Our world is on fire for want of good listening and gracious engagement, and some of the flames are burning brightest between believers. Individuals who would avoid face-to-face confrontation at all costs in their everyday lives are warring with words, brusquely asserting their theology, and refusing to indulge in true conversation in their online world. We are building our own hellish utopias by garnering a following and blocking opponents, and using invective which is devoid of grace. Sadly, many who do this believe that they are serving Christ in the process. My social media feed has become a place where I feel more and more like a witness to repeated domestic disputes between Christians, real time clashes in an unreal world, in which our lack of gospel salted speech can be heard by those who don’t name Christ. This is tragic, and for the sake of the kingdom, something that must be addressed.
In this article I want to urge what I am describing as irenic confessionalism, a clear headed, full throated, big hearted engagement with those whom we differ with, a way of defending the truth which also bears witness to its gracious effect. To divorce what I say here from any immediate wrangling between believers I want to use C.H. Spurgeon as a model of how to disagree, how to keep the central issues in their place, and how to witness to Christ in the process. His embroilment with the ‘Downgrade Controversy’ of his day shows just how firmly we can stand for truth while showing charity and grace to those around us. I want to suggest four imperatives which lie behind irenic confessionalism:
1. Be certain of your centre: insecurity is seldom a silent phenomenon, and often those who know least and doubt most shout loudest. Many of the engagements which deface Christian social media are instances of defensiveness and entrenchment which suggest less than a fulsome grasp of the doctrines of grace. When C.H. Spurgeon marked the downgrade of his day, he did so from a position of being certain of his theological centre. Spurgeon was deeply confessional and unabashedly Calvinistic in his doctrine, but when it came to the downgrade he was able to assess the major grounds of dispute that he had with those who stood on the other side of the debate. While a biblically Reformed theology was the driver for Spurgeon’s preaching and writing, he could perceive in the doctrinal trends of his day an existential threat to the wider claims of Christianity. Spurgeon worked to address the fundamental issues which were facing him, even co-operating with Arminian brothers and sisters to that end. The reason why he could show such an irenic spirit was not in spite of his confessional stance, but because of it. Spurgeon was theologically precise enough to be ecclesiastically generous when the essence of the gospel was at stake.
This speaks to us in our own context of controversy. Twitter is, by and large, a theological toddler – insistent on its own way and will, based on the limited knowledge it has. This means that individuals who are encountering sound theology for the first time can reflexively begin to spar with those who don’t share it, and cause tremendous damage to themselves and to the gospel in the process. There is a time to speak, but it often follows sustained silence, study, and basic humility – when those elements are in place we are likely to be patient with those who oppose us, and to know which differences are central and which are peripheral. If your theological understanding is being formed more by 280 character statements and their replies than by Scripture and considered treatments of its teaching, you need a social media sabbatical and a good dose of prayerful reading/listening.
2. Get your facts straight: ‘if one gives an answer before he hears, it is his folly and shame (Proverbs 18:13). There is no doubt that the idea of conversation and of respectful listening can at times be a get-out clause for actually dealing with the issues in hand, a kind of smokescreen so that hard things don’t have to be said. But an equal danger is speaking before we really hear what the other party is saying or, more importantly, what lies behind their statements. Spurgeon was a staunch defender of the gospel, but he was not reactionary, and he had little to do with straw man or ad hominem arguments. Instead, he read widely and deeply in the literature of his opponents, he listened to concerns being raised by members of churches which were digressing from the true gospel, and he personally conversed with those who were distorting its message. This is part of the reason why Spurgeon’s critique could hit home so powerfully, his listening led him to a deep diagnosis of why the downgrade was happening, and what the fundamental issues were behind the superficial statements which were being made.
We owe this kind of rigour, not just to those who oppose us, but to God and the gospel. If we are hair trigger combatants who use the misrepresented views of others to platform our own principles we will do little to serve the cause of truth. If you want a good measure of how well you listen and handle difference, ask your husband, wife or those nearest to you about your presence and attentiveness in their lives – you might be surprised by their answer.
Proper engagement demands wide reading, deep thought, sincere prayer and precise speech – if any one of those elements is missing we must be silent. Even when we are armed with the facts of what is being taught we must balance firefighting with seed-sowing, being careful to positively and winningly present the truth as well as exposing error.
3. Be silent if others are speaking well: Spurgeon’s was a highly audible voice in favour of truth in his own day, and it is tremendously encouraging to see how other believers got behind him, prayed for him and relied on his articulation of the gospel. This was recognition of their spokesman’s erudition and theological capacity, and allowed him to speak with a strong minority voice to a world of error.
The world does not revolve around you and me, and neither does the global welfare of the gospel. While there may be key arenas in which the silence of your voice will be detrimental to truth, the world of Twitter and social media is likely not such a place. If we are transparent about our motives, sometimes we want to add a comment or post an update or engage with an individual because it either increases our personal profile or initiates us into a wider clan – we want to show what we know, or whose side we are on. There are a number of well qualified and thoughtful people engaging in meaningful debate with those who oppose the gospel, and where possible we should pray for them, support them, and listen to them. This does not mean that we should install a social media papacy or cohort of spiritual defence lawyers, but it does recognise that sometimes we are not the best qualified to address an issue. A key dictum here is, if someone else is speaking well to this issue I can safely be silent.
4. Keep the good of the gospel at heart: it is highly instructive to note that one of the key markers for Spurgeon of the danger of the downgrade was its effect on the prayer meetings of local churches. Spurgeon was a pastor-scholar of unique stripe, and his concern to stand against error was so that the truth might not just be treasured, but trusted, applied and shared. It was the spiritual life of the church which fired his passion for the staunch defence of the truth, knowing as he did that the public proclamation of Christ’s person lay in the charge of local churches.
If our defence of truth is to shore up the tradition, to reassure the tribe, to amplify our exposure, or vent the other vexations of our difficult lives, then we have lost all sense of focus in debate and conversation. The good of the gospel, the name of Christ, the health of the church, the plight of the lost are the real motives to contend for the gospel, and if they are not evident in our speech or in our lives, then we shouldn’t be too quick to click ‘compose’ or ‘comment’. If you are more active at your keyboard than you are in your fellowship, if you are a member of online theological forums and not a local church, if you have hundreds (or thousands) of followers and no real-life people to keep you accountable, and if your online apologetics ministry is woefully out of ratio to your evangelistic endeavours then you have disqualified yourself as a spokesperson for the truth. It’s that simple.
Among the many threats to the gospel in our world, the inarticulate, misinformed, grossly ill-mannered conduct of Christians online must certainly count among them. We need to stand for truth, but we also need to embody humility, and step back from the fire created by the anonymity and self-promotion that social media encourages. There is much at stake not simply in what we believe, but in how we defend and proclaim it – a pause to think through our approach might just be a first step in seeing Christ honoured in our lives and in our nations.