Recently, Drs. Jerry Vines and Jimmy Draper wrote an open letter to Southern Baptists that was posted at Baptist Press. The main topic of the letter was disagreements between Southern Baptists about the 2016 Presidential election, specifically disagreements over Southern Baptist leaders who chose to attend the evangelical leaders meeting with Donald Trump. Vines and Draper urged, “Disagreements with fellow believers should be private and not unleashed in the hands of an often hostile press that does not understand nor appreciate our faith or our convictions.” They worry that such public disagreements over the presidential election might scatter “broken relationships” across the religious scene. They state, “The negative reactions of some religious leaders have been much too public.”
Before I respond to their argument, let me state emphatically, I love and respect these men immensely. There would be no Baptist21 if it were not for the leadership of these men. My theology of inerrancy and inspiration has been influenced more by Dr. Vines sermon “A Baptist and his Bible” than almost anything else! When I first met Dr. Draper as a Bible College student, I mentioned in passing that my favorite book of the Bible was Hebrews. Three weeks later I received in the mail a copy of Dr. Draper’s very helpful Hebrews commentary with a handwritten note inside that says, “For Jonathan Akin, God bless you as you study & proclaim God’s inerrant Word!” I love these men! They are heroes to me!
However, I do want to disagree with them slightly on this issue. Drs. Draper and Vines critique Christian leaders who called out SBC leaders publicly not privately, but they did so by calling those leaders out publicly not privately (to my knowledge). It is true that no names were given in the letter, but it is also true that many who reacted on social media about the evangelical leaders meeting with Trump gave no names either but rather spoke in generalities. This entire situation, including tweets, opinion articles, and the open letter, has been a reminder to me that we need to address the question about Christian engagement in a social media world.
In many ways we live in a vastly different world than our Christian brothers and sisters of the past. Through the Internet, Facebook, Twitter, and much more, Christians can communicate globally with other brothers and sisters that they could not before. With blog sites, online news sites (as print media is dying), and social media, Christians can get their thoughts out much more quickly to a much wider audience than in the past.
However, with those changes, comes interesting dynamics with which previous generations didn’t have to engage. For example, it was very difficult before modern travel and communications for Christian brothers separated by long distances to interact, but that is no longer the case. What does the invention of blogs, and Skype, and Twitter mean for Christian interaction, specifically when Christians disagree on a topic? This is a very important question for us to answer.
I’m reminded of the importance of this question from time-to-time when I read posts on Facebook or see conversation strings on Twitter where one Christian disagrees with or is critical of another Christian, and someone will reply with something like, “Did you talk to this brother first before you posted this?” Many on social media attempt to make the argument that Christians should not post anything in public that disagrees with another Christian without going to that other Christian first. Drs. Draper and Vines make a similar argument. Is that always the mandated approach?
Since we now live in a different world with different media than past Christians, Christians need to seriously wrestle with the question, “What are the principles for Christian engagement in a social media world?” I’m no expert and I tread lightly when disagreeing with wiser men than I, but I want to humbly offer a few principles as I see it.
Principle 1: This is most likely not a Matthew 18 issue
Jesus says, “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone” (Matt. 18:15; emphasis mine). Jesus seems to be addressing interaction in a local church setting rather than governing interaction in the public sphere. First, Jesus clearly points to the local church as the setting for this interaction (18:17). Second, Jesus tells you to go privately if your brother has sinned against you. Disagreeing with someone is not the same thing as sinning against them or being sinned against. However, if a person clearly sins publicly against another Christian, they would certainly need to go to them and confess, but we can disagree or even criticize without sinning.
Principle 2: If you post something in the public sphere, then someone can respond to you in the public sphere
I think this is an important adage for our current milieu. If you post your opinion for public consumption via op-ed article in the press, blog post, tweet, or Facebook post, then it is okay for someone else to respond to you publicly. We use these platforms to put our ideas out there, and often we use these platforms to attempt to persuade people of our opinion, so it is okay for other people to express their disagreement or to raise questions publicly.
Let me be clear. It is often a good idea – if possible – to contact someone privately before you respond to him or her publicly. For example, I sent this article to Drs. Vines and Draper before we published it. I think doing so can build good will. But, it is not a requirement that you go to someone privately to respond to something they wrote publicly.
Principle 3: Pastors have a responsibility to shepherd sheep that consume social media
Many of our church members will see articles, posts and tweets written by key Christian leaders, and they may even persuade them in one direction or another. We as their shepherds may need to respond to something publicly out of our duty to shepherd them well.
This is also true for leaders across the SBC. Seminary Presidents and State Convention Executive Directors are tasked with leading groups of people, and they may need to respond publicly on a large scale to do that. The same is true for the ERLC, which is tasked with speaking to Southern Baptists about political matters, so this necessitates public interaction.
Principle 4: It is okay for Christians to disagree publicly
Many Christians, like Vines and Draper, raise a genuine concern that public disagreement between Christians may hurt our witness in the culture. They point to John 13:35 and indicate that the world is watching us. I am concerned about that too, but I also believe that love doesn’t necessitate total agreement on everything. It is okay for Christians to disagree.
In a culture where love is often defined as total agreement and acceptance of someone (in a way that shuts down real conversation), we have a chance to model what civil discourse and civil disagreement should look like between people who have an actual conversation with genuine disagreement (without being disagreeable), and yet still really love each other. I think this is part of what makes the SBC great! We agree on far more than we disagree on, but we do disagree on some, but we are still unified in our mission to the world!
I wholeheartedly agree with Drs. Vines and Draper that I hope this election cycle doesn’t sever Christian relationships, especially of key leaders in the SBC. But I also hope that our love is strong enough to bear some genuine disagreement on the non-essentials.
Hopefully these principles are helpful and clarifying. If not, feel free to disagree with me!