Good Manners

by Rick Shrader

It is assumed that equality means all men being equally uncivil, whereas it obviously ought to mean all men being equally civil. Such people have forgotten the very meaning derivation of the word civility, if they do not see that to be uncivil is to be uncivic. . . Now for this particular moral and religious idea there is no external expression except courtesy. It can only be conveyed by a certain grand manner which may be called good manners.

G.K. Chesterton1

In the foreign countries to which I have traveled, one thing has always stood out in contrast to my homeland and that is the lack of simple courtesies. Whether being crowded off a busy street by a honking motorist or someone pushing their way past me in a public place, I have always excused it as part of a more backward culture.  Once, after long delays and numerous incivilities in the Moscow airport, a whole planeload of passengers cheered when the wheels of the airplane lifted from the ground. But I now need to make an apology to all those foreign lands to which I was guilty of comparing the U.S. of A. You have won! We have become as you! As the bumper sticker reads, ‘‘It don’t matter no more.’’

I recently read an excerpt of a commencement address by John Silber, president of Boston University. He referred to a seventy-five year old speech by Lord Moulton, an English judge, entitled ‘‘Law and Manners.’’  Moulton divided human actions into three domains. On one side is law, where we are forced to act a certain way. On the other side is free choice, where we have complete freedom to act as we please. In the middle is the domain he called manners. While it covers moral and social responsibility, it also covers ‘‘all cases of doing right where there is no one to make you do it but yourself.’’2

I believe that it is in this middle ground that the Christian individual has the supreme advantage over all other people. He has the Holy Spirit and the Word of God to guide him in his deportment and personal character. Also, a country with a Christian history and ethic has an advantage over a non-Christian country. Its people will be more cordial, not just law abiding. On the other hand, they will exercise self-restraint for the sake of others, not merely flaunt their individual liberty. That has been America’s testimony—until now!

We have managed to eliminate Moulton’s middle ground of manners. For Americans, what is not expressly forbidden by law (and that is being challenged continually) should be entirely permissible at all times and cannot be (must not be!) challenged in any way. If a more courteous citizen dares to correct a filthy speaking person, or suggests that some lewd action is out of place, he will more than likely receive a coarsely worded reply, complete with gestures, directing him to mind his own business.

In much the same vein as Moulton, Neil Postman evaluates our culture by noting, ‘‘There are two ways by which the spirit of a culture may be shriveled. In the first–the Orwellian–culture becomes a prison.  In the second–the Huxleyan–culture becomes a burlesque.’’3 That is to say, cultures like ours may collapse by the imposition of law from without, or by the apathy of lawlessness from within. Either way, the collapse comes from a lack of self-control in that middle buffer zone of manners that all healthy societies need.

Cal Thomas said, ‘‘A culture defines itself by the limits it sets for its people.’’4 You might say, our greatness is measured by our manners which shows we need less law and can handle more freedom.  But Myers concludes of America, ‘‘In time, especially for the young, standards of dress, of manners, of conversation, of friendship and love, and even of belief came to be shaped by popular culture more than by family, church, or community.’’5 Our popular culture has insisted on complete freedom without self-restraint (according to Postman, Huxley is winning!).

I want to make this point as well: within Christianity, even within our local churches, we have been encroaching upon this middle ground of self-control. In the name of ‘‘non-essentials’’ or ‘‘preferences’’ or the like, we may be giving new converts the wrong impression. They may think we mean there are only two domains within which to walk: what the Scripture expressly says and everything else!  I have heard statements like, ‘‘I am free to do anything that is not precisely unbiblical.’’ We even compare ‘‘convictions’’ with ‘‘preferences’’ as if they are the only two realms of living, or ‘‘essentials’’ with ‘‘non-essentials’’ in the same way. Like our culture, we have left little room for self-control.

As in the world, we cannot make laws to govern all Christian actions (unless we want a Christian ‘‘big brother’’ state) and neither can we throw out all ‘‘oughts’’ and ‘‘shoulds’’ (unless we really want a Christian ‘‘brave new world’’). The middle ground between total legalism and total license is included in what the Bible calls ‘‘sanctification’’ and ‘‘holiness.’’ Paul didn’t always spell out every detail of Christians’ lives but he would say, ‘‘as you have received of us how ye ought to walk and to please God, so ye would abound more and more’’ (1 Th. 4:1). What is this ‘‘more and more’’ if it is not self government taken by our own initiative? Then he added, ‘‘This is the will of God, even your sanctification’’ (vs 3).

Older Christian writers used to call this area true ‘‘religion.’’ Tozer wrote, ‘‘Religion, so far as it is genuine, is in essence the response of created personalities to the Creating Personality, God.’’6 If we are to be a light to a dark world, we need to let it shine in this middle area as well, where the world has no light because it has no power to control itself. But we have the mind of Christ.


1. G.K. Chesterton, St. Francis of Assisi (New York: Doubleday, 1990), 95,97.
2. John Silber, ‘‘Will Our Media Moguls Do The Right Thing?’’ (AFA Journal, 9/95), 16.
3. Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves To Death (New York: Penquin Books, 1985), 155.
4. Cal Thomas, The Things That Matter Most (New York: Harper-Collins, 1994), 47.
5. Kenneth Myers, All God’s Children And Blue Suede Shoes (Wheaton:  Crossway Books, 1989), 69.
6. A.W. Tozer, The Best Of A.W. Tozer (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1978), 14.