Courtesy: A Neglected Virtue

Courtesy: A Neglected Virtue

Characteristics of the Christian
by Bob Burridge ©2001, 2011

Courtesy and manners have always been part
of how we get along with other people.

There is a handbook on the web for International students at one of our major universities. It has a whole chapter on the detailed rules that make our American culture unique. It is amazing to read the cultural differences foreign visitors face here. It warns students that though belching is a compliment after a meal in some countries, it is considered rude in the United States. It then advises that there are better ways to complement a host or hostess.

Another website gives advice to people on business trips in other countries. It advises that when in China a person may show he is enjoying a meal if he slurps his soup or belches. It warns you to cover your mouth with your hand when using a toothpick. Bones or seeds from food should be put on the table, never on your plate or in your bowl. If you eat everything on your plate, the host is obligated to give you another helping. Here if you don’t clean your plate it appears you didn’t like the food. When you point, extend your open hand, never point with a finger extended. Never let people see the bottoms of your shoes or the soles of your feet.

In Germany it warns never shake hands with the other hand in your pocket. In France one should never use a comb, nail clippers or toothpick in public.

Rules about manners and social etiquette are not always logical. For example, elbows are normally rested on arms of chairs, but if you rest them on a table it may be considered to be rude. In very formal settings, using the wrong fork can be a horrible mistake.

There are also manners relating to a visit in one of the virtual worlds that exist on the Internet. If you keep typing with all upper case letters, others might become upset. It’s considered offensive as if you were screaming at the other people.

Detailed rules for manners and etiquette
often have nothing to do with real courtesy.

Superficial rules of etiquette can be used to simulate courtesy. They can be the veneer that gives a civilized appearance to pride and condescension. They often belittle those who don’t know complex social regulations as if they are crude people.

Of course social customs can work both ways. One rather down home list of customs, certainly intended as humor, suggests the following set of “Rules for Culturally Accepted Behavior” for some of the more rural locations in the United States:

  • Trucks with bumpers uncovered with stickers are considered offensively naked.
  • Drinks must be served in their original cans.
  • Cans must be crushed on some part of the body before disposal. Smashing them against the forehead is the greatest complement to the host.
  • Front yards are most properly decorated with discarded tires and at least one disassembled vehicle preferably resting on cinder blocks.

While those were written for humor, the sad fact is that both the rules of the highly refined cultures of the educated, and what are commonly see as normal in very local neighborhoods, can become judgmental standards that degrade the worth of those who don’t conform.

Those taken in by these pretenses are easily offended when the most sincere person breaks the rules, even though the person was merely ignorant of the custom and didn’t intend to offend anyone.

However, not all manners are evidences of empty pride and arrogance. There is a true courtesy that is a characteristic of a mature child of God.

The 6th item in the list of characteristics in
1 Corinthians 13:5a involves courtesy

It says that love “does not act unbecomingly …” (translated … “unseemly” in the King James Version). The original Greek text has, ouκ askhaemonei (ουκ ασχημονει). Love is not without skhaema (σχημα). The word means “form, fashion, or a manner that is proper”. Those who love in a biblical manner should not behave in a way that is inconsiderate of, or crude toward, others.

Our fallen nature turns all the godly characteristics around. Self-advancement becomes the greatest goal. There is a rule of law which Jesus said was most important, In Matthew 22 Jesus was asked: “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” His answer in verses 37 – 40 was this, ” ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the great and foremost commandment. The second is like it, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets.”

The fallen heart sees God as a means for personal advancement. It sees others either as there to help them get ahead, or as markers showing whom they have surpassed. Pride displaces humble service. Building up self takes the place of encouraging others to love and good works (Hebrews 10:24).

The conservative Lutheran, Dr. Lenski comments on this verse saying, “When pride puffs up the heart, unseemly bearing and conduct naturally follow. Tactlessness forgets its own place and fails to accord to others their proper dues of respect, honor or consideration.”

True manners come from inner respect
and concern for persons, and is sincere.

True courtesy is a fruit of the Holy Spirit at work in the heart of a person who is redeemed by grace. A godly person is humble. He looks to avoid anything that would cause offense to others. He tries to learn good etiquette, not to show off or to impress others with himself, and certainly not to out-do others, but to show respect and honor to those around them in every situation and culture. He works hard to show courtesy and care toward everyone in every level of society. He honors those who have authority over him, even when he disagrees. He earns the respect of those over whom he has authority.

Love therefore tries to show good manners. It is polite to others. It approaches personal differences and immaturity in others with tact. Rudeness betrays the absence of godly love.

A humble and loving person who doesn’t know the detailed rules may look ignorant, but by his conduct he will not give the impression that he doesn’t respect others. Therefore he doesn’t offend in his social errors. At the most he lets himself appear foolish rather than crude.

Commenting on 1 Corinthians 13:5a, Matthew Henry said, “love is careful not to pass the bounds of decency.” It does nothing “indecorous, nothing that in the common account of men is base or vile”

Calvin commented that love “does not exult in a foolish ostentation, or does not bluster, but observes moderation and propriety.” He reminds us of the problems in Corinth that motivated the epistle our present text is taken from. There was division and pride in the church there. One group criticized the other. While they worked toward settling their differences, they needed this characteristic of love — to maintain decorum and courtesy.

One commentator directs us to the character of Paul. In the Apostle’s imprisonments and trials, he was respected even by the Romans who had authority over him. Besser writes, “Who taught this tentmaker such noble and beautiful manners, such perfect tact in all his bearing, that even the great in this world were compelled to respect him?”

Godly love is thoughtful of others
and remembers to show respect for them.

No one is better than another. No one ought to be treated with less honor than is due to any creature of God who was made to bear his image. No brother or sister in Christ should be treated with less honor than was shown by the love of the Savior who died for him or her on the painful cross.

We should make sure that our manners, our courtesy, is put into practice. We can do simple things by saying “please” or “thank you”, by sending thank you notes or get well cards, by young people remembering to show cheerful respect to adults, by holding doors for others, by passing food at tables, by yielding in conversations, by never engaging in gossip or ridicule, by not interrupting, by greeting visitors at church, by making sure others get their share, by not saving the best for self, and by many similar courtesies.

There is a group called Messies Anonymous. It has a newsletter in which its founder, Sandra Felton of Miami, printed her recommendations for getting control of your home. It’s just a list of mannerly behaviors showing consideration for others who live there or visit:

Rules of the House
If you open it, close it.
If you get it out, put it away.
If you sleep in it, make it up.
If you drink out of it, wash it up.
If you take it off, hang it up.
If you turn it on, turn it off.
If you drop it, pick it up.
If you clip it, file it.
If it hurts, comfort it.
If it cries, love it.

Christ-like behavior doesn’t cut ahead in line, doesn’t elbow into crowds, doesn’t fight over the last hamburger, or push to get the last item on the sale rack. It doesn’t nose ahead in traffic to avoid cars merging in from side roads.

It tries to know what people see as respect, and avoids offenses. Love does not act in an unseemly manner. It tries to always be polite.

Note: The verses in this lesson are from the New King James Version of the Bible unless otherwise noted.