Cyber Discourse Among Family
I’ll be direct. Why do we Christians tolerate hateful diatribes, vindictive one-upmanship, and snide sarcasm between brothers and sisters in the faith on the web? John wrote, “In this the children of God are manifest, and the children of the devil: whosoever doeth not righteousness is not of God, neither he that loveth not his brother. For this is the message that ye heard from the beginning, that we should love one another. Not as Cain, who was of that wicked one, and slew his brother” (1 John 3:10-12a, KJV). Wicked speech, full of calculated hurt, plagues the web among Christians. Perhaps, for the sake of argument, it does not occur too often–only in a few places. But if we say that it happens only on this particular site or in that particular forum, we ought also to say that such is one site or one forum too many.
The excuses used to justify, condone, author, or encourage such hateful speech within the body of Christ are inadequate. Of course, the simplest reason to explain such behavior is to chalk it up to fleshly mean-spiritedness. We all know that no Christian would admit to this motivation and still continue in the conduct described. Many times have I realized a certain conversation of mine was in the flesh, mean in spirit. Such moments have I taken to the throne of grace in contrition. But there is not nearly enough contrition for the amount of persistently hurtful and disgraceful language employed online by Christians against Christians. What possible justifications are used to prevent adequate repentance and apology? These are the few explanations I have heard in the past.
1. “But Paul ‘withstood him [Peter] to the face.’ Then he wrote about it, even years later. Shouldn’t we follow that example?”
I have heard others use Paul’s anecdote from Galatians 2 as a reason for the “in your face” style of confrontation:
But when Peter was come to Antioch, I withstood him to the face, because he was to be blamed. For before that certain came from James, he did eat with the Gentiles: but when they were come, he withdrew and separated himself, fearing them which were of the circumcision. And the other Jews dissembled likewise with him; insomuch that Barnabas also was carried away with their dissimulation. But when I saw that they walked not uprightly according to the truth of the gospel, I said unto Peter before them all, If thou, being a Jew, livest after the manner of Gentiles, and not as do the Jews, why compellest thou the Gentiles to live as do the Jews? We who are Jews by nature, and not sinners of the Gentiles, Knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Jesus Christ, that we might be justified by the faith of Christ, and not by the works of the law: for by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified. (Gal. 2:11-16)
A closer look at this passage will outline several reasons for and a few clarifications of Paul’s tack here. Foremost is that Peter was causing a general and public confusion among Jews and Gentiles alike. But that is not saying enough. Peter’s confusion was absolutely responsible for a local confusion of law and grace as they do or do not lead unto salvation. This was the biggest issue in the earliest days of Christianity. This was ostensibly one of the reasons Jesus was so hated. This was the message of the Messiah, that He had come to fulfill the law. And now Peter was making a confusing mess of it. So Paul nipped it in the bud.
A closer look at Paul’s comments shows an absence of hatefulness though. He clearly reasons with Peter. Granted, there had to be more to the conversation than this, but this is the part through the Holy Spirit’s inspirational direction and choice we have to go on–only this carefully reasoned remark. In fact, Paul used not a loaded question but a simple interrogative to convict Peter. And writing about it later, Paul brings it up as an illustration to combat the same kind of error. Peter is not involved. There is no ax to grind.
We might also look at Peter’s response. We only have two short epistles by this worthy man, but in neither of them does he attack Paul. He shows no evidence of bearing a grudge, whether about the initial confrontation or about the later use of it as an illustration, though he does mention Paul’s writing, referring to it as veritable Scripture. Of course, this is an argument from silence (as these two epistles were probably not the only things he wrote down on paper, merely the only works he wrote that were ever inspired by the Spirit), but it is still an example worth following.
To follow Paul’s example genuinely, a present-day situation would require that a well-known and well-esteemed Christian make an error in judgment that leads many people to think that salvation is available in a way explicitly contrary to Scripture. Following the example would require a remonstrance, stated carefully and concisely, not overblown with much rhetoric, and intended to bring about a correction on the part of the person in error. This well-esteemed Christian, humble for Christ, should be expected to respond correctly. Let us think the best of any modern-day Peters as we correct their mistakes.
2. “Jude earnestly contended for the faith. That’s what I’m doing too.”
I have heard others call their divisive speech “earnest contention for the faith,” borrowing the phrase from Jude’s epistle (v. 3). I have heard some preach that Jude’s initial writing goal was aimed as a missive on “the common salvation” (v. 3) but that there was so much error in the air, he just had to chase that error down instead; hence, the epistle we now have.
