Things I appreciate about Pete’s article…
Each of his points are substantial and have a large element of truth, and where possible, grounded in Scripture and Christian thinking. Beyond that, his generalisations are largely fair, so there’s a good bit of wisdom and common sense in there.
Most notably, he humbly focuses on his own self-knowledge regarding his own potential weaknesses and temptations.
He has couched it as his “personal policy” and has nowhere said everyone else should make it their own, although he obviously commends consideration of it.
He has delimited his policy to “platform[s] like Facebook”. So although his comments have potential applications to think through for other platforms, such as blogs, sermons, podcasting sermons, opinion pieces and reportage in newspapers and magazines (whether in paper or online), he hasn’t pushed that wider application.
And, if I read his last point carefully, his policy is not an absolutely inflexible one, in that, “There are going to be times when I need to stick my neck out and write something in criticism against someone or something”. From that responsible concession, it seems he could envisage that there may be a time that such a critique is published or at least shared on social media like Facebook.
Things I wish to nuance, test or challenge…
His policy appears to advantage those, especially pastors, with large platforms available to them via both their own pulpit (and sermon podcasting platform) and via influential websites that might publish their articles. However social media can often give those without influence voice greater prominence and weight if they publish something that strikes a chord. Obviously some opinions that rise up this way don't bear scrutiny, but sometimes the word of the small person turns out to be important.
His policy also appears to disadvantage the powerless. ‘Watch blogs’ often have an accusatory, alarmist, and negative tone. But sometimes the victim of some kind of false teaching or abusive conduct, or their advocate, turns out to have some very good points to make, which needed to reach public light in order to challenge injustice or immorality or falsehood. I am thinking of some examples right now.
His policy appears not to fully factor in the issue that sometimes public error needs public correction, all the more so, when that error impacts negatively your own congregations or parish or denomination or movement. Sometimes the prophetic correction will come from an individual who does not have the power or access to the official channels. Sometimes the alarm needs to be sounded more widely than simply through private correction, or by pulpit instruction and warning. Not every pastor or church member is equally gifted at discerning potential dangers and errors—let alone expressing them judiciously—and they need to be served by good models.
In noting appreciation that Pete’s policy was personal and only or primarily applied to social media like Facebook, I would be interested in how Pete’s policy applies to articles on blogs. Would it be similar on a self-published blog, whereas the editorial filter that might apply to publishing on the more curated blog of an organisation is acceptable? That would mean that at least one other pair of eyes has scrutinised the content and tone of the article for truth and helpfulness.
Likewise how does his policy apply to broadcasting his sermons (which presumably contain some critiques of falsehood elsewhere in his surrounds at some point) via the church website or podcast? How is that different from publishing a critique on a Facebook post? Indeed, we cannot control how people present at the live delivery of a sermon later discuss and disseminate more widely a critique we may have delivered in the internal church context!
I realise that social media can tend to aggregate us in echo chambers with those with whom we tend already to agree. I also affirm Pete’s observation that often we are just preaching to the choir and that disagreements tend to be polarised on social media often locking people into their pre-existing views. Often more heat than light.
However, I have been convinced to change my mind more than once by debate on blog comments (when they were still popular) or on social media. Most notably, for me, was debate over the language of ‘submission’ in the Bible regarding marriage. I was not convinced to drop my complementarian understanding, by the advocacy of an informed and very persistent (one might even say argumentative) egalitarian. But I was convinced by her that complementarians including me had failed to guard sufficiently against the twisting of such Scriptures as a cover for domestic violence.
On other occasions, such debate that emerges from the offering of critique has helped me to better appreciate the strength of the other view, or to discover additional evidence I had not previously or properly considered.
Speaking with a sense of my inadequacy and failures at times, and of foolishness for making such a claim, I have nevertheless received numerous personal encouragements for managing to participate in such critique and debate online in a manner that many have found helpful—at least sometimes tending towards enlightenment, courtesy, gentleness, rather than mere foolish quarrelling about words. Modelling careful and informed, but firm and fearless critique among Christians can also be a positive witness for some.
In the end, I think my greatest concern is that Pete’s article does not give sufficient weight to the fact that some errors need to be addressed publicly. Paul does this in Galatians 2, confronting Peter to his face in Antioch (vv11-14). Why? Because Peter’s conduct in withholding table fellowship threatened the great and central gospel truth of justification by faith in Christ and not at all by works! Likewise he also reports the confrontation publicly elsewhere to the church in Galatia, presumably because similar threats were pending there. And Paul indicates some understanding that his apostolic letters were likely to be shared and read even more widely than that.
We all know there are situations where false teaching or conduct needs to be identified, confronted and opposed, such as was required by the island-wide appointment of elders in different towns of Crete who “can encourage others by sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it” (Titus 1:9), even the need to attempt to “silence” the spread of some such falsehood in the Christian community (vv10-12).
Since social media is a part, often highly influential, of the standard ways we communicate these days among our networks, then it stands to reason that sometimes such correction or critique will happen via such media.
Of course, this can be done in helpful or unhelpful ways. I have found 2 Timothy 2:14-26 helpful to reflect on repeatedly as a pastor in this regard. There is the repeated warning against foolish quarrelling about words (vv14, 16, 23). Yet this sits immediately beside the severe warning against teachers in the Christian community who deny the resurrection, including public naming of two of them. Presumably the ruination of those who listen was sufficient reason to comment publicly. Patient and gentle instruction regarding those you differ from, committing the matter in prayer to the Lord, who alone can change hearts, is the way commended by the Apostle (vv24-26).
In a way that feeds into this discussion tangentially, Don Carson’s Editorial on Abusing Matthew 18 in Themelios has some useful things to think about here.