No private matter – Pt.1

When we prize the interests of party above those of the whole community, when we make our perspective prescriptive, our personal preferences into binding principles, then we have lost a significant part of our apology for the Christian faith, and our voice within the Church. This is a truth which seems sadly lost on much of the Christian discourse and interaction on social media, and the internet more widely, and the cause of Christ is suffering as a result.

In the next few posts on Thinking Pastorally I want to probe some of the motives and outcomes which precede and follow the fiery debates between brothers online, highlight a few parallels from 1Corinthians, and suggest some steps we can take towards agreement, or at least disagreeing more agreeably. In this first post I think through the internal group dynamics of being antagonistic towards brothers and sisters online:

Your followers are listening
In the world of social media the choir is consistently preached to and primed to support one’s own view. The smallest amount of time spent reading the Tweets of prominent polemical evangelicals makes one thing clear – they are seldom writing to persuade their opponents, and are more often writing to please their followers. The pattern repeats itself time and again, a social media figure with a significant following earths the tuning fork, and a ready chorus rises up in apparent harmony – not realising how discordant and tuneless their strains are to the rest of the world.

It is hard not to feel that this is a living breathing version of the Paul-Cephas-Apollos-Christ split that the Corinthian church had facilitated. Within that first century fellowship there were undoubtedly people who held that their particular brand and stripe of gospel expression was the only authentic one, who had genuinely come to believe that the entire welfare of the kingdom rested on the preeminence of their particular clique. Paul shatters this by bringing his readers back to the truths of unity, and Christ’s sole supremacy. A partisan spirit is a sinful spirit within the body of Christ, and secondary schism/separation is inimical to the life and welfare of the church locally and globally. Paul was sufficiently concerned about this issue to devote extended time to it, and to abdicate from any titular position that those in the ‘Paul Party’ may have wanted to give him.

Surely this speaks to the social media debates and debacles which have become so much a part of what Christians are saying and then restating via retweets and shares. Could there be room for those with influence to honestly audit whether they are truly contending for the gospel, or are seeking to defend their grouping? This is a crucial question, one which entails thorough self-examination and the risk of public renunciation of one’s behaviour in the past.

Coming from a Northern Ireland context, I have lived through three phases of political exchange. During ‘The Troubles’ there was little desire for parity of opinion or esteem between those who disagreed. In that first phase there was plenty of caricature, invective, and misrepresentation, and it didn’t really matter whether it was fair or productive. As long as the bounds of ones own opinions were throughly beaten out, then the narrow grouping was happy. With the advent of Good Friday Agreement politics things became more open, there was genuine dialogue, there were unexpected points of agreement and convergence, and a way was found to move forward in spite of differences of opinion and conviction. This approach stressed the common ground and sought to stretch its boundaries to a point where everyone could live together. Sadly, our latest political phase has retreated into a conceited tribalism, and the barbed words and badly drawn portraits are disgracing the halls of public discussion once more.

My reason for referencing this is that there are significant parallels with the evangelical church, in terms of partisan approaches. For a time in the early twenty-first century it looked as though the old days of lobbing theological grenades at parties with a different, but equally biblically conservative, emphasis were over. The rapprochement of ‘T4G’ in 2006 signalled good things, and a true catholicity of spirit. Sadly it looks as though phase three is where we are moving back to, with the rebuilding of old walls around new disputes. It is hard not to feel that this is a form of worldliness which is simply aping the polarised political landscape around it.

Paul’s calling to the Corinthians is not to an artificial uniformity, but to a true unity around the common foundation of Christ Jesus. Paul’s portrait of the church in 1Corinthians 3 is easily mined for ministry metaphors (servants/farmers/builders), but the main emphasis is on God himself – ‘God gave the growth’, ‘God’s fellow workers’, ‘God’s field’, ‘God’s building’ (1Corinthians 3:5-9). If we lose sight of God’s proprietorial rights over the field, over the building, over the outcomes, then we are prone to try to build our own substructure, or subcontract the yield of our gospel allotment for our own benefit. The true theological grounds of the biblical gospel are narrow, but the God of the gospel is not politically confined, he is not wedded to our petty cultural norms – he is bigger than that, and our perspective on the latest hot button issue may not be as crucial as we have come to believe.

Perhaps the great tragedy in this is that Christians are saying very little about Christ in their online exchanges. There is high theology and heated cultural analysis, but what of the gospel? What of our commission to make disciples? Have we lost that in favour of finding and keeping followers? Is much of the discussion online now just a form of ideological aggrandisement which bears little accountability to getting the work done of making our glorious and beautiful Saviour known?

In the next post I want to think through the implications of the fact that the world is also listening to our statements online, and to unpack some of the ways in which this might temper our speaking and acting.

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