Cyber Discourse Among Family
In part one of our discussion on graceful internet speech, we looked at God’s biblical expectations of Christians in their communication with one another and examined a few faulty excuses sometimes used for stooping to the world’s level when dealing with disagreements with other brothers or sisters in Christ. We noted, among other things, the hypocrisy of burning bridges with brothers in the name of the Lord’s work and the support from James for taking a stance against this double-minded manner of conversation. We’ll continue with a look at the harm of such speech and possible alternatives to handling disagreements.
It is sad that whole ministries are at war with each other, whether over prevenient grace vs. total depravity, KJV vs. modern translations, hymns vs. CCM, degrees of separation, or other topics ad nauseam. Disagreement will be a natural part of any human endeavor. Disagreement is not wrong. Compromise of core doctrine or God-honoring lifestyle is not right. Going to war–ministry against ministry–though is outright sin. Hurtful words are spoken in an ever-increasing slur as the rhetoric escalates from rumor to implication to sarcasm to accusation to violent slander. “Brethren,” to use James’ words, “these things ought not to be.” We ought to remember this admonishment, one we often teach our children quite early in their adolescence: “Therefore if thou bring thy gift to the altar, and there rememberest that thy brother hath ought against thee; Leave there thy gift before the altar, and go thy way; first be reconciled to thy brother, and then come and offer thy gift. Agree with thine adversary quickly, whiles thou art in the way with him” (Matt. 5:23-25a). How dare we, brothers and sisters, consider continuing a publishing or blogging ministry for Christ with the same website or blog on which we, in our estimation, have reduced our sparring partners to quivering lumps of whimpering idiocy. How dare we think that academic, passive aggressive barbs are not noticed by our God or that sarcastic hearsay is in any way a sacrifice suitable to the Lord’s altar. How blinded are we that we think a good relationship with God is possible so long as only our relationships with spouse, family, pastor, neighbors, and local church members are intact. The Internet has made the world much smaller. It has allowed far more relationships than people have been able to have before. Each and every one of those relationships must be honoring to God. We must remember that every letter of our cyber discourse is typed before the omnipresent throne of the Father: “Whither shall I go from thy spirit? or whither shall I flee from thy presence? If I ascend up into heaven, thou art there: if I make my bed in hell, behold, thou art there. If I take the wings of the morning, and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea; Even there shall thy hand lead me, and thy right hand shall hold me” (Ps. 139:7-10). We might, in a manner of speaking, add this phrase–“If I publish the most insignificant blog, You are still there, reading every word as I type it.”
Such warfare harms our testimony as well. Christ told us, “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven” (Matt. 5:16). This is not such a hard verse to interpret. Men should be able to read our writings and to see the glory of God in them. If we imposed this rubric upon ourselves, how much Internet discourse would have to be eradicated?
Too much of the insulting and railing by Christians at Christians is retaliatory too. Paul gave this advice to the Corinthians believers who were taking each other before unjust courts, abusing the testimony of the Church, and extracting their pounds of flesh:
I speak to your shame. Is it so, that there is not a wise man among you? no, not one that shall be able to judge between his brethren? But brother goeth to law with brother, and that before the unbelievers. Now therefore there is utterly a fault among you, because ye go to law one with another. Why do ye not rather take wrong? why do ye not rather suffer yourselves to be defrauded? Nay, ye do wrong, and defraud, and that your brethren. (I Cor 6:5-8)
Taking wrong? Accepting defamation? No doubt there are many who have become accustomed to doing this very thing for the love of God and the cause of Christ, for there is quite a bit of defamation floating around in cyperspace among Christians. But there is too much defensiveness too. Paul scolded. Most Christians would as well if they overheard it in the foyers of their church buildings. But on the Internet, we relish it. We lap it up like Romans at the coliseum. This is disgraceful, a blemish on our testimony before the unsaved.
What can possibly be achieved by insult after insult? Peter admonished us this way:
Finally, be ye all of one mind, having compassion one of another, love as brethren, be pitiful, be courteous: Not rendering evil for evil, or railing for railing: but contrariwise blessing; knowing that ye are thereunto called, that ye should inherit a blessing. For he that will love life, and see good days, let him refrain his tongue from evil, and his lips that they speak no guile: Let him eschew evil, and do good; let him seek peace, and ensue it. (1 Pet 3:8-11)
What situations could have merited Peter’s exhortation? Purely domestic matters? Only legal concerns? Never spiritual issues? Of course, Peter was referring to any disagreements among Christians. It is silly for us to think that our debates over, say, perseverance of the believer or Bible translations do not qualify.
