One of the inevitabilities of being active on social media is being witness to the daily skirmishes between several christian groups and people that I like and whose ministries I equally respect. Right now some are behaving badly. Some are being needlessly provocative. Some are acting kinder than others. Some are acting graciously. Some are showing me their true colours and are dampening my enthusiasm for their respective ministries and characters. This all gets to play out in blog posts, comboxes, and Facebook and Twitter private message screenshots.
Given that we’re still trying to navigate the theological implications of how social media defines our relationships with other believers and what our best practices towards each other should be from a grace-based perspective, caution is in order. A general principle that most people prefer to abide by is this: If it’s a private matter, deal with it privately as long as you can. If it’s public matter, then address it publicly. In light of these complexities, if doesn’t take long for Matthew 18:15-17 to be thrown into the mix as a consideration.
Some will quote this as a proof-text of what should or should not be done. Others will dismiss it and say it’s not applicable. Some will bring these verses to bear and begin to exposit them on why it does or does not apply, and others will wield this verse as a weapon to fend off what may be deserving criticism of their behavior.
I take a pretty open view to such things: when someone says or does something that you feel you must respond to, go for it. No one is off limits and everyone can be exhorted by anyone. I support the idea that public comments are worthy of public responses. If you believe someone is publicly teaching error, then its appropriate to issue a public rebuke. In a similar vein [and this is for free] If you sin publicly, then your apology must be public as well. It’s not just public teaching of error though, but if you have any sort of issue with another brother, or if you feel you’ve been slighted, misrepresented or maligned.
Here is some advice . While I don’t have a chapter and verse to quote, and I’m unaware of any explicit imperatives to behave in this way, I feel it is the most wisest, thoughtful, charitable, and Christian thing you can do.
If someone is readily accessible to be communicated by Facebook, Twitter, email phone or text message, please at least TRY to get a hold of them and talk to them privately before you post about them.
If someone has shown a propensity to respond back to tweets, and has expressed a willingness to receive feedback, and is not burrowed away behind a hundred layers of handlers and bureaucracy , please just TRY to reach out to them.
Do I think everyone must always reach out to the guilty/offending party before posting something? No. Sometimes you can’t. Not all people are accessible. I can’t communicate and get into contact with many high-profile preachers and teachers. If I have an issue with some wild and crazy thing that a famous mega-church pastor has said, or a prolific false teacher, I have no way of getting hold them. Some are too busy. Some have great responsibilities which necessitates that responding to your thoughts are far down the list. Some get outside communication lost in the shuffle, and some have instructions that all criticism be deleted and thrown away.
You can always try to reach out to the worst offenders, but some people have demonstrated repeatedly through persistent patterns of behavior that anyone critiquing them are “haters” and will be completely ignored. The ones on the dock steadfastly refuse to engage with bloggers or people involved in ODM’s or even thoughtful queries from laypeople.
They’ve demonstrated a chronic unwillingness to listen to correction and have openly rebuked anyone trying to bring the Word of God to bear on their lives. You know that there’s no way that they’ll ever respond to you because no one else has been able to. In that case- fire away. Level both barrels at them and let them have it. Other people have done your due diligence for you and have shown conclusively that some people are not open to correction, and so have at ‘er. You weren’t under any obligation to “Matthew 18 them” before, and now you’re REALLY not obligated.
Then there’s the little guys. While you can’t reach or communicate with all of them, some of them you can. Sometimes you can break through. I know that if I have a problem or issue with something someone said who is not as high-profile, I’ll usually get some kind of response from them. If they are striving to be Christ-like they will serve to lend an ear to questions, comments, clarifications and critiques. Why not take advantage of that? Why can’t you wait a few hours or a few days to see if they respond are open to some dialogue?
“But I want to post something RIGHT AWAY!”
Fine. I get it. I know it’s your right. Cling to it and your demand to rebuke someone publicly for a real or perceived infraction. Cling to your insistence that Mathew 18 doesn’t apply. I’m not knocking that. I think Matthew 18 is up there with one of the most abused, misunderstood, and unfairly applied portion of scripture out there. You won’t get any arguments from me.
But if you could probably reach someone, couldn’t you at least try? Couldn’t you bless this person by bringing it to them privately with the hopes that they themselves will correct it publicly? And its not just false teaching. It could be an attitude, a behavior, or something they said in ignorance because they never had all the information. It could be turn of a word gone wrong or a misdirected link.
I’ve seen 6000 word blog posts written blasting certain people, and the person in question responded in the combox “Sorry, I meant to say this and not that. Poor communication on my part. Thanks for pointing it out to me.” The only person at that point who looks good is the person who responded, not the one with newfound burning coals on their head.
When you don’t assume evil intentions from your Christian brothers and sisters, then out of love and charity you WANT to behave graciously towards them and give them this mercy and charity, especially when waiting a couple of hours or a couple days to get ahold of them is not burdensome.
This works sometimes, but not always. Even with your best intentions they may obstinately cast you aside. Or they’ll ignore you. Or insult you. Or they’ll demonstrate that they don’t want to work things out, but rather will refuse to engage and just want to make some noise. Make no mistake, there are christian leaders and christian Facebook groups who are populated by people who are absolutely in sin by the way they handle private entreaties and exhortations. Great. Then it’s fair game and you can unleash the hounds if you want, or you can let it lie and shake the dust off your sandals.
But what if they respond sorrowfully and regretfully? What if they ask for time to consider your words. What if they seem open to talk about it? What if they apologized and plan to make amends?
With some people, in some situations, in some circumstances, couldn’t we all at least try to lay down our right to the instant, public, provoked rebuke?
What if they say “You’re right, I didn’t think about that tweet before I retweeted it.” or “You’re right, I didn’t know the whole situation, only what I had been told, and I had no business saying what I did.” or “Yeah, my attitude is not very Christlike and I shouldn’t have use those words to describe him.” Or “You’re right, I recommended that book or author without knowing much about them” ?
When you know you can reach out to someone, and you do, that means you extended to them some Christian grace and the both of you are better for it, as well as the Christian body and anyone who is following along to these skirmishes and blog battles