Conscience Binding, Media Ecology, and Theological Controversy
There is something innate in the fallen hearts of men that gives them an insatiable desire to seek to bind the consciences of others on just about every given matter. Whether it is food preferences, education, parenting, or environmental considerations, most people love to bind the consciences of others to that to which their own consciences are bound. This is most notably seen in the way in which people assert their opinions about what others should be doing in a pandemic. It has also manifested itself in much of the social commentary about perceived social injustices. In all these things, it is right for believers to appeal to Scripture as the only rule of faith and life. For good reason, Protestants have long found Martin Luther's bold declaration at the Diet of Worms to resonate powerfully in their souls. When commanded to recant his teaching, Luther famously stated,
"Unless I am convinced by Scripture and plain reason - I do not accept the authority of the popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other - my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. God help me. Amen."
However, the notion of conscience binding is often more subtle among believers than it was in the day of the Reformer's contentions with the Roman Catholic Church. Today, believers who adhere faithfully to the teaching of Scripture on biblical sexual ethics or socio-political theories frequently seek to bind the consciences of other believers who faithfully adhere to the same teaching of Scripture on these matters. Now, it is no longer enough that one confesses to believe the Scriptures about its teaching on sexual sin and racial unity in Christ. If one does not speak out as loudly, vehemently, and consistently as another online he is excoriated as not have true "convictions" about these matters. It usually plays out in the following way:
A vocal opponent of various forms of compromise and falsehood calls other believers to action. However, the action is generally unspecified. It is packaged with rhetoric about "courage,” "boldness,” or “taking a stand.” It riles up a certain group of individuals who then begin to echo the rally cry of a pressure group. It manifests itself through individuals in just about every denomination. What it often amounts to, however, is a self-admiring attempt to bind the consciences of other believers to speak out in the same way and to the same degree as said individual is speaking out on a social media platform or in a blog post. Under the auspice of "courage," the rally cry goes out with as much conscience binding force as can be mustered.
This raises several important questions. Do we really grasp the nature of media ecology? Does God expect every believer to take to social media to bodily proclaim opposition to every unbiblical ideology and movement? Is it a lack of biblical conviction that leads others to avoid contention in our interactions with others online? What biblical principles ought to be guiding Christians in the way in which they write and speak publicly about these matters? How should Scripture govern the spirit with which we interact online on significant yet controversial issues that affect both the church and society? These are not easy questions to answer but they are worthy of our reflection.
Most of us have not adequately reflected on the nature of media ecology. We have ideas and opinions about social media. We employ rhetorical figures of speech such as "dumpster fire" or "train wreck" when speaking about social media. We acknowledge the snare of being drawn into controversy with people we don't really know and who would not have been, in bygone generations, without the sphere of our moral proximity. We understand the way in which social media can monopolize our time and energy; however, we have not yet fully grasped the "interplay between humans, technology, media, and the environment, with the aim of increasing awareness of mutual effects" (Oxford Bibliographies). I am not sure that any of us will fully have grasped the phenomenon of social media before we die. It is a lightening-fast moving, decentralized, ocean of media evolution and social interaction. Recognizing this should, at least, give us pause about what, when, how, and why we may say something online.
In 2006 Greg Reynolds wrote what is arguably the most careful treatment of media ecology at that time from a thoroughly Christian and Reformed perspective, The Word is Worth a Thousand Pictures. A look back at that work in 2022 is a fascinating sociological exercise. Reynolds wrote his book on the internet frontier. Facebook was in its early stages of development and Twitter did not yet exist. It was a different time. Chatrooms existed, but many us us quickly realized that we did not have the time or interest to jump into the fray of debate in them. The most heated contentions online were usually those found in the comment sections of a blog post. To look back at how much social media has changed the landscape of our world is worthy of deep reflection, expecially as it relates to our use of it in regard to engagement in theological controversy.
What, if any, responsibility do Christians have to make use of online platforms for the propagation and defense of the truth? What does God require of them? This question may sound strange, coming from someone who has spent 15 years writing and publishing articles, blog posts, podcasts, and social media content online. In short, I do not believe that God requires anyone to have a social media account, let alone to have to publish their convictions and opinions about anything in that forum–especially not in response to conscience binding calls to "courageous stands for truth." Does God call us to take courageous stand for truth? Absolutely. Does he require us to do it on a social media feed or in a blog post? Absolutely not. In fact, I would suggest that guiding biblical principles give us great reason to be cautious about what, when, and how we say things online.
Never in the history of the world could someone write something that has the potential for the entire connected world to read at lightening speed. This offers us an unprecedented platform to speak truth; but it also comes with enormous dangers. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus told His disciples, “Do not give dogs what is holy, and do not throw your pearls before pigs, lest they trample them underfoot and turn to attack you” (Matthew 7:6). We should ask ourselves whether or not we are doing so when we engage in theological controversy online. Sometimes contending for truth online becomes tantamount to casting pearls before swine. To see this in real time, all one needs to do is read the comments of hostile unbelievers in response to a twitter thread or to a Facebook post written by a believer. The block button exist to enable us to thin out trolls; but, this, in and of itself, ought to give us pause about the forum. We need discernment about what we are saying and who we are addressing. For Christians, speaking truth on social media may amount to being "salt and light" (Matthew 5:13-16), "a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal" (1 Corinthians 13:1), or "casting pearls before pigs" (Matt. 7:6). Which one depends on why, how, and when we are saying what we are saying.
