If you’ve been around the blogosphere for any amount of time, you’ve probably encountered an internet debate at some point or another. Some debates (especially on social media) are fruitless, leading to nothing but inflated egos and frustrated readers.
But debates have their place and can be done in a way that is edifying and builds up the church. The theological debates I’ve witnessed recently, such as the exchanges between Carl Trueman/Aimee Byrd and John Piper or the debates on sanctification between TGC and Tullian Tchividjian, have been respectful (for the most part) and avoided ad hominem attacks.
But I wonder whether there’s something missing from the Christian blogosphere that should be present based on what we know about who we are and why we’re here. In all the debates I’ve witnessed on the Christian blogosphere (whether theological or otherwise), there’s one thing that’s glaringly absent:
Admitting we’re wrong.
Reformed theology’s understanding of scripture is built on a position of utter humility and dependence. It begins by acknowledging humanity’s finiteness and God’s transcendence; because we are finite creatures, we could never know God apart from his voluntary condescension to reveal himself to us in both general and special revelation.
Also, no one person has a monopoly on all truth. The Reformed tradition has always emphasized this communal aspect to our theology and our inability to fully understand God and his Word without the help of fellow saints both present and past.
If we acknowledge the reality of our fallenness and our utter dependence on God, why do we often act as though our theological positions regarding more secondary issues are written on stone tablets? Why are we so unwilling to sincerely listen to brothers and sisters with whom we disagree?
What does sincere listening look like? It looks like engaging with someone in a discussion without an a priori commitment to reject their position. The goal in the discussion is not gaining the upper hand, but mutual edification and even correction. Correction, though, requires confession. If you are unwilling to admit your own mistakes, you are unwilling to learn.
Why is it so hard for prominent bloggers in the Christian community to practice this kind of learning? Here are some reasons:
- Fear of man
The blogosphere has become an international stage where your writing can receive the praise and affirmation of thousands. The more followers you gain, the more you potentially have to lose if you “lose face” by admitting you’re wrong. This is especially the case if you’ve built up a persona of someone who has intelligence and insight into the scriptures and the latest cultural issues. It may feel courageous to take a stand on a particular issue, but it takes even greater courage to admit that you’re wrong and open to correction.
- Wrong Motives
It always helps to ask what we wish to gain by joining an online debate, whether on facebook (please don’t) or through blogging. If we’re honest, most of us blog on something or someone we disagree with in order to “help” them by offering unasked-for rebuke and correction. This is good and expected in a public space such as the internet.But what would it look like if we entered these discussions, not only to potentially correct, but also to maybe, just maybe, be corrected ourselves? I know that’s a scary thought, but if the goal is mutual edification and sincere learning, we must adopt the attitude of one who is slow to speak, quick to listen (James 1:19). We must ask whether we are joining a debate to genuinely further the discussion and learn, or whether we are only interested in teaching others. In other words, are we seeking our own individual good, or the good of the church?
Our ideas and beliefs don’t exist in the abstract, but they become a part of who we are. When someone offers disagreement, not only our ideas but our very identities are put on trial. We identify with our beliefs and take pride in them when we forget that we have nothing we have not received (1 Cor 4:7). We imagine that our ideas are entirely our own, and therefore we are personally hurt when others offer criticism. To defend against an attack on our very identity, we feign genuine interest only to give off a sense of objectivity.
These things are especially important to consider as we begin this blog to discuss potentially sensitive issues. As you listen to people who look, think, and speak differently than you, how will you respond? What kind of posture will you bring to the discussion? Will you come with guns loaded, ready to destroy your opponent no matter how strong his own weapons? Or will you come wanting to actually learn and be corrected, if need be?
Reformed theology teaches us that the truths of the faith are not the privileged monopoly of one people group of one time period (modern or ancient), but the sum total of the church’s reflection on Scripture. Reformed theology has always been keen on refusing to privilege modern voices over ancient ones; will we then privilege the voices of a select few over the voices of the universal church? What will we do when we hear voices different from our own? For the growth of the church and the glory of Christ, we need to learn to practice sincere listening.
Here are three things that can help us when we engage in online debates:
- Be more of a student than a teacher.
We all know the feeling. We’re listening to a sermon or reading a blog on some topic and we suddenly hear a phrase or read an argument that strikes a nerve – How could he say that? This is outrageous! Our guns are already drawn by that point, and on our best days we assume the role of teacher to ignorant pupil. We imagine we are doing service for the Kingdom by offering some solid food to this milk-dependent child.
What if we prayerfully trained ourselves to first take the role of a student to listen and learn before criticizing or correcting? What if we, after offering our rebuttal, actually listened to the response instead of adding nuance upon nuance to our own argument? Sometimes, we’re just wrong, and we need to realize when we’re only letting ourselves teach and not be taught. We need to approach debates with fellow brothers and sisters in Christ not as battlefields where we demolish arguments, but as classrooms where mutual learning can take place.
- Remember different opinions are gifts from God.
Iron sharpens iron (Prov 27:17), but somewhere along the way we’ve let ourselves become only the subjects and not the objects in this proverb. The opinions of others are gifts from God, each designed to build us up to greater maturity (1 Cor 14:26; 1 Thess 5:11). We all need each other to be mutually sharpened, and we’ll never let that happen if we stand at arm’s length without the humility to admit we’re wrong. Prominent Christian bloggers, pastors, and teachers are especially prone to this.
- Lift up the name of Christ
It’s become much easier to make a name for yourself through social media. As people begin to praise you for your great writing and invaluable insights, you begin to make compromises. Yes, I’ll lift up the name of Christ, but only if my name is up there, too. I’ve wondered what kind of example it sets for the broader church when prominent bloggers and pastors refuse to ever publicly admit they’re wrong. Or on the flip side, how might the church be blessed to witness the humility of our favorite Christian celebrities willing to lose some followers on twitter by admitting they were wrong about a particular issue?
Admitting we’re wrong shows a certain reverence for Christ and a concern for the greater purposes of the church. It shows that we’re not about making a name for ourselves, but about the ultimate purpose of magnifying Christ in all things. I wonder whether we sometimes act more like the disciples who argued over who could have a seat with Jesus in the Kingdom (Mark 10:41) and less like John the Baptist who recognized his need to decrease, that Christ might increase (John 3:30).
Let me conclude with the words of the apostle Paul to Timothy:
And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth (2 Tim 2:24-25)
Brothers and sisters, let’s not pretend that we can correct our opponents without being corrected ourselves. Let’s not pretend that only others need to repent and gain a knowledge of the truth. Let’s strive to be able to teach and teachable at the same time. Through whatever means the Lord has given us, whether social media, blogs, or everyday conversations, let’s be willing to both sharpen and be sharpened as we practice humility in admitting we’re wrong.