I’m a Teaching Elder in a conservative Presbyterian denomination. One of the “rights” of this is access to a private Facebook group, where elders discuss church issues, share pastoral and theological resources, and impart wisdom. But somehow, most of the content on the group is argument, and most of that has a chilling lack of charity. It often gets so acerbic and hostile that I have taken to calling the group “The Dumpster Fire.” Many of my fellow elders either have left the group or refuse to check it because of discouragement which comes from reading the ecclesial discord (not to mention how un-Presbyterian the whole mess is!). Beyond that group, I venture out to blogs and other forums only with a stout heart and a stouter beverage. It is no secret that technology is changing everything about our lives at a breakneck speed. Theological discourse is no exception, with the mushrooming of theological blogs, chatrooms, YouTube channels, and podcasts, along with older forms, books, sermons, and lectures. Too often when I draw from these wells, even in my small Presbyterian pond, the water is often rank, stagnant, and hardly drinkable for my family, ministry, or faith.
Now I know this: we Presbyterians aren’t unique. Theological rhetoric in the internet age is not a pleasant place. In fact, it is often downright sinful, full of slander, character assassination, and logical fallacies in place of emotional arguments from all sides. Reformed theological discussion (dare I say especially) often mimics the worst of our secular political discussion. How are we supposed to discuss important topics, from crucial doctrines like Christology, to ancillary peeves like intinction (or even how important each topic is—I know some would castigate me for saying intinction is ancillary)?
Theological rhetoric has always been prone to division. First, the stakes are high. If one side is “wrong” then it could at most mean divine judgment in some cases, or incomplete understanding and application of the very thoughts and things of God. Second, theology is nuanced stuff. For example, Homoousias and homoiousias is one letter apart, but eons apart theologically. Third, culture, language, historical context, and personality have always clouded theological conversation. And finally, Satan would prefer nothing more than a church divided about theology than united around Word, sacrament, holiness, missions, mercy, and the like.
To make matters more challenging, incendiary language is sometimes warranted. Remember all the Prophet’s excoriating language to whoring Israel. Recall Jesus’ words to the Pharisees in Matthew 23, or Paul’s insults the Judaizers in Gal 5:12 and Phil 3:2. Consider Martin Luther’s famous and profane invective (Click the link—you won’t regret it.) against the Roman Church in the Reformation. Calvin also did the same against both the Catholic and the Radical Reformers, along with theologians and politicians with whom he disagreed. Sometimes, when a community of faith is so far off from orthodoxy, strong rhetoric is necessary.
So how do we disagree well online today? It’s a major question, and an important one, for the purity and peace of the Church. If I may, I suggest a few ground rules for theological discussion which may build up the church rather than mire her further.
First, slander is sin. What is slander? Scripture says that slander is any kind of character assassination. If we are to hate the sin, but love the sinner, slander equivocates the two and judges both. And in Mark 7, Jesus lumps it with a list of heinous sins. Online, slander is easy because discourse is impersonal (both we often don’t personally know our interlocular, and we are separated by distance), so we all type things we would never say in person. When slander does happen, it should be repented of privately or called out publicly, following Matthew 18.
Second, rhetorical intensity should reflect theological proximity. Or, the closer someone is to your “camp,” the less intense, firm, castigating, and hard your rhetoric should be. Consider my denomination. All elders ascribe in good faith to the Westminster Confession and Catechisms, and generally without major exception. It is a very theologically homogenous group. And yet, how often the online theological rhetoric is so strong as to think we are at least different denominations, if not even different religions! If someone is within your theological tradition, give them the benefit of the doubt on issues that do not flagrantly violate scripture. Often, these are people who have been carefully vetted by the church/denomination, likely have godly character, and are probably pointing out some deficiency in the church, even if their solution may be wrong. And as a person or idea “ripples out” from your position, the heat of the rhetoric may intensify. A Presbyterian may disagree civilly with a Presbyterian, spiritly with a reformed Baptist, vigorously with a Oneness Pentecostal, categorically with a Catholic, and with absolutely with a Mormon, Muslim, Hindu, or other religion no longer Christian.
Third and related to number 2, rhetorical intensity should reflect the gravity of the issue. Again, in my denomination, we ascribe to Westminster, and any man’s exceptions must not strike “at the vitals of religion.” Theology is like concentric circles, with the “Vitals” in the center, the Important one circle out (for me, predestination), the Edifying one further (for me, sacramental issues), then the Helpful But Not Necessary (nuances of eschatology), and the Adiaphora, or open to conscience (R-Rated movies). Of course, the trick is what issue belongs where, and that is often the rub. But we must try. We should seek—and this is hard—to disagree more fiercely on the “inner circle” issues. For example, if a person questions openly, knowingly, and boldly challenges the dual nature of Christ, we must respond quickly and forcefully. Personally, my litmus test of orthodoxy is the Apostles’ Creed; deviate from that, and the fists go up. Baptism issues? Amill vs pre-mill? Social Justice issues? I’d talk about it, but still likely share the Table.
Fourth, rhetoric should strive for the restoration and perhaps repentance of the Other. What is likely to be more persuasive? Vitriol to the point of hate speech, or firm rhetoric (classically defined as logos, pathos, and ethos) intended to persuade? The answer is clear. Like the above, a Presbyterian arguing with a Presbyterian should worry less about guarding the purity of the church (though that may factor in), and more about two brothers honing each other’s theology.
Last week, I enjoyed a beer with my pastor. We disagree on how the law functioned in the Old Covenant. It has some major implications for theology and ethics, and we firmly named those. Yet at the end, we prayed earnestly for each other’s ministry, hugged it out, and went our ways until next time. Would that our online discussions today be the same: irenic, restorative, edifying, even fun, and ultimately God-glorifying. May the Spirit help us all as we seek to know him and make him known.