If you happened to find yourself on the internet on Monday, then chances are you may have heard about this tweet from Mark Driscoll.
Not surprisingly it caused a bit of a ruckus (as so many of the things he says do).
Also not surprisingly, people came out of the woodwork, not so much to defend him (though, of course, some did), but to attack people who had the apparent audacity to criticize him.
These sorts of attacks usually go one of two ways – either people like myself who critique celebrity preachers are accused of “attacking a man of God/another Christian” or we’re attacked for conducting that critique in public.
Frankly, I’m not sure which is more ridiculous.
The former stems from fear of public perception, the idea being that if “outsiders” see Christians disagree with one another, then they’ll necessarily reject the gospel, because apparently all that’s standing in the way of someone like Richard Dawkins becoming a Christian is the church’s complete and total agreement on every issue of faith.
The mere fact that people continue to join the faith and have continued to join the faith despite two millennia of disagreement and disunion within the church, demonstrates that this fear is completely unfounded.
The latter attack stems from a fundamental misunderstanding or misreading of scripture that seems to believe that all disagreements within the church should happen outside the public sphere and behind closed doors. Not only does this sort of prescription appear nowhere in scripture, in fact, the very opposite is true.
Nearly every recorded instance we have of Jesus disagreeing with someone in the Gospels occurs in a public forum. Whether that public forum was the temple, a hillside, a town square, or just walking down the road, Jesus felt it completely acceptable (if not proper) to criticize his opponents and even argue with them in public.
And so did Paul.
Throughout the book of Acts we see Paul arguing for and against other believers in the public sphere. Moreover, the vast majority of the New Testament, Paul’s letters, became the vast majority of the New Testament because the squabbles they describe and respond to (and instruction they give) were fleshed out in public. The broader church saw the value in those letters as they were shared with whoever would listen, and thus (over time) they became canon.
In other words, the Christian faith is a public practice.
Because it is a public practice, the way the church conducts herself must change as the modes of public discourse change.
Jesus and the early church debated in the temple, town squares, and hillsides because that was the public forum of their today.
Today, the internet is our public forum. Through social media, blogs, and websites we are brought together in unprecedented fashion to share our beliefs, exchange ideas, and voice our disagreement when the need arises.
As we’ve seen in Libya, Egypt, and countless other places, this public exchange has the capacity to quite literally change the world.
Which means engaging this new arena of public discourse should be of utmost importance to the church if she is going to take Jesus’ call to go the the ends of the earth and make disciples seriously. The internet doesn’t replace flesh and blood discipleship, but it has a dramatic impact on the way all of us see, understand, and interact with the world.
In short, the world itself has changed and the church must change with it.
Of course, so do celebrity preachers.
And that’s were things get interesting, if not just flat out strange.
There appears to be this unspoken mentality among many church leaders, and especially their followers, that they are not accountable, at least not beyond their local church, for anything they say or do on the internet as if they were only speaking to their local congregation. I say they apparently feel this way because they rarely, if ever, take the opportunity to respond to the firestorms they create.
This is incredibly absurd and profoundly unchristian.
As I’ve already said and we all already knew, the internet connects us in unprecedented ways. As a result, it has a profound impact on how we think and talk about everything, including, if not especially, the faith. The church has always been connected on a spiritual level, but now the sinews of the Body of Christ are fused together in tangible ways that the apostle Paul could never have imagined, the potential of which we are just not beginning to imagine.
And this is why what one Christian says on the internet matters, particularly when that one Christian is a celebrity preacher with a large following.
We are all in this thing called Christianity together. There is no such thing as “my church” that is somehow disconnected or autonomous from “our church.” What one of us says or does affects the rest of us because we all share the same identity: Christian. Sure, we may be free to choose the color of carpet in our own churches without any real ramifications for the broader church, but when we choose to engage the world outside the four walls of our local churches, what we say or do directly affects and is accountable to the rest of the church body.
To put it simply, the notion of Christian autonomy that pervades so much of the church today isn’t Biblical. It’s American. Worse yet, it’s antithetical to the fundamental ideas of Christianity: one Lord, one faith, one baptism.
Moreover, the very nature of the interconnected world we live in makes this sort of autonomy and the subsequent attempts at the privatization of the faith an intrinsic impossibility.
For good or ill we are all, both Christian and non-Christian alike, connected to one another and there is no going back.
Which means tweets and blog posts from celebrity pastors matter. And when they go viral they can have a significant impact on the church, which is exactly why we can’t bury our heads in the ground under the guise of “he’s not my pastor.”
“He” may not be, but as a fellow Christian “he” represents our faith (and us) to the world and if he does that in an unchristian, or worse yet, abusive, way, then we as fellow believers have an obligation to stand up and say something about it.
It’s not that celebrity preachers are accountable to the internet, an admittedly rather abstract concept. Rather, the reason they are accountable for their tweets and posts is that very real people make up the online community they are broadcasting too, many members of which are Christians who, as fellow brothers and sisters in Christ, they are very much accountable to…..which makes it inexplicable that so many of them have the apparent arrogance to think they are not obligated to respond to outrage when it arises in response to something they have said or done. If you have enough time to start the conversation, then you have the time (or must find the time) to respond when the conversation takes a turn for the worse. Otherwise you are being utterly irresponsible and reckless with the gifts God has given you as a leader of God’s people.
In the face of their silence, if we as Christians care about the message that is being preached and the image of Christ that is being portrayed to the world, then we absolutely and unequivocally have a responsibility to speak out. After all, if we are truly members of a royal priesthood, then we have both the scriptural authority and obligation to do so.
Where should we speak?
Where the conversation is happening: on Twitter, Facebook, blogs, etc.
It simply makes no sense when church leaders begin a conversation (which is the purpose of tweets, Facebook statuses, blog posts, etc.), for other Christians to respond to that conversation somewhere else. I don’t mean the conversation shouldn’t also continue offline. I mean the idea that seems to pop up whenever celebrity preachers like Mark Driscoll or John Piper or whoever say something outrageous, namely that Twitter, Facebook, or blogs are the wrong place to engage the conversation that started in those very same places, is utterly absurd.
The world has changed.
The internet is the new public square.
Just like Jesus, Paul, and the rest of the early church, we must have these conversations in the open for all to see, warts and all, both for the sake of accountability, but also in hopes that maybe in the midst of our passionate conversations and debate, the Truth will arise, others will see that Truth, and begin to ask us questions.
And therein lies the beauty of our changing world.
We may not all have the money to travel to the ends of the earth, but with a basic computer and internet connection each and every one of us can proclaim to good news to every corner of creation.
There are certainly some inherent risks in that opportunity, but ultimately it allows the Christian faith to be a faith defined by the Body of Christ, rather than a few celebrity preachers.
And that is a very, very good thing.
Grace and peace,