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7 Rules for Online Engagement
March 14, 2016
Christians have had their share of social media successes in over the past few years, many of them related to identifying theological error and defending theological truth. This work has been carried on through blogs, of course, but also through Facebook and YouTube and other forms of digital communication. But for all of the success, there have also been a lot of failures. Many of the most egregious failures have been in discussing or debating controversial topics. As we learn to engage controversy using these new platforms, we do well to consider how to we can speak with equal parts truth and love—love that is strengthened by truth and truth that is softened by love.
Robert R. Booth’s Children of the Promise, a book on the always-controversial subject of baptism, offers the kind of challenge we need. He says
We know we understand an opposing view only when we are able to articulate it and receive the affirmation of our opponent that we have accurately represented his position. Only then can we proceed to argue against it. It does not take a big man to push over a straw man—little men are up to this simple task. Nor is it enough to say that our brother is wrong, or silly, or that his arguments make no sense; we must be prepared to demonstrate such claims. Some argue that they do not need to demonstrate such claims. Some argue they do not need to understand opposing views. But they cannot expect to engage people who disagree with them.
This applies to discussions far beyond baptism. Tony Payne once turned to football (soccer) to provide the helpful illustration of playing the ball rather than the man.
As in football, so in debates and arguments, we should strive to play the ball not the man; to discuss the issue itself rather than attack the person presenting the issue. This is not easy. It requires the ability to separate the pros and cons of a particular argument or issue from the personality who is presenting them, and to subject your own arguments to the same honest scrutiny that you bring to bear on the alternative view.
You know you’re dealing with someone who is playing the man not the ball when he makes a straw man of your view; that is, when he presents your side of things in an extreme or ugly light, or describes or illustrates it in such a way as to make it unattractive. By contrast, a ball-player endeavours to describe and present the opposing view as fairly and reasonably as he would like someone to present his own view.
Ball-players also freely and honestly acknowledge what is good and right in the opposing view, and avoid intemperately damning the whole because of a defect in the parts. They seek to stick to the issue at hand, and not broaden or generalize the disagreement into a questioning of character or bona fides.
Playing the ball also means seeking to remain in good relationship with the person you’re disagreeing with, so that you can hopefully shake hands and share a coffee after your debate, or continue to work together on other projects or platforms. This is the ideal, and we should strive for it—to avoid targetting the person, and to deal instead with the issue, in the hope of coming to a common mind.
A very helpful and extensive word on gospel polemics comes from Tim Keller’s Center Church, and in the rest of this article I distill his wisdom to seven rules that ought to guide our hearts, our minds, and our words as we have these difficult discussions.
1. Carson’s Rule
The first rule comes from D.A. Carson and states You don’t have to follow Matthew 18 before publishing polemics. “[I]f someone is publicly presenting theological views that are opposed to sound doctrine, and you are not in the same ecclesiastical body with this person (that is, there is no body of elders over you both, as when, for example, both of you are ministers in the same denomination), then you may indeed publicly oppose those without going privately to the author of them.” This responds immediately to a common but misguided charge: But have you approached him personally? A person who publishes his words publicly can be responded to publicly.
2. Murray’s Rule
The second rule comes from John Murray and states You must take full responsibility for even unwitting misrepresentation of someone’s views. “In our internet age we are very quick to dash off a response because we think Mr A promotes X. And when someone points out that Mr A didn’t mean X because over here he said Y, we simply apologize, or maybe we don’t even do that. John Murray’s principle means that polemics must never be ‘dashed off.’ Great care should be taken to be sure you really know what Mr A believes and promotes before you publish.” To rule #2 I might add that if you have a relationship with a person with whom you disagree, it may be wise to attempt to contact that person to ensure that you have, indeed, understood their position and are now able to accurately represent it. More importantly, though, is to ensure you are being as accurate as possible in all you say.
3. Alexander’s Rule
The third rule comes from Archibald Alexander and states Never attribute an opinion to your opponent that he himself does not own. “[E]ven if you believe that Mr A’s belief X could or will lead others who hold that position to belief Y, do not accuse Mr A of holding to belief Y himself, if he disowns it. You may consider him inconsistent, but it is one thing to say that and another thing to tar him with belief Y by implying or insisting that he actually holds it when he does not. A similar move happens when you imply or argue that, if Mr A quotes a particular author favorably at any point, then Mr A must hold to all the views that the author holds at other points. If you, through guilt-by-association, hint or insist that Mr A must hold other beliefs of that particular author, then you are violating Alexander’s Rule and, indeed, Murray’s Rule. You are misrepresenting your opponent.” Be fair and be accurate. You can point out what you see as an inconsistency and you can even point out that the author seems to be influenced by authors you consider dangerous. But do not conflate the two.
4. Gillespie’s Rule A
The fourth rule is from George Gillespie and states Take your opponents’ views in total, not selectively. “Just because someone says (or fails to say something) in one setting—either for good reasons or because of a misstep—does not mean he fails to say it repeatedly and emphatically in the rest of his work. Gillespie is saying, ‘Be sure that what you say is Mr X’s position really is his settled view. You can’t infer that from one instance.’ If we build a case on such instances, we are in danger of falling afoul of Murray’s rule as well. We must take responsibility for misrepresenting the views of others.”
5. Gillespie’s Rule B
The fifth rule also belongs to Gillespie and states Represent and engage your opponents’ position in its very strongest form, not in a weak ‘straw man’ form. “Do all the work necessary until you can articulate the views of your opponent with such strength that he says, ‘I couldn’t have said it better myself.’ Then and only then will your polemics not misrepresent him, take his views in toto, and actually have the possibility of being persuasive.” I think we come to appreciate the importance of this rule when we see another person unfairly caricature our own beliefs. Never allow your opponent to say, “He completely misunderstood me.”
6. Calvin’s Rule
The sixth rule is Calvin’s and states Seek to persuade, not antagonize, but watch your motives! “It is possible to seek to be winsome and persuasive out of a self-centeredness, rather than a God-centeredness. We may do it to be popular. On the other hand, it is just as possible to be bold and strongly polemical out of self-centeredness rather than God-centeredness. And therefore, looking very closely at our motives, we should be sure our polemics do not unnecessarily harden and antagonize our opponents. We should seek to win them, as Paul did Peter, not to be rid of them.” The goal is not to vanquish an opponent or the people who have been led astray by him, but to win them all to the truth.
7. Everybody’s Rule
The seventh and final rule belongs to each of the previous six theologians and states Only God sees the heart—so remember the gospel and stick to criticizing the theology. Keller goes to John Newton and says “no one has written more eloquently about this rule than John Newton, in his well-known ‘Letter on Controversy.’ Newton says that first, before you begin to write a single word against an opponent, ‘and during the whole time you are preparing your answer, you may commend him by earnest prayer to the Lord’s teaching and blessing.’ This practice will stir up love for him and ‘such a disposition will have a good influence upon every page you write.’ Later in the letter Newton says, ‘Be upon your guard against admitting anything personal into the debate. If you think you have been ill treated, you will have an opportunity of showing that you are a disciple of Jesus, who ‘when he was reviled, reviled not again; when he suffered, he threatened not.’ ‘It is a great danger to aim to ‘gain the laugh on your side,’ to make your opponent look evil and ridiculous instead of engaging their views with ‘the compassion due to the souls of men.’”
I commend these seven rules to my fellow bloggers and to all of us who engage in online discussion. I share them today out of the conviction that I need to do far better in each of these ways, that I need to keep these rules before me. May we, may I, exemplify God-glorifying polemics.
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