Throughout church history, theological controversies have played a significant role in the development and defense of doctrine. However, most refutations of theological error or unbiblical teaching came in the form of published books or pamphlets. Though there were always firebrand combatants who lit dumpster fires in every age (consider the damage done to the Reformation in Britain and Europe by Knox’s impetuous publication of The First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women), the revered and lasting theological works of controversy written by pastors and theologians were often tempered in their language and carefully written. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the rise of publishing companies added a helpful peer review component to all publications. There is something right and good about having others process what we write, especially when it delves into the realm of theological controversies, since Scripture tells us, “in the multitude of counsellors there is safety” (Proverbs 11:14). Zeal without wise critical review often ends in misguided, careless, or fallacious arguments. With the advent of the internet, the safety net of peer reviewed publications has essentially disappeared. Any thoughtful individual should want an evaluation process in which editors and other thoughtful scholars critically assess the quality and merit of whatever we seek to write in the realm of controversy.
In addition to what has been said above, we must also consider the spirit in which we engage in controversial matters. John Newton once wrote a letter on rules of controversy to a minister who came to him and relayed his intention to publicly refute the teaching of another minister. In that letter, Newton set out a number of important principles we should all keep in mind in our engagement on controversial matters. The first principle is to “consider your opponent.” Newton wrote,
“If you account him a believer, though greatly mistaken in the subject of debate between you, the words of David to Joab concerning Absalom, are very applicable: "Deal gently with him for my sake." The Lord loves him and bears with him; therefore you must not despise him, or treat him harshly. The Lord bears with you likewise, and expects that you should show tenderness to others, from a sense of the much forgiveness you need yourself. In a little while you will meet in heaven; he will then be dearer to you than the nearest friend you have upon earth is to you now. Anticipate that period in your thoughts; and though you may find it necessary to oppose his errors, view him personally as a kindred soul, with whom you are to be happy in Christ forever.
But if you look upon him as an unconverted person, in a state of enmity against God and his grace (a supposition which, without good evidence, you should be very unwilling to admit), he is a more proper object of your compassion than of your anger. Alas! "He knows not what he does." But you know who has made you to differ. If God, in his sovereign pleasure, had so appointed, you might have been as he is now; and he, instead of you, might have been set for the defense of the gospel. You were both equally blind by nature. If you attend to this, you will not reproach or hate him, because the Lord has been pleased to open your eyes, and not his.”
The second of Newton’s admonition was to “consider the public.” When we engage in theological controversy online, we must recognize that the spirit in which we engage will have an impact for good or ill on those around us. Newton wrote,
“Whatever it be that makes us trust in ourselves that we are comparatively wise or good, so as to treat those with contempt who do not subscribe to our doctrines, or follow our party, is a proof and fruit of a self-righteous spirit. Self-righteousness can feed upon doctrines as well as upon works; and a man may have the heart of a Pharisee, while his head is stored with orthodox notions of the unworthiness of the creature and the riches of free grace. Yea, I would add, the best of men are not wholly free from this leaven; and therefore are too apt to be pleased with such representations as hold up our adversaries to ridicule, and by consequence flatter our own superior judgments. Controversies, for the most part, are so managed as to indulge rather than to repress his wrong disposition; and therefore, generally speaking, they are productive of little good. They provoke those whom they should convince, and puff up those whom they should edify. I hope your performance will savor of a spirit of true humility, and be a means of promoting it in others.
Finally, Newton warned his friend to “consider himself.” He wrote,
“We find but very few writers of controversy who have not been manifestly hurt by it. Either they grow in a sense of their own importance, or imbibe an angry, contentious spirit, or they insensibly withdraw their attention from those things which are the food and immediate support of the life of faith, and spend their time and strength upon matters which are at most but of a secondary value. This shows, that if the service is honorable, it is dangerous. What will it profit a man if he gains his cause and silences his adversary, if at the same time he loses that humble, tender frame of spirit in which the Lord delights, and to which the promise of his presence is made?
. . .If we act in a wrong spirit, we shall bring little glory to God, do little good to our fellow creatures, and procure neither honor nor comfort to ourselves. If you can be content with showing your wit, and gaining the laugh on your side, you have an easy task; but I hope you have a far nobler aim, and that, sensible of the solemn importance of gospel truths, and the compassion due to the souls of men, you would rather be a means of removing prejudices in a single instance, than obtain the empty applause of thousands. Go forth, therefore, in the name and strength of the Lord of hosts, speaking the truth in love; and may he give you a witness in many hearts that you are taught of God, and favored with the unction of his Holy Spirit."
In all that we do, God calls us to seek the Scriptures for guiding directives for what we may or may not write online. Scripture and Scripture alone should bind our consciences. This is especially so with regard to what God requires of us in our stewardship of the internet. If we engage others online, we should do so acknowledging the many dangers that we will have to navigate. We should be slow to listen to the loudest voices, as they are often driven by impulsive zeal and an inflated sense of self-importance. In many cases, those who call others to arms online have, as Newton noted, a self-righteous spirit. Many wrongly confuse “a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal" (1 Corinthians 13:1) with courageous boldness. If we do engage in controversy, let us consider our opponent, consider the public, and consider ourselves. In doing so, we will better represent the truth of God to those within and outside the walls of the church. May the Lord give us the grace to do so in the right way and at the right time.