Many of my Facebook friends and those that follow my blog may not be aware that I am a PK (preacher’s kid). I know how difficult a pastor’s life can be. It’s a tough job with high expectations, where everything said from the pulpit to the Sunday afternoon put-luck (or more theologically accurate, pot-providence:-) lunch line to the coffee shop on a Monday morning is carefully scrutinized. Ideally, pastors hold a special place of respect and trust with their congregants. Pastoring a flock necessitates an added expectation of responsibility to be truthful, to speak wisely, and to apply biblical principles consistently in all avenues of their and their family’s life (James 3:1). In short, pastors lead by their words and by their actions. This is an extraordinarily difficult calling, one which has become even more difficult in the age of social media.
In the age of social media, pastors, youth leaders, and professional theologians—like everyone else—have a chance to have their voices heard (and their lives examined) in ways like never before. Many have taken to social media outlets to be more accessible to their congregation and in some cases to build a “brand,” allowing them to generate a following well beyond their local circle of influence. The latter necessitates that they share far more than pictures of their kids’ birthday, cats chasing a laser light and recent vacation adventures. They also share their opinions on a wide variety of social, political and scientific controversies. This comes in the form of writing posts, sharing articles, commenting on articles and sharing memes.
Although I arrived relatively late to the social media age I have been actively engaged on FB and Twitter as part of my blogging efforts at Naturalis Historia. In particular, my Facebook and Twitter friends include over 500 pastors and theologians, mostly from theologically conservative backgrounds and Reformed theology in particular. Following so many Christian leaders, I have become distressed by the lack of discernment that many of them have displayed in their social media interactions.
Increasingly, I have lost respect for many pastors and theologians that I either know personally, have heard speak or whose books and articles I have read. Before encountering these individuals on social media I believed them to be discerning exegetes and trusted sources of information as they applied the scriptures to many social, political and scientific issues of our day. But observing these same people on social media routinely sharing fake news that two minutes of Internet searching and reading would debunk, engaging in debates using fallacious argumentation, and painting uncharitable caricatures of social and political leaders is disheartening. As a result I have been unfriending and unfollowing social media friends that engage in such behavior online.
I expect all Christians to care about truth and engage in basic practices of background reading and checking of facts before sharing their thoughts and links on social media, but given their roles and position as leaders of people, I hold pastors and theologians to a higher standard, as does the Bible. They should show greater discernment. It’s not enough to ask if a particular meme meets some minimum standard of truth (or more commonly, simply sharing an opinion with the one posting it) or that a story headline sounds true but they should ask if what they are sharing is truly edifying (Ephesians 4:29). So many memes are meant to speak to a particular audience at the expense of another. Many are guaranteed to be offensive to someone. Yes, we can acknowledge that the truth can be offensive—and may need to be—but in most cases when we offend, it should be because we are defending the Gospel. But what happens when you offend not because you present the truth but because you are telling a lie—even if unwittingly? Surely, damage to the reputation of that individual is done. The qualification of leaders being “above reproach” is not met. I know this to be true because my respect and that of others for particular pastors has been irreparably damaged by their use of social media
Pastors and theologians, if you can’t show good judgment, if you aren’t willing to do research to understand the nuances of a subject before stating your beliefs to others, how can I trust that you are doing the same with the scriptures as you preach from the pulpit or teach in a seminary? I can’t help but think of the qualifications of church overseers laid out by Paul in 1 Timothy 3:3-7, especially “above reproach,” “not quarrelsome,” “hospitable,” and “gentle.” If you can’t be faithful in the little things (social media presence) can I trust that you are faithful in the big ones (preaching the Bible)? (Matthew 5:14-30) For many of you I have serious doubts, and that is especially troubling to me.
Many of you sound very confident of the truth on all manner of social, political and scientific matters and are willing to tell others what they ought to believe on these issues as if you are an authority. But from your comments and posts I am not confident that there is any evidence from any source including scriptures that could convince you to change your mind. Your use of links advocating conspiracy theories from agenda-driven lobbyist resources with poorly researched articles, trite memes and pithy but inaccurate sayings suggest you aren’t even willing to spend a few hours to read books or source materials (e.g. original research papers, affidavits, court documents, etc.) to assess the evidence for yourself. You rely on third parties with hidden or overt agendas to distill information and tell you what to believe and what you want to hear. The warning of 2 Timothy 4:3: “For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions” can be true of pastors as well as their congregation.
