I stared in disbelief at my laptop last night as our Vice President interrupted Congressman Paul Ryan 96 times in about as many minutes of debate. When I observed his arrogance, his degrading laughter, his angry responses, and his dismissive attitude, I was deeply troubled.
These debates are first and foremost about policy. But when one’s attitude is so belligerent an honest dialogue of substantial issues can scarcely take place. It is not enough to excuse our Vice President by simply saying that he was trying to overwhelm the congressman like a tsunami, or to say, “That’s just the way Joe Biden is.” No one should act that way.
A burning issue was raised last night that is not on a party’s political platform, nor on a moderator’s list of questions, but is crucial for our nation. That’s the issue of relating to each other with dignity. Titus 3:2 reminds us “To speak evil of no man, to be no brawlers, but gentle, shewing all meekness unto all men.” Even if we believe that another person is wrong and must be publicly corrected (as in a debate), we should do it in a way that shows courtesy and respect (2 Tim. 2:24; 1 Pet. 3:15–16).
In a word, you might boil it down to honor. The Bible says in 1 Peter 2:17, “Honour all men. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honour the king.” We have a special responsibility to give honor and respect to those in authority. But we have a general responsibility to honor all human beings. If for no other reason, we should honor them because man was created in the image of God (James 3:9).
Honor is especially crucial for leadership. God requires that leaders in the church be “grave” (Titus 3:8), which means dignified or honorable. When God commands us to honor those in authority, He implicitly commands leaders to act in a manner worthy of honor. Leaders should not let people despise them (Titus 2:15). But how? They must be examples of honorable character (1 Tim. 4:12).
Sadly, we live in an age without honor. Our culture neither gives honor nor does it know how to act in an honorable manner. Our heroes are insolent rebels who demand honor but do not deserve it. Disrespect is fashionable, and dignity is discounted as stuffy pride.
Ironically, we gain honor by being humble. Proverbs 29:23 says, “A man’s pride shall bring him low: but honour shall uphold the humble in spirit.” In other words, we cannot gain true honor by attempting to steal it from other people. We become men and women of honor by giving honor—first to God, secondly to our fathers and mothers and other authorities, and thirdly to all people. Pride makes us into mockers (Prov. 21:24). If we disrespect other people, then we provoke them to anger and forfeit our moral influence over them (Eph. 6:4). When a leader serves people he wins their loyalty, but if he acts with harsh arrogance he loses their respect and support, as we see in the foolish pride of Rehoboam (1 Kings 12:1–16).
The Vice President’s behavior last night was anything but honorable, precisely because he refused to give due honor to a fellow human being and a fellow government official. He has brought shame to the office he bears and to the American people. Vice President Biden should repent and publicly apologize for his conduct.
However, Mr. Biden’s behavior points to a broader need for honorable leadership in America. When George Washington completed his job as commander of the American army during the Revolutionary War, many people expected him to make himself the king of the American colonies. In fact, some people urged him to do so. When the news spread that instead of reaching for a crown, he resigned his military powers and humbly yielded to the civilian government, King George exclaimed, “If he does that, he will be the greatest man in the world.” This is true greatness: humbly serving others (Matt. 20:25–28).
Our culture once recognized and valued honor, even among those who did not embrace biblical Christianity. Some years after Washington died, Thomas Jefferson said of him, “He was incapable of fear, meeting personal dangers with the calmest unconcern. Perhaps the strongest feature in his character was prudence, never acting until every circumstance, every consideration, was maturely weighed; refraining if he saw a doubt, but, when once decided, going through with his purpose, whatever obstacles opposed. His integrity was most pure, his justice the most inflexible I have ever known, no motives of interest or consanguinity, of friendship or hatred, being able to bias his decision. He was, indeed, in every sense of the words, a wise, a good, and a great man.”
In the midst of all the questions and issues swirling about this election, many of which have profound importance for our nation’s future, let us not forget the question of character. Without humility, the most skilled leaders are just powerful men without honor.