Much has been said about the online life that bears thinking about. More often than not, Evangelical voices are calling us to caution and care about how we come across online. I think the things that have been said are important and, in the most part, bear serious consideration.
But I want to offer some gentle pushback. Not because anything that has been said is wrong but whenever the church seek to check themselves, we have a tendency to over-correct in the other direction. As Martin Luther put it, we end up like the proverbial drunk man on horseback, ‘set it up on one side, and it tumbles over on the other.’
Consider the advice that there is almost never any need to call somebody out on Twitter. I will grant, Twitter is not the world’s most nuanced forum. But there are times when it is entirely appropriate to call something out on Twitter. Specifically, when somebody is tweeting dangerous and damaging stuff. Where better to call it out than on that same forum?
Others push us to use Matthew 18 as our guide. But as Don Carson has noted – and even those pushing us to use Matthew 18 note – Matthew 18 isn’t really applicable. If it is true that publicly calling out the author of a book that is publicly available isn’t wrong, and calling out public blogs that are publicly available isn’t wrong, surely calling out micro-blogs (that is, tweets) isn’t necessarily wrong either. Nor, as has been pointed out, does Matthew 18 apply in such circumstances. Online church is not a thing and so online use of Matthew 18 outside the church context really isn’t a thing either. What is more, Matthew 18 outlines steps in a matter of private sin not public statements of error available for the world to see. The citation simply isn’t relevant.
It is true that we need to exercise wisdom if we’re going to do it. A private message might be more prudent than a public one. If you know the person (though, on twitter, often you don’t) a private conversation might be appropriate. Clearly there are times when non-public means of communication are better. But there will be times when a public tweet, out in the ether, garnering a lot of attention is best addressed on the same forum in the same way.
Of course, we will all get these things wrong from time to time. The guy prone to keeping his own counsel will sometimes remain silent when he should really speak up. Sometimes those whose priority is to keep the peace will placate and praise those who should really be called out. Sometimes those who tend to call things out robustly will hit the wrong people with friendly fire. Nobody is going to get these things right all the time and we need to be able to repent when we get it wrong.
But I generally think Calvin was right when he spoke about a dog barking when its master is attacked. I don’t think it means we always have to shout the odds when people say foolish things or spout errant views. But I equally don’t think it is credible to suggest that if such things happen online, in particular forums, we shouldn’t say anything at all. If we are concerned about the glory of the Lord, it should bother us when the Lord is dishonoured. Whilst we don’t want to dishonour him, and it is true that we can dishonour him by speaking when and how we shouldn’t, let’s just remember we can also dishonour him by refusing to speak when we should.
It bears saying, I don’t think Jesus will be doling out the crowns for those who dedicated their lives to calling out error on Twitter. I don’t think there is a special place in Heaven for heresy hunters. I really am not advocating going out of your way to find error so that you can loudly and publicly denounce it. But I don’t think the Lord is especially pleased with those who see error being peddled and sit there doing nothing because ‘Twitter isn’t a good forum.’ Let’s be honest, if Twitter is that bad a forum, it begs the question why you’re on it at all!
The reasoning is precisely the same as that people use in interfaith groups as they sit there and say nothing while heresy is peddled, ‘it’s not a good forum’ (I am, as you can imagine, a barrel of laughs if and when I ever go to our local one). It is the same reason people never call out those within their own denominations – sometimes in leadership positions – because they can never find a good forum to air those concerns. But guess what usually happens? Those concerns never get raised and that error simply goes unchecked.
The better question, it seems to me, is if something is that errant and this forum isn’t a good one, is this: in what forum will you say anything? If the only forum in which you might say something is one in which the person peddling the error isn’t there and won’t hear it, that seems a bit toothless. If a man calls out error in a room and those who peddle error aren’t there to hear it, have they really called out the error at all?
On the last day, is the guy who is sometimes comes across as a bit intemperate in defence of God’s glory or the guy who likes to keep the peace and affirm those who dishonour him going to be blushing most when stood before the Lord? That is before we reckon with the fact that it is entirely possible to call stuff out without being intemperate at all (which should be the aim if you’re going to do so).
I am all for making sure we are not being jerks for Jesus. I don’t think the Lord is honoured when we act like an ass. Some of us, no doubt, tend toward the jerkish end of the spectrum. But let’s not be the drunkard who falls off the other side of the horse either. Some of us are natural peace keepers who are scared of conflict. Some of us like any excuse not to speak up because it’s all too embarrassing. Some of us, if we’re being honest, are just more worried about how people view us and, if we’re being even more honest, whether it will affect our funding applications or attempts at gaining influence.
Sometimes it is entirely right to speak. Sometimes we need to ask, if not in this forum, then which? If we can never find the words, the time or the forum, might it just be possible that we are not being careful to avoid dishonourable behaviour but that we are more concerned about what people think of us than we are about the Lord?