I read your words on Facebook and blogs and have to wonder if what I hear you say from the pulpit is just as unreliable. I wonder if this lack of personal research and reflection on topics you address on your blogs and media posts are reflective of your approach to your meditation upon and interpretation of the Bible and how you will present it to others? Do you begin your sermon preparation each week knowing what you want to say from the pulpit and then devote your time to finding scriptures and commentaries that agree with your beliefs? Is there nothing in the scriptures that might change your mind? I’ve lost much confidence in pastors who don’t seem to care about looking for truth but only seek to confirm their own fallible intuition.
What is especially troubling to me—a believer in the benefits of seminary-trained pastors and teachers—is that denominations (such as the one I grew up in) that require years of rigorous pastoral and theological training have often not yielded pastors and theologians any better prepared to tackle social, scientific or political issues than pastors who lead independent Churches which require little or no theological training.
Among reformed Presbyterian denominations there is a strong—and I believe admirable—tradition of stressing training in original Biblical languages and methods of interpretation. In seminary, future pastors are exposed to many debates and difficult questions about doctrines and the application of those doctrines to the Christian life—pastoral theology. They also should have been provided the perspective of the history of the Church. They, of all people, should realize how much work is involved to research and evaluate evidence from multiple perspectives before forming a conviction and applying that to practical issues in Christian life and that such convictions ought to be held with humility, subject to change with more understanding, maturity and evidence. They should realize that topics such as immigration, gender identity, poverty, medical ethics, climate change, etc. don’t have solutions that fit into the space of a meme, tweet or FB comment. Rather they are multivariate problems requiring a thoughtful and measured response just like when discussing positions on baptism, eschatology, apologetic methods, pneumatology, liturgical practices and so forth.
There is no simple solution to engaging in discourse in the modern era but the general rule that one should avoid being or appearing to be a fool should be obvious advice which many pastors have apparently not taken to heart. For many it is not that they think that their lack of knowledge is no barrier to qualification to speak on a topic, but that they think their faith and Biblical training is a substitute for knowledge on any topic, because they have “The Truth™.” They see verses like “If God is for us, who can stand against us,” and assume that anything they say on any topic automatically has the force of God’s might behind it.
Most pastors would not regularly quote from a supermarket tabloid, yet I follow several that routinely share articles from online resources that are no more reliable than those tabloids—they just happen to espouse views that those pastors find agreeable. They just don’t realize how unreliable their source is. This may be because they have not taken the time to research it or don’t have the discernment to recognize when they are being manipulated.
I hope that I am addressing a minority of pastors. Unfortunately they are a vocal minority since they inhabit the social media space and are willing to share their thoughts on everything. There are some thoughtful theologians and pastors whose wisdom from the pulpit is reflected in their careful and introspective comments on FB, blog posts and tweets. Most pastors and theologians don’t have a social media presence and if they have accounts don’t venture into making commentary on politics, science and social issues. Many of them probably have wisdom to share but recognize the minefield that social media can be and stay away. Generally, I think this cautious approach to social media is wise but part of me wishes that some of the competent but silent consumers of social media out there would make a greater effort to speak out when and where they are competent to do so.
Living in the age of social media has caused me to have a greater appreciation for my father—a pastor for more than 50 years. He has been a model of careful and thoughtful dialogue in person and in limited interactions on social media. He does not allow himself to be dragged into internet banter nor does he share sarcastic or insensitive memes which are today’s version of bully rants in the schoolyard. He understands that there are multiple and intertwined sides of most issues that are difficult to appreciate in a single meme or 160 character tweet. He does not treat those with whom he disagrees as an enemy to be vanquished or in today’s vernacular “scum” or “animals.”
Likewise, I have come to appreciate my pastor’s self-control on social media. He could readily have a large following, get lots of likes and accolades but he is focused on building personal relationships in the local church. Having a virtual following is not his thing. I’m not suggesting that pastors can’t have an effective witness on social media but it takes substantial patience, time and wisdom to cultivate respect on such a platform.
Personally, I infrequently comment on politics or other social issues on social media. I am not without opinions on these matters but prefer to develop personal face-