I had an idea! What if I rebrand this site Reformed People and make it the gossip rag, the tabloid, of the Reformed world? This much is true: I would never run out of people to discuss and evaluate. Just last week I received emails or phone calls concerning at least five open and active people issues, celebrity issues, that I could write about. And those are only the ones I can remember a week later. I won’t rebrand, of course, but the point is, there could be a site dedicated only to gossip and people news that concerns our little corner of the Christian world. Worst of all, I think people might actually read it.
But hold on. Maybe it’s not quite so simple. The Bible offers strict warnings against meddling and gossiping. It warns against sticking our noses into issues that do not concern us. But at the same time it assigns to each of us the responsibility to guard others, to warn them about those who might harm them or lead them astray. There are times where I can or must speak out. There is apparent friction here, tension between the two extremes of broadcasting an opinion on every matter and an unwillingness to speak out on any issue at all. When are we to stay out and when are we to wade in? When am I to stay out and when am I to wade in, with the platform I’ve been given?
As I have considered when I can or should speak, I have gone searching for help and have discovered five godly desires I should have when it comes to speaking about other people (see Denny Burk for more).
Desire Peace. Romans 12:18 exhorts us to be at peace with all men. Whenever possible, we are to avoid controversy and quarrelling in favour of peace. I need to examine myself to see if I am using an issue for noble or ignoble motives and whether I do have that good desire to be at peace.
Desire to Protect. I owe it to my brothers and sisters to protect them from error or other kinds of danger, and to warn them when they may not see it.
Desire Repentance. My ultimate purpose in writing about controversial matters should not be exposure, but the repentance of the person who is in error. Even Paul told Timothy to command false teachers not to teach strange doctrines, he told Timothy that the goal in all this was to produce in the false teachers “love that comes from a pure heart, a good conscience, and a sincere faith” (1 Tim. 1:5). The purpose is not to win a battle, but to compel change.
Desire to Use Controversy Carefully. Controversy generates visitors and, on the Internet, visitors are currency. I need to be certain I am not using another person’s misfortune to elevate myself. I ought to be known for whom and what I am for, not whom and what I am against.
Desire to Quiet the Unrepentant. Even while I address an issue, I want to quiet the unrepentant person rather than to elevate his platform. I should attempt to write in such a way that his profile is diminished rather than extended.
Let me pause for one moment here. One of the shaping experiences in my early days as a blogger was when the publicist for a very well-known, non-Christian author got in touch with me to ask if I would review this man’s latest book. When I pushed and asked why, it became clear that negative reviews from Christians would prove helpful in generating sales. Lesson learned: No press is bad press. One thing I have observed recently is that we can put people with a platform in the difficult position of being told that if they do not speak to an issue, it is proof that they are complicit in it. However, it may be that they are every bit as outraged as we are, but they believe their voice will make the problem worse, not better. They may well be right. (See also Bell, Hell and What We Did Well; and no, Bell was not the author in question.)
As I have thought about these desires, I have narrowed in on five criteria to help determine when or if I should speak out. I look for a combination of ability and responsibility, of can and should. The two big questions I ask are, “Can I speak to this issue in a way that will be helpful?” and “Should I speak to this issue?” Here are five criteria I consider:
Relationship. If I have a relationship with the person involved, I have a greater responsibility to speak to the issue because I have a greater ability to speak effectively. There is a greater should because there is a greater can. If the person is a friend and we have an established relationship, I can speak in a much more helpful and more pointed way than if he is merely a headshot on the back of a book. When possible I ought to speak to him before I speak about him.
Authority. My ability and responsibility increase where I have some kind of authority over the person in question. If he is a member of my family or a member of my church, there is a greater can and a greater should than if there is no dimension of authority in our relationship.
Proximity. My ability and responsibility increase where I have proximity to the person. This may be geographic proximity, but in a digital world it is more likely to come through tribal or other relational groupings. Both the can and the should increase where our circles overlap or where our voice reaches to the same kind of person.
Contribution. The ability and responsibility increase when I have something to say that may be helpful and may make a unique contribution. Sometimes I simply have nothing useful to say, and know I would be responding only out of a desire to gossip, or draw visitors, or hold off critics.
Urgency. My ability and responsibility increase where the person’s errors or actions necessitate an urgent response. If a person has apostatized so he is now teaching rank heresy, there is a greater should to the matter. If a person is putting others at risk in body or soul, I have a much greater responsibility to speak loudly and boldly than if he is merely being unwise or doing things that are unadvisable.
Those are five critiera I attempt to apply—imperfectly, no doubt—based on five desires I believe the Bible commends.