Last week, an article titled “‘Excommunitweets’, Social Media and Spiritual Discipline” was posted on the Ethos website. The author, Megan Powell du Toit, points out how using social media in an offhanded and irresponsible manner can be considered divisive, or can, indirectly, lead to divisiveness. Before proceeding on my thoughts, I’d recommend reading her article on the link provided above.
Powell du Toit rightly points out how a person’s attitude can come across very different online than in real life. Too often, individuals can come off as being abrasive and derisive, be it on Facebook, Twitter, or elsewhere. I have seen people I personally know to be loving and faithful Christians sound like internet bullies, trolls, or holier-than thou ‘gatekeepers’. The impersonal environment of the internet does not easily communicate our personal character, let alone our tone, body language, or anything else. I understand that this is slightly off-track to Powell du Toit’s article, but bear with me as you’ll soon see where I’m going.
If we are to engage with others online, then we need to ensure that it is done in a way which in a respectful and loving way which honours God and is consistent with the gospel. Much is lost in the virtual translation. Comments may not carry the tone and weight we intend them to. So, we have to examine and modify what we publish to ensure they say what we mean them to say – and say it in the right ‘tone’. This is truly something that evangelicals struggle with, and something that, to non-Christians, make us appear as an unloving and judgemental bunch.
This was, to me, the most applicable point of the article. We do need to apply wisdom as we communicate in what is effectively the public sphere.
However, there was also some things which caused me to worry about the article itself. Powell du Toit writes from the beginning that she is “passionate about the cause of Christian unity—and Evangelical unity”. As such, much of the article is written from the perspective of Christian unity being paramount. This is specifically illustrated in the way that the article addresses ‘excommunitweets’. Powell du Toit asserts that these reveal the inadequacies in Evangelical theology, particularly in the way “we understand the church, how we understand Evangelical identity, and how we understand unity”.
I agree with her that these ‘excommunitweets’ may be harmful. But we cannot let the desire for unity – which is an entirely appropriate, laudable and Biblical desire – contradict our responsibility to exercise discernment. The Bible lays an obligation upon all Christians to apply discernment in regards to what people teach (1 Thessalonians 5:21–22; 1 John 4:1). It is likewise our Christian duty, out of love, to try and correct those who have been following a false teacher, and inform them about what Scripture actually says. The Bible mentions that there will be those who proclaim Christ, but not the Christ of scripture (Matthew 7:15-20;22; 2 Peter 2:1-3). These false teachers will lead people away from the actual gospel and all that it entails, such as the understanding of the inherent sinful nature of man, the sufficiency and exclusivity of Christ, God’s sovereignty and so forth. This is why scripture contains many exhortations for Christians to test all teaching, including what you’re reading now.
If someone is in public ministry and preaching things completely at odds with scripture, then we need to approach them in private, and present our concerns to them in a respectful manner (Matthew 18:15-16). But if they refuse to listen or provide a biblical rationale on why they’re teaching such things, and instead continue to teach them, then it may be appropriate to point out their error in the public sphere. That public sphere may include the internet.
Again: the problem with the internet is it doesn’t communicate tone and character at all well. So if we’re criticising someone online – especially if we’re making such a serious charge that they’re a false teacher, a wolf in sheep’s clothing, leading people to hell rather than heaven – then we have all the more responsibility to be as courteous and respectful towards them as we can. But saying something with courtesy and respect is one thing; silence is another. If we genuinely believe someone is teaching something which is deeply un-Biblical – therefore fundamentally misrepresents God and misleads people – we have to say something. Silence would be unloving and cowardly.
One of the most common critiques of discernment, despite its prominence in scripture, is that it is unloving and divisive. From a worldly sense, this is true. We don’t accept opinions to be equally true – that makes us, from a worldly perspective, closed-minded, ignorant and unloving. We hold Scripture to be truth (John 17:17), and because we care about scripture and what it says, we’ll unite around those truths, at the exclusion of others – which makes us look divisive. But the fact is: when anyone takes a position on anything, it’s likely to rankle someone somewhere. You could even say that Powell du Toit’s position is divisive, because she’s critiquing people who dare to critique…!
What worries me most about Powell du Toit’s article is the appeal to Christian unity, without fleshing out what unity actually means. Her article refers to Jesus’ prayer for unity in John 17. In John 17:20-21, Jesus prays for God to sanctify his people. Jesus’ prayer heavily implies that this unity rests upon sanctification, and that this sanctification is based upon God’s word (John 17:17). Thus, true Christian unity is established only upon the commitment to, and the understanding of, the Word of God. It is only as we humble ourselves to it, and the transforming message of the Gospel, that spiritual unity can endure, let alone thrive. We do not embrace unity for the sake of unity; rather, we unite in the essentials of the Christian faith. Had the reformers hesitated on change for the sake of unity as opposed to God’s word, there would have likely been no reformation. It would have been a visible, united, church, but without the gospel at its centre.
I am also worried by what Powell du Toit might mean when she states that “[w]e are too concerned with defending truth, and too little concerned with who we are. Our ethic must be centred in character.” That sounds to me like a false dichotomy. A Christian’s primary responsibility is to treat God’s word with the sanctity and authority that it merits. Our identity, character and ethic flows from this honouring of God’s truth. The motivation for discernment is so that we not be “tossed here and there by waves, and carried about by every wind of doctrine” (Ephesians 4:14). This is certainly why Paul charged Timothy to keep to what he had heard (1 Timothy 5:21, 6:13-14). Ultimately, our character should be derived from the truth which is God’s word.
One aspect of Christian identity is that we want to do everything we can to guide people to the real Jesus, and prevent them from following false options. That means we are obliged, out of love, to apply discernment – to compare a person’s teaching to the Word of God. If we think what they are teaching does not agree with the Bible – especially if it’s at odds with core truths – then we have to speak up and say so – perhaps, eventually, in the public sphere, and perhaps, eventually, even on the internet. The fact that we’re making serious allegations makes it all the more necessary to try and convey a gentle and respectful tone. But we have to say something. Love, for God and people, demands we do so.