribly refreshing in the Church these days.

    Charity? Always. Niceness? Only when it doesn’t obscure and distort the truth.

    Thanks for this, Dr. Clark, and for your own willingness to speak up.

  8. I agree with the thoughts of “decency” but the scriptures speak of kindness, gentleness, having our words filled with grace. Sometimes words at this blog come across mean-spirited, somewhat arrogant and attacking. I think there is a lack of humility, from time to time which is not edifiying. As the scriptures say ” the greatest of these is love”. I will watch my words more and apologize if they have not been in the past.

  9. Jesus was often disagreeable. He was often unpleasant. Most of the time, when I read Jesus, he seems to aim deliberately to make me uncomfortable. I quite suspect that Jesus wasn’t a “nice guy.”


    Seriously though, there is some level at which we cannot take Jesus for an example because we are not God. In John 6, Jesus wrote off many who couldn’t swallow his message, “For Jesus knew from the beginning who those were who did not believe”. Lacking that knowledge, we are to preach the gospel, in the words of Dordt, “promiscuously”.

    Similarly, didn’t Christ and the apostles have divine/inspired authority behind their message that gives them the right to deal with people differently?

    On a related note, what do you think of the recent flap over JJS being “too nice” to Leithart? Maybe you and he should get together and teach each other some of your tricks?

  10. Dr. Clark, you tolerate us curmudgeonly old Lutheran laymen lurking around on your blog site and the inane comments and questions we have from time to time. What could be nicer than that!

    On a more serious note, I think you’ve pretty much hit the nail on the head about pietism’s influence on American evangelicals. They absolutely avoid any kind of confrontation, which is why they favor outreach systems like the Neighborhood Bible Study (now called Q-Place, if I’m not mistaken) where Biblicism rules the day; and detest any kind of unity tied to formal confessions of faith, such as those used by Lutherans, Reformed, etc.

    A few weeks ago I was in a small group meeting that was studying Isaiah 6 as part of a very old study guide, “Meeting God”, by J.I. Packer. This particular passage, of course, is where God – in His justice – tells Isaiah that he’s going to harden the hearts of the Israelites because of their pagan practices, and allow their enemies decimate them violently and haul the survivors off into slavery. As Packer points out, God’s grace is operating throughout chapters 6 through 9 since He’s purifying His people, the ultimate intention being to reserve a remnant that will lead to promised incarnation.

    Nevertheless, one man (who has a Baptist background in a run-of-the-mill evangelical, and rather liberal, church) in our group admitted that he found passages like this very difficult to accept because he spent his entire life with the image in his mind of a “loving God” and just couldn’t see how some of what the scripture records as God’s swift and final judgements of his people meshes with that image. I tried to explain that we all fall under God’s terrible judgement and what could be more loving than what He had planned all along for our redemption, the sacrifice of his Son for our atonement. But he still just could not get past what he viewed as a hostile act by a “loving God.”

    For an interesting read on modern liberalism, how it differs from 19th Century liberalism, and the way it has influenced our “politically correct” (nice) culture, I’d recommend Robert Bork’s 1996 “Slouching Toward Gomorrah: Modern Liberalism and American Decline.”

  11. When I read Calvin and Luther, I’m struck by how much less “nice” they are than Horton and Clark in dealing with heresies and heretics.

    Similarly, when Paul was dealing with Peter’s heresy in Acts, he lit Peter up in front of everyone.

  12. Great post!

    Sometimes I wonder if Christians are more concerned about defending the truth or defending their reputation as “nice” people. Idols sure do come in many forms…

  13. Dr. Clark,

    I found in my old church that “niceness” (or some sense of it) was what prevented the truth from being established, and a sequence of events never confronted or dealt with (and thus no chance at reconciliation, forgiveness, healing, and restoration)… it tears the church apart. I agree wholeheartedly….

    …. however, when I try to use this approach with my wife, it doesn’t go over as well. She has some line about how she “doesn’t need to be confronted in her sin” and wants me to be “nicer.” Any tips? 😉 (yes, a little tongue-in-cheek humor).

    Good post. Thanks for your teaching and sharing through this blog.

  14. Dear Dr. Clark,

    We are of the same temperment. I am still and will forever be in the process of tempering my boldness.

    What a wonderful post. What’s biblical is Kindness… I never use the word nice in our house, it’s a difficult habit to break.

    Kind, kind•er, kind•est.
    1. Of a friendly, generous, or warm-hearted nature.
    2. Showing sympathy or understanding; charitable: a kind word.
    3. Humane; considerate: kind to animals.
    4. Forbearing; tolerant: Our neighbor was very kind about the window we broke.
    5. Generous; liberal: kind words of praise.
    6. Agreeable; beneficial: a dry climate kind to asthmatics.

    The following also caught my eye about a year ago….It’s an excerpt from “On the mortification of sin in believers” by John Owen….great read and convicting.

    (3.) “The mortification of sin consists not in the improvement of a quiet, sedate nature. Some men have an advantage by their natural constitution so far as that they are not exposed to such violence of unruly passions and tumultuous affections as many others are…….Let not such persons try their mortification by such things as their natural temper gives no life or vigour to. Let them bring themselves to self-denial, unbelief, envy, or some such spiritual sin, and they will have a better view of themselves.”

    I just thought this was so beautifully said, and balm to my sore soul.

    Thank you so much for your wonderful and truthful boldness.

    Ginger Zagnoli

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