Every day on Twitter and other social media sites, Christians call each other out for being “woke” (or not woke enough), “misogynist,” “politically correct,” “heretical,” and much more. Such debates seem typically (on all sides) to generate a lot of furor but not much mutual understanding between Christians.
This is a history blog, so how should we think historically about Christians calling each other out publicly? Public rebukes have a long history in Christianity, though I suspect we tend to remember only the instances that went well. Christ rebuked the Pharisees, and Paul rebuked Peter “in front of them all” (Gal. 2:11-14). Martin Luther nailed up the 95 theses, and Charles Spurgeon had the “Downgrade Controversy.” J. Gresham Machen rebuked the modernists, calling theirs a “non-redemptive religion” and no longer true Christianity. So Christians who call out fellow believers, or who expose wolves in sheep’s clothing, have a noble history of precedents to which they can point.
But the problem is, not all of us are Paul, Luther, Spurgeon, or Machen. More importantly, none of us is like Jesus Christ, who was incapable of error. We may think we’re making a bold stand like Luther, but might just end up looking like jerks or busybodies.
Moreover, Twitter and similar venues have made it easier than ever for Christians to engage in thoughtless, immature, and rash indictments of fellow believers. Our default mode should be maintaining peace and charity among believers, and when we do rebuke, we should only do it with principles such as those in Matthew 18:15-17 in mind. (Even Matt. 18 can be easily abused, however, as Don Carson has noted.)
There is definitely a place and time for rebuking or warning believers, then, but especially in the age of Twitter I would encourage readers to keep the following questions or principles before them, and hopefully not fall into the errors of rash anger (James 1:19) and foolish airing of opinions (Prov. 18:2).
- What is the purpose of the rebuke and the means of sharing it? Twitter arguments almost never convince the “other side,” and they routinely damage relationships, even between people on the “same side” on the essential issues (salvation through Christ alone, the authority of the Bible, and so on). Could you approach the person privately with your concern? If not, why not?
- Is there a reason why you need to be the one doing the rebuking? Social media (and our culture more broadly) have way too many self-appointed ideological police. Your agenda is not everybody else’s agenda. If you barge in and lecture people every time you perceive they are in error on your chosen issue, you will lose credibility quickly.
- Do you have expertise or experience in the controversy in question? As in point #2, social media and blogging have aided the “death of expertise” in America. Anyone with a phone can now berate people with decades of studied wisdom and hard-earned experience about a topic. Sometimes the uncredentialed phone-tapping critics just end up looking foolish, but sometimes the people who scream the loudest actually shape the terms of debate and policy.
Years ago, a prominent professional acquaintance of mine took exception to a claim I made in one of my books. Instead of denouncing me in public, he approached me about it over email. He seemed fairly irritated about the issue at first, but after exchanging a few emails we reached something of an understanding. I knew I needed to be more careful about the way I discussed the issue in the future, and he realized that there was actually something to the point I was making. We now correspond occasionally about similar questions regarding American history.
Would this have happened if this acquaintance had torched me on Twitter first? I seriously doubt it. Instead, we might have been permanently estranged, and neither of us would have grown in knowledge or wisdom.
There may come times when some of us will need to rebuke or denounce someone on social media. But if you want to maintain relationships and actually change someone’s mind, it is almost never the best approach.
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