This exegesis, I think, is somewhat flawed. Jude actually wrote, “Beloved, when I gave all diligence to write unto you of the common salvation, it was needful for me to write unto you, and exhort you that ye should earnestly contend for the faith which was once delivered unto the saints” (v. 3). This “when” clause seems to be the instigation of the writing of that which was “needful,” that we “should earnestly contend for the faith.” Jude actually clarifies this as he continues to discuss the necessity of exhibiting the effect of the common salvation on a Christian’s life. This is the “faith” for which we ought to earnestly contend. In other words, the two are explicitly linked. Harshly arguing over preferences or other lesser points is not included in this “faith” for which Jude said we should “earnestly contend.” Amazingly, he cites Michael as an example for how to contend earnestly: “Yet Michael the archangel, when contending with the devil he disputed about the body of Moses, durst not bring against him a railing accusation, but said, The Lord rebuke thee” (v. 9). We might notice that neither Paul in Antioch nor Michael with Moses’ body made use of a “railing accusation.” Employment of such insults and accusations is apparently not deemed effective by individuals as wise as they.
3. “Jesus called the Pharisees names.”
In my estimation, the most onerous of excuses for uncouth speech among Christian brothers is this one–that Jesus called the Pharisees names. Indeed, He did. He used words or phrases like “whited wall,” “snake,” “viper,” “hypocrite,” and “your father the devil.” Calm reasoning finds that the Pharisees were, yet again, making confusion about a man’s path to God. They were legalists. They set up rules for salvation not sanctioned by God. Then they did not live well by the rules that were set up by God, as Jesus effectively demonstrated over and over again in the Gospels (e.g., the “Corban” illustration in Mark 7). They showed no spiritual life within them at all but continually barred the way for others trying to find the Maker. Once again, we find the same theme–making a wreck of salvation is cause for rebuke. Our smaller matters among co-redeemed Christians do not fit this mold.
Let us also remember to use terminology correctly. For example, a “liberal” is not the same as a person who holds more liberal standards than I or a Christian college that allows freshmen to date off campus. Keeping our terminology crisp will go a long way in making our points effectively for Christ’s sake.
Anonymity does not further the cause of Christ either. When “biblesharpshooter316” adds another notch to his gun, the devil dances in heaven in the face of God the way he was unable to in Job. Let’s own our speech.
4. “I’m only calling for separation.”
This is a huge matter in and of itself. Studying it thoroughly will lead us to conclude the same ideas as elucidated already–that we separate from those who wreak havoc on the Gospel message. Can we not list our reasons for separation and then allow the Holy Spirit to convict the readership? Do we have to start a war? I think not.
Starting these wars among Christians engenders too much hurt in the body of Christ. Like it or not, any redeemed person—even if he preaches from a Bible translation we do not endorse or who allows a type of music in church services we would not sanction—is a full-fledged member of the body. We are reminded that Paul said that the eye should not try to survive without the hand. If orthodox soteriology (and its inclusive prerequisites of other fields of theology like Christology or hamartiology, etc.) is not at stake–if it is some practical matter, some eschatological matter, some method, some preference about which we disagree–then there is a good chance we are dealing with a brother in Christ, a foot to our ankle or an ear to our eye, so to speak. Too often, we flame brothers or sisters and their ministries on the web all in the name of Christ. James had something to say about that. He pointed out the hypocrisy: “But the tongue can no man tame; it is an unruly evil, full of deadly poison. Therewith bless we God, even the Father; and therewith curse we men, which are made after the similitude of God. Out of the same mouth proceedeth blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not so to be” (James 3:8-10). It is quite interesting that any Christian is ever so audacious as to hurl epithets at his brother who is made in the image of God, all the while insisting that he is earnestly contending for the faith. When the same website contains hurtful speech against brothers in Christ and contention for Christ side by side, this is a hypocritical ministry.
Of course, neither all churches nor all ministries can possibly be aligned in all things, and ministries that dilute differences in a quest for unity often deal recklessly with valuable doctrine. However, the speech used to communicate such differences certainly does not need to exceed the force used by Michael against Satan. Remember we are talking about Christians with Christians here. Explanations can be given and stances held firmly without resorting to worldly or fleshly tactics at earning points with a constituency. In the second part of this article, we will look at a few specific harms of ungracious speech and a few alternative ways to express our differences.
Jeremiah Kinney is a husband, a father of three, a Sunday school teacher, and a member of First Baptist Church (Daleville, IN). He earned his B.A. in English from Ball State University (Muncie, IN) and after taking time off is now pursuing a graduate degree in ministry at Grace Theological Seminary (Winona Lake, IN).