Saturday, May 05, 2018

Let the Others Weigh

Not too long ago, a grand old Bible teacher I remember fondly from my youth posted a rare thought on Facebook about teaching scripture on the Web. His concern: that the haphazard slinging of tangentially Bible-related opinion is a potential threat to the unity of local churches. Some form of oversight by seasoned teachers of the word of God is preferable. He cited Paul’s command to the Corinthian church: “Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others weigh what is said” in support of the principle.

Now, he’s not wrong here, and he’s not the first to note the problem.

I have great sympathy for my old friend’s frustration. He, like many others, has for many years fed and cared for the proverbial sheep in his local context and traveled the highways to open up God’s word in other churches. How does a godly shepherd combat ungodly sophistry (or even well-intended, blundering error) when he has no idea what his spiritual charges are reading and often-uncritically absorbing?

The Regulation of Opinion

It’s a legitimate concern, and I first wrote about it back in 2017 when Tish Harrison Warren said something not wildly different, though I completely disagree with — nay, was appalled by — her proposed solution (“overt institutional superintendence and ecclesial accountability that has heft and power”). Oy vey. Let’s not be going there.

Here I think my old friend would agree with me that regulating the expression of Christian opinion at the institutional or denominational level (a level that has no scriptural authority behind it whatsoever) would be an unmitigated disaster, and worse than the original problem. The world already has one Pope to deal with, thank you. And I’m not sure my friend would advocate for management even at the local church level. Can you imagine tasking elders or seasoned Bible teachers with overseeing the internet presence of each and every one in their care? There’s a responsibility nobody wants, and nobody has time for.

My own thought is that, whatever we wish we might do about it, that ship has sailed, the milk has been spilled and the can of worms has been summarily upended all over the bottom of the boat. The internet genie (or Jeannie) is not going back in its bottle.

Let me share a couple of observations about the internet, from the consumer’s end and the publisher’s end, because older Christians frequently understand the potential dangers inherent in internet commentary, if not the medium itself. Younger Christians feel an immense comfort with the medium that their parents do not, but are all-but-clueless about the spiritual hazards.

The Self-Policing Internet

First, if I were looking to reassure my old friend, I might say this: the internet is (kind of) self-policing. There are a lot of good, solid Bible teachers out there reading, and many of them comment favorably and unfavorably on the musings of their brothers and sisters with less experience and wisdom. So long as the author of any particular opinion is willing to allow uncensored commentary, dissenting views will be registered and will absolutely make an impact with godly, discerning readers. (Of course some minor censorship is necessary in the Christian blogosphere: foul language, genuine hate speech, advertising spam and so on; I’m not suggesting Christian bloggers have an obligation to publish every comment submitted to them.)

But commenting was, in fact, what my friend was doing at the time he made his original observation: correcting an embarrassing, unforced error being propagated by a younger man who moves in the same church circles. That fact alone might suggest that a necessary job is already getting done — at least some of the time — if not in as systematic or comprehensive a way as we might find desirable.

Three things follow from the inherent commentability of both social media and the blogosphere:
  1. Older Christians who read online should feel free to correct regularly and extensively where they observe error, and to encourage or supplement good teaching when they come across it. The 1 Corinthians 14-derived principle of teachers being subject to teachers and other teachers weighing what is said cannot be of any help on the Web if we all keep the truths we have learned over the years in our back pockets rather than sharing them.
  2. Those who may not feel sufficiently articulate to demolish false arguments and interpretations (but know them when they see them) are wise to refer internet doctrinal errors that are having an impact on their local church to those who are up to the job of responding helpfully. That kid in youth group who reads John Piper every day might value a second opinion on certain subjects if he is genuinely in pursuit of truth. “The one who states his case first seems right, until the other comes and examines him.” Well, send in the examiner.
  3. Younger Christians who air their views about the Bible and church practice should be prepared for pushback and willing to accept godly, biblical correction without pitching a hissy fit every time a poorly-expressed, ill-thought-out bit of exposition or opinion they have written comes under fire. If you start censoring, dismissing or rationalizing every time someone disagrees with you, the problem is you. Further, younger Christians enjoying the freedom of expression the internet affords should be prepared to accept negative feedback from every possible Christian sect or denominational tradition, from every sort of unpleasant commenter (consider this man’s story if you doubt me), and from every corner of the internet, because THAT’s the audience you have chosen to reach out to.
Are your expository skills really up to playing in that sandbox? I have certainly had mine tested in the last four-plus years.

Hit Enter and Upload

Which leads nicely into my second observation: When you hit ‘enter’ and upload your thoughts to the Web, you are publishing, just as surely as Chesterton and Lewis once had their musings and meditations printed, bound and distributed. You are no longer talking to a closed group of friends who know you and with whom your word and your Christian walk carry a certain heft. You are out of your comfortable echo chamber and speaking to the world, or at least as much of the world as cares to listen, and only the words you type are visible to them.

Which means ONLY those words matter (unless you are one of those people who insists on sharing all kinds of detailed personal information with strangers, a practice I do not recommend unless you enjoy becoming the victim of identity theft and other internet delights). For the most part, people are engaging with what you said as you expressed it, not with you personally.

The internet is no place for people whose feelings are easily bruised. If you’re not up to facing the heat your observations generate, don’t offer them. There are such things as closed internet groups and forums, both on Facebook and elsewhere. If all you are doing is sharing or tentatively suggesting rather than teaching formally, that may be the best place to do it.

But if you put it out there, you own it, and it’s your responsibility to walk it back if you later discover your pet Bible theory was wildly out to lunch.

Agreement in Principle

Finally, there’s some real wisdom in considering the principle derived from the verse my old friend quoted. Sure, the internet is not the local church; we get that. Teachers are not prophets; we get that too. But the principle of allowing yourself to be corrected by others rather than entrenching in an error is a very biblical one. How do you know if what you’re doing is profitable and pleasing to God if you refuse to listen to what other Christians are telling you?

Further, it must always be remembered that the final authority on the subject of truth is not a denomination, or a local church, or a particular elder or Bible teacher: it is the word of God itself. Our words have power and authority only to the extent they accurately reflect the intent of God’s Holy Spirit when he carried along those prophets and apostles of old.

We’re not above applying this principle to ourselves at ComingUntrue, and we have attempted to do so since we began writing here in 2013. Our writers all read and comment on each other’s stuff, most of the time well before it gets published. I figure at least ten of the posts I’ve written have never made it to publication, and a couple of IC’s are still sitting in our “rethinking” folder alongside them. We also try to let six or seven posts sit in the queue to ‘marinate’; getting edited, prayed over and reconsidered, rather than firing them out the day they are written. And we have a couple of much-appreciated older brothers in Christ who read here regularly and have often supplemented or modified our thinking in the comments or privately.

Social Media is Not the Local Church

Most of all, we remain wide open to commentary from the general public, and we urge you to take advantage of the opportunity afforded to do so. It can be time-consuming to respond to feedback, but it helps us understand where we may have been unclear, and to better enunciate what we believe scripture is teaching.

Sure, social media is not the local church. Nobody can force you to take down a post or reconsider a position if you are proven wrong. But each of us will give an account to God for the things we presume to teach online. Ask yourself this: If God wanted to tell me what I’m writing is out to lunch, have I put in place any mechanism to allow him to do that through my fellow believers? Or am I bound and determined to plow ahead with my own agenda regardless of whatever feedback I may receive?

If so, then my old friend’s concern is very much warranted.

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