A Word to Christian Internet Debaters

It is an increasing reality that many Christians, especially younger ones, are regularly engaging in theological debate (and occasionally discussion) through blogs, Facebook pages, forums, and other internet-based contexts. While there are many benefits to the internet, such as dissemination of otherwise unavailable materials, communicating with those who are far away, and gleaning from the wisdom, experience, and thoughts of others, there is much danger.

One of the dangers of the internet, thinking specifically of Christians and theology, is that there is little to no accountability placed on the individual in relation to his local church. Anyone can argue any point, pursue any theological trend, make any theological accusation, pick and choose any theological view, and all without the oversight of the elders to whom those individuals have professed to be in submission (assuming biblical church membership and leadership).

Would you want your elders to see the way that you have argued with other brothers and sisters on the internet? Would you read the same material and write the same arguments and speak so confidently if it were not for the anonymity and hyper-separation that the internet offers? Would you treat brothers and sisters the same way sitting with them at a lunch table during a fellowship meal at church? Are you as wonderful as you think you are?

The context in which you do theology (i.e. study, develop, and articulate theology) is extremely important. The internet is a poor context for doing theology. The local church, the Sunday School class, the weekly sermon, the midweek bible study–those are the best environments for doing theology. Don’t like those? Why’s that? Because you don’t get to teach and argue and debate and lead? Christ knows how to gift his church with teachers. If the church has not recognized you as a teacher gifted by Christ for the equipping of the saints, what makes you think that the whole internet needs your teaching, reproof, correction, and training in righteousness? And if Christ has gifted your local church with teachers, why are they not the primary source of your teaching?

Find good blogs, good sermons, good articles, good resources, and benefit from those on the internet, but only by way of complement and supplement to the regular diet of biblical and accountable teaching in your local church. Even so, be very cautious in stepping up to the lecture podium of the internet. It’s one thing to give an answer to those who ask. It’s another thing to take the Heresy Hammer to every last person who clearly needs the overwhelming wisdom which you have brought to this world for the first time.

When the majority of one’s theological formation is molded by internet interaction, the results can be disastrous, even if your doctrine is sound. Why? Because you have become accustomed to a no-limits, no-accountability, no-personal-interaction form of theology. It’s purely you and what you think against everyone else and what they think. You have argued your points clearly. The other person has not. You are right. They are wrong. Even if you’re right, and even if they’re wrong, this breeds pride, self-sufficiency, and an overconfidence in one’s own theological discernment. You are right because you are right, not because you are confessing the biblical faith with the generations before you.

On top of all this, how many Christians can argue circles around others on the internet, but cannot live a consistent Christian life on even the most basic levels? If we are busy honoring God with our lives, loving our wives, raising our children, shunning sin, pursuing purity, working hard in jobs or schools, and participating in the life of the local church, debating Joe Schmoe on the internet will become a low priority, and it should be. Pay more attention to your personal sanctification, and less attention to the aberrations of the faceless internet, and you will be doing more good for God’s kingdom and your own soul. Don’t let your love be word and talk; don’t let your religion be internet orthodoxy.

26 If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless.
27 Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.
(James 1:26-27 ESV)

13 Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom.
14 But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth.
15 This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic.
16 For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice.
17 But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere.
18 And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.
(James 3:13-18 ESV)

Obediah Wills, Infant Baptism Asserted and Vindicated, Preface, 7-8

From Obed Wills’ Infant Baptism Asserted and Vindicated (1674)

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14 thoughts on “A Word to Christian Internet Debaters

  1. Pingback: simply, Christian
  2. *Posted from a Facebook link*
    I’m going to sheepishly say something, only because this is about the fourth time I’ve seen this. Although the advice is timely and helpful, I’m not sure I agree with the overall tenor of the piece. It almost seems if Pastor Sam is saying that the medium of electronic exchange is somehow second class and that it should be avoided. I’d love to be able to understand the context of this perspective….that would be helpful.

    1. Hi Trey, thanks for the question. I’m happy to try to clarify. I hope my answer isn’t too lengthy.

      I want people to consider the dangers of making the internet their primary source of theological learning and interaction. The more I see this happening, the more I see the need for a counter-balance and readjustment in our perspective of what the best and most appropriate context for theological learning and interaction is–namely the local church. Electronic exchange is indeed second hand (at best) to that.

      I tried to be fair by listing three positives to internet-use in the first paragraph, and I also made sure to say that we should benefit from useful and edifying internet resources. So I’m not advocating abandoning the internet as a medium of theological exchange. After all, I’m offering this advice via the internet.

      But what I fear in the future (and present), brother, are more and more idiosyncratic individuals who have picked and chosen their theological views as they please, on their own, on the computer, on the internet where you can find anything with someone to justify/advocate it. They are argumentative and self-satisfied. They lack the biblical model of theological instruction, development, and accountability that the local church provides. Churches should have a confessional standard of doctrine, and they should hold their members accountable to that standard. Such individuals can demean the ordained ministry in their hearts, if not in their words and internet writing, because they think (perhaps even subconsciously) that they don’t need it.

      Combine all this with almost nothing to hold each person accountable for what they say or read doctrinally, and it’s hardly an environment conducive to the development of sound doctrine and discussion.

      As mentioned above, some of the vehement debaters of the internet would be spending their time far more wisely by working on sanctification of even the most basic levels than by scalping every last paedobaptist, arminian or pentecostal brother in Christ they encounter. A few more clicks of the mouse and that person is watching pornography. A few more paragraphs typed and that person’s spouse is neglected or unaided. A few more persons intimidated and that person has inflated their own ego. All of that time debating theology was worthless. Their religion is worthless. Young men could better serve the church by visiting the needy and assisting those who do not have their youthful strength than by winning any number of debates online. (And really, both sides always declare victory don’t they?)

      The internet makes the most undeveloped thought available for mass-communication. We can say anything at a moment’s notice. That is not helpful for the study of the God who surpasses our comprehension. While there is plenty of garbage in books, it takes a lot of work and time and effort to publish a book. We will benefit from them greatly, especially those which stand the test of time. And we will benefit from internet resources provided by scholars and pastors whose lives revolve around the study and articulation of theology.

      If we get our priorities straight, and realign our perspective of the study of theology in relation to the local church, we will gain a more healthy view of how we should be “doing” theology, and we will find the internet strangely absent from those priorities and perspectives.

      So yes, the internet should take a backseat in our theological lives (in the right ways and for the right reasons), but it shouldn’t be thrown out of the car either. It just shouldn’t be driving us.

      Does that help?

  3. I stumbled upon this, but I don’t think it was any accident. Let me just say that I am completely humbled by what you wrote in this post. I am so guilty of getting locked into Internet theology debates, and I never really considered the possibility of it being a negative thing. Although I think that you’ve shown that it can be if we aren’t careful. So thank you for your insightful post!

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