John Newton wrote a beautiful letter to a friend which is called in his collected works, “On Controversy”—because that friend was about to engage in public controversy over Christian doctrine; Newton wanted to give him some scriptural counsel. I have read it 20 times over nearly as many years, and thought of it countless more. In order to more fully get the principles into my own soul—because I, frankly, have not always lived up to them—I have taken the liberty of “transculturating” it for today’s Christian SMWs—Social Media Warriors. If Newton were to write the same letter today, this is my guess as to what he would write:
Dear Christian Friend about to Post a Comment in a Social Media Battle,
I’ve always appreciated your love of truth—and I know that itch you’re feeling right now, the itch to jump into the fray.
I happen to agree with the position you’re about to defend. We’re together on this. And truth is stronger than fiction: our side cannot lose. Not even the gates of hell could prevail against it. So even a person without your skill with a keyboard could enter this particular social media mêlée with some confidence of coming out on top—in the end, at least.
But we must be more than conquerors. We need to triumph not just over error in others but over sin in ourselves. Some battle wounds may make us wish we had never won.
Let’s stop and think about our opponents, the internet bystanders, and ourselves.
Our social media opponents
I’m ashamed how often I myself have forgotten step one, step zero: have we prayed for our internet sparring partners? I mean prayed for them not only before pounding out a response but between every keystroke. Are we praying for them as our fingers hover over the return key? If we ask the Lord to teach them and bless them, that prayer will soften our hearts and our prose in profoundly healthy ways.
If our opponents are Christians, we can imagine the Lord saying to us what David said to Joab about Absalom: “Deal gently with him for my sake.” The Lord loves our opponents; his love for them was longsuffering long before we met them, ahem, fifteen seconds ago. If we wring their rhetorical necks, we’ll not only risk being unforgiving servants, we’ll risk proving unforgiven ones (Matt 18:35).
Someday our Facebook pages will be memorial walls for whatever friends we have left—and so will be those of our (Christian, remember?) opponents. Think about what will happen then. All of us will be together in heaven, forever, and our love for each other then will be greater than our love for our best earthly friends now. Our opponents may be dead wrong, but after we’re all dead—they’ll be right again.
If our opponents are not Christians—and I try not to be too quick to come to that conclusion if they claim otherwise; before their own Master they stand or fall—the best emotion to feel toward them is compassion, not anger. “They know not what they do!” But we know who’s responsible for giving us new hearts dedicated to truth. It didn’t have to be this way. God was not required to save you and me from our sins. But for the grace of God, we’d have their list of Likes.
There is room for an Elijah mocking the prophets of Baal (1 Kings 18), an Isaiah mocking the silliness of idols (Isa 44), and a Jesus Christ mocking the Pharisees (Matt 23). But those seem to me to be special exceptions to the general rule that one ought to “correct his opponents with gentleness” so that “God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth” (2 Tim 2:25). If we are writing for spiritually blind people, we must be careful not to put any trip hazards between them and the cross. God’s grace is necessary for salvation, but this is no reason to push people (humanly speaking) further away from him.
And there are mudslinging trolls out there—Christian and non-Christian—whom it is foolhardy to engage. They’ll only drag you down to their level (Prov 26:4; Matt 7:6). My rule of thumb: I do my best to avoid debating people who can never bring themselves to acknowledge that their opponents have just made a good point. (I also, by God’s grace, do my best not to be one of those people—if I can’t see the genuine strengths of viewpoints I disagree with, it’s likely my fault.)
The internet bystanders
Among those reading and liking (and trolling) will be three groups:
1. Those who disagree with you
It’s easy to forget these people when our eyes are focused on our direct opponents. But those opponents represent many, many others who hold the same opinions. Many will watch who will not comment. Regarding these I will point again to the thoughts above.
2. Those who don’t care about your religious points
But then there are people who don’t know or care about the doctrines we defend online, because they aren’t religious at all. If these people are generally indisposed to dislodge their rather shining views of their moral rectitude, that doesn’t hinder their ability to sniff out pride in us. Even those who can’t follow our arguments can read our spirits pretty well in between the pixels. And they know that religious people—particularly Christians—are supposed to be meek, humble, and loving.
Every day online the Scripture is proved true: “The anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God.” If we mix invective and scorn into our posts, we’re forgetting that the weapons of our warfare—the only weapons which, in reality, can break down strongholds of error—are “not of the flesh.” Whether we persuade anyone of anything else or not, somehow we must persuade bystanders that we wish others well. We are known by our love (John 13:35).
3. Those who agree with you
If we write truth skillfully, we will be a blessing to and a champion for other Christians who love that truth. We will build them up if “the law of kindness” as well as that of truth is guiding our words (Prov 31:26). If not, we will tear them down.
Christians may take it as proof of our humility that we subscribe to the necessity of God’s grace for salvation—and yet this very belief may subtly become a comparison tool for displaying what a “favourable credit-balance” we have run up in God’s “ledger by allowing [ourselves] to be converted” (Lewis, Screwtape Letters 8). Self-righteousness can feed on good doctrines, not just good works. Pharisaism did not die in the first century.
Heated controversies generally do more to promote this kind of self-righteousness than to repress it. They often provoke the people that should be convinced and puff up the ones that should be edified. Built-up edifices last; puffed up ones explode. Controversies, even heated ones, must at times occur (see Gal 2), yes, but a prior inoculation of humility is the necessary antidote for these problems.
Now we must consider our own souls.
Truth makes up a relatively small portion of internet traffic. People are indeed needed to contend for the faith once delivered to the saints, because that faith is not only attacked but misrepresented at every turn.
And yet I have observed that those who dedicate their writing to matters of controversy are often, well, twisted by their work. Their vision of their own value to the kingdom is inflated (we are all at best unprofitable servants only doing that which it is our duty to do); they become habitually contentious; they shift their attention from the main course of the spiritual life to the side dishes.
If contending for the faith is honorable, it is nonetheless dangerous. A man can win and lose at the same time: he can win the most Reddit upvotes and lose the humble, tender spirit in which the Lord delights.
Even when our aim in controversy is good, Satan will want to twist God’s cause into what is merely our own cause. Especially when we think we have been mistreated—people have said all manner of evil things falsely against us (Matt 5:11)—we may be tempted to let debates get personal in a way they shouldn’t. Jesus, “when he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten” (1 Pet 2:25). Christ is our model. And when we speak and write for God, we simply must not “repay evil for evil or reviling for reviling, but on the contrary, bless” (1 Pet 3:9). The wisdom that is from above is pure and peaceable and gentle; let a dead fly get into that sweet ointment, and it will spoil all our work. We will bring little glory to God, do little good for our neighbors, and bring shame and disquiet on ourselves.
If our goal is to display our wit and give our party a quick laugh at others’ expense or to post on social media to get more followers, that’s as easy as slapping a clever saying on a meme. But if our heart’s desire is truly for Gospel truth; if we have genuine compassion on the souls of other people; if we speak the truth in love; it’s better to remove one person’s prejudices than to get a thousand empty likes.
Mark L. Ward, Jr. received his PhD from Bob Jones University in 2012; he now serves the church as a Logos Pro. He is the author of multiple high school Bible textbooks, including Biblical Worldview: Creation, Fall, Redemption.
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