For the present generation the private sphere has been sacrificed on the altar of easy publicity, and the democratic platforms of social media. The days wherein a public figure could hold private opinions unmolested are largely over, and as ordinary citizens we have come to believe that even our thoughts need a forum in order to be validated. This is an entirely new cognitive category for all of us and, as can often be the case, the church is more than a little behind the curve on how best to work within it.
This is certainly true in the case of discussion and disagreement between Christian brothers and sisters. Spend a small amount of time on social media examining the contours of much modern Christian debate and you might well come away discouraged and a little disillusioned – it is not a pleasant or irenic space. My Twitter feed is divided almost evenly between Christians and non-Christians, the former engaging with theology, the latter with poetry and literature. It is a source of genuine sadness to me that the second category tends to be the more open minded, open handed, and generous in spirit. On the other hand, Christians and social media can be a toxic blend.
In a previous post I thought through the partisan nature of much online discussion among Christians, and here I want to explore something which we can easily forget when we are interacting and disagreeing online – the world is watching. Occasionally when I encounter two Christians listening past one another, beginning to scrape around in the mud to find a few handfuls to fling, it is easy to see that they have come to believe that their differences are in the realm of a domestic dispute rather than being a public row. Epithets are casually traded, straw men are intricately constructed and immediately incinerated, aspersions are cast on the character of men and women of good repute, and the gospel is seldom mentioned, even more rarely adorned. All the while, the world is watching, some souls might be searching for Christ, and others will be searching for sources of criticism, but there is nothing private and nothing pretty about two believers at one another’s throats.
The Apostle Paul has some sobering teaching for us in this area. Of the many problems which Corinth faced, amnesia about a watching world appeared to be a recurring one. The chaos of their public worship had lost sight of the fact that non-Christians might be in their midst who could be turned back by their disorder, or won over by the manifest presence of God among them should the church seek reform. Perhaps the most lamentable public face which the church showed, however, was in the area of litigation. Christians had begun to take civil proceedings against one another in the Corinthian courts, airing bundles of dirty linen in full view of a hostile culture.
The law courts of Corinth were not the sterilised and austere edifices which we might associate with our own western judicial system. Civil cases would be heard and tried in the market place among justices who were of the people and among the people. There were no injunctions and few boundaries to how matters of unrest or disagreement would be articulated and spread throughout the community. Christians were engaging the services of such courts, knowing full well that once their case was opened the whole city could see.
Paul’s counsel is curt and unambiguous – ‘if any of you has a dispute against another, how dare you take it to court before the unrighteousness, and not before the saints?’ For Paul a public contest between Christians meant both parties were already defeated regardless of rights or wrongs, strengths or weaknesses of argument (1Cor 6:7). Undoubtedly much of this outrage was owing to the fact that believers were seeking arbitration from non-Christians on civil matters, but the issue of public testimony was also prominent in his thinking – ‘brother goes to court against brother, and that before unbelievers!’ The Corinthians would have been more prudent to sustain a personal hit, rather than face public shame, they would have been better never to have aired their grievances at all, rather than hanging them out in the public square.
The collateral loss to the Christian church of ill-judged public dispute was simply too high for Paul to countenance, and it ought to be an unthinkable expenditure for us as well. There is undoubtedly a place for healthy discussion, for a forum in which issues of major and minor, congregational and personal, concern can be worked through. But to wade into the marketplace with vitriol and vindictiveness against a brother or sister is never the gospel way, and is always a loss for the cause of Christ.
The raging disputes over finer points of theology, over the social expression of justice in a conflicted world, and a whole host of other significant and insignificant issues could be much better worked through in the channels of private communication, through the colloquy of local churches and denomination, and in face-to-face dialogues where nuance can be embodied, and even strong disagreement can be privately worked through. If the differences are irreconcilable, believers can walk away and serve and follow their Saviour as they see biblically fit, without any sense of dishonour being brought to Christ among those who do not know him.
The world is watching, there is no fourth wall to break for online dispute, and we would do well work on our differences, and settle our debates, in a way which does not drag the Saviour and his gospel through the mud of the marketplace.