Only bitterness and divisions can come from such haranguing on the Internet. Bitterness, that sinful root, will grow and work its way into the hearts of both those who are attacked and those who are blessed by the ministry of the attacked persons. Evil, satanic discord comes only from such mean-spirited and corrupt communication. Paul devotes the full first quarter of his first epistle to the Corinthians to the very matter of divisiveness within the church (and the rest of the epistle follows as symptom after symptom of this disease is addressed). Many people were claiming to be of Paul, of Apollos, of Cephas. No doctrines were being addressed, merely defensiveness, choosing up sides based on preferences of who knows what. Now we have the same thing. I am of Calvin (derisively), I am of Arminius (insultingly), I am of 1611 (hatefully), I am of this university or that university. For shame. Our ministries begin to wrangle with one another, brother with very brother, and the Holy Spirit is quenched, unsaved people are put off altogether, and redeemed people are advised to avoid a ministry that could be beneficial to them. Matters of preference and points merely implied, at best, by Scripture are used as tests of orthodoxy, and the cause of Christ is bruised over and over again.
Clearly, it is not preferable to gloss over matters of difference, especially as they relate to doctrine. Debate is fine and beliefs firmly held are imperative, but resorting to name calling, misuse of terminology pejoratively, or absurd strawman building is unnecessary. Perhaps there are better ways to communicate with one another, even when great error seems to be present, before we unfurl words like heretic and apostate. What does Scripture say?
1. Private communication is the first step.
Matthew 18 gives us a clear-cut procedure for addressing grievances. I would dare to say that cyber-grievances are no exception. If a person is reckless in his accusation on a site or blog, this person should be contacted by the accused privately first: “Moreover if thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone: if he shall hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother” (Mt 18:15). These words are neither equivocal, relative, or difficult. Public personal grievances do not require public retribution (though they should be resolved by public apology). Nothing more need be said here.
2. Taking wrong is honorable in the body of Christ.
Earnestly contending for the faith is not the same as earnestly contending to save face. First Corinthians 6 provides us with this alternative, already discussed above: “Why do ye not rather take wrong? Why do ye not rather suffer yourselves to be defrauded?” (v. 7). If little Timmy comes home from school with a story about a mean-spirited classmate, which parent says, “Punch him in the face next time”? Which parent says, “Publish a blog about what a stinky head he is”? No, we teach our children to pray for that person. Let us take wrong from our brothers if we choose not to privately contact them. Let us leave our reputations in the more-than-capable hands of the Holy Ghost.
3. Discussion about error is better than a flame war.
Luke tells an interesting story in Acts 18:
And a certain Jew named Apollos, born at Alexandria, an eloquent man, and mighty in the scriptures, came to Ephesus. This man was instructed in the way of the Lord; and being fervent in the spirit, he spake and taught diligently the things of the Lord, knowing only the baptism of John. And he began to speak boldly in the synagogue: whom when Aquila and Priscilla had heard, they took him unto them, and expounded unto him the way of God more perfectly. And when he was disposed to pass into Achaia, the brethren wrote, exhorting the disciples to receive him: who, when he was come, helped them much which had believed through grace: For he mightily convinced the Jews, and that publickly, shewing by the scriptures that Jesus was Christ. (24-28)
Did Aquila and Priscilla publish to a newsletter that Apollos was in grievous error? Did they spam all the blogs they read? Did they follow behind him, one city after the next, spreading their own correct doctrine? Did they gather a group of other Christians together and sign an agreement that labeled him erroneous? Of course not. Did they not instead recognize that the eye cannot do without the ear, that Apollos was, being a Christian, a valued asset to Christ? If a preacher from one coast makes an unclear statement on a podcast that is perceived as mistaken by a college president on the other coast, what ought he to do? Dialogue. Plain and simple. Evangelical and fundamental Christian history in recent decades is littered with the trash of unkind newsletters, untrue sermon anecdotes, unwise journal articles, and unloving web pages. If the righters of these wrongs are so mature, why do they not follow the example of Aquila and Priscilla, those blessed saints used so mightily in God’s service?
4. Blessed are the peacemakers.
Need I say more about this point? Too many Christians relish a new bit of juicy scandal. “That preacher said what? About whom?” Or they have their favorite websites, where some far-too-elevated self-publisher blasts the latest co-laboring target on an issue with which he disagrees. The Bible calls for us as Christians to stand against this, not to encourage it. The Bible calls for us to say, “You, famous web author, need to contact him, famous university president. Both of you need to resolve this issue.” If these ministries are targeted to Christian audiences, why are Christians available to be such an audience of such a spectacle?
Where are the pastors of these parachurch “ministry” leaders? Where are the godly elders who take their church members aside and let them know that their widely read and widely distributed newsletters or websites or blogs are not truth tempered with love?
5. The goal of confrontation is always reconciliation and edification of the cause.
Jude hoped to save some from the fire (v. 23). Christ directed us to dialogue with the anticipation of gaining back a brother (Matt. 18:15). Retaliation, “railing for railing,” ministry warfare, and the like do not build the body of Christ. If two groups or individuals are divided on an issue–be it church worship styles or debates about the blood of Christ—let the two sides make known their differences. Let the two sides
also make known their mutual respect for one another. They might be in strenuous disagreement, but the tricks of this world’s rhetoric are never necessary for the cause of Christ. That is our ultimate goal, the cause of Christ. Not victory in debate. Not humiliation of the opponent. Not laughter at the expense of another Christian. Do we need to so back a brother into a corner with our hatefulness that he would be forced to eat too large a piece of humble pie in order to recognize his error? Why be such a stumblingblock? We should stand for what is right. We should staunchly object to what we deem incorrect. But we should never burn a bridge with wasteful, flippant, irresponsible language or braggadocio. Who needs it? Christ doesn’t. Is God so small that He needs our sarcastic rudeness? God forbid. Is Christ so weak that He needs our bullying? Is the Spirit so impotent that He needs our deftness, persuasion at all costs, and trickery? Let the disputants return to their knees. Let their prayers for their brothers in disagreement outnumber their publications against same one hundred to one. Or 70x7 to 1. Let the Christian audiences demand such in Christ’s name, the name they bear.
For many, the keyboard has become a fifth appendage or an additional vital organ. We know that James had much to say on the tongue. Many a church youth group is referred to his third chapter. Let us look at James 3:3-18 again. Let us read it twice, the second time substituting keyboard at each instance of tongue:
Behold, we put bits in the horses’ mouths, that they may obey us; and we turn about their whole body. Behold also the ships, which though they be so great, and are driven of fierce winds, yet are they turned about with a very small helm, whithersoever the governor listeth. Even so the tongue is a little member, and boasteth great things.
Behold, how great a matter a little fire kindleth! And the tongue is a fire, a world of iniquity: so is the tongue among our members, that it defileth the whole body, and setteth on fire the course of nature; and it is set on fire of hell. For every kind of beasts, and of birds, and of serpents, and of things in the sea, is tamed, and hath been tamed of mankind: 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. Doth a fountain send forth at the same place sweet water and bitter? Can the fig tree, my brethren, bear olive berries? either a vine, figs? so can no fountain both yield salt water and fresh.
Who is a wise man and endued with knowledge among you? let him shew out of a good conversation his works with meekness of wisdom. But if ye have bitter envying and strife in your hearts, glory not, and lie not against the truth. This wisdom descendeth not from above, but is earthly, sensual, devilish. For where envying and strife is, there is confusion and every evil work. But the wisdom that is from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, and easy to be intreated, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality, and without hypocrisy. And the fruit of righteousness is sown in peace of them that make peace.
It is no difficult stretch to remember that James’ mandate on the tongue is in equal effect upon our typing fingers. How many times did I, in composing this too poor remonstrance, consider illustrating point after point with stories I’ve picked up along the way, little snippets of hearsay, little pieces of private outrage. My points could have gleamed like neon signs in utter darkness with some of the illustrations I had to forego. Surely this argument would have been stronger had I included this example of shame or that one. But I think, and not incorrectly by my estimation, that the Word will speak for itself. It is not unclear what the apostle Paul advised: “Let your speech be alway with grace, seasoned with salt, that ye may know how ye ought to answer every man” (Col 4:6). Are certain issues important to emphasize? Without question. But let us not muddy the message with harmful and hateful discourse. Should we compromise values, whitewashing over them, allowing the rich portrait of Christ to become a blur? God forbid. But let us seek the cause of Christ, trusting the power of God, not quenching the convicting ministry of the Spirit. Let us remember that differences will be held in the body of Christ on this side of Glory. Let us remember that crushing a debate opponent does not truly win any battle. Let us put our minds on spiritual things. Brothers and sisters, there is a disease in the body of Christ. It is not called “internet.” It is called “ungracious internet discourse.” Authors and readership alike, let us cure this cancer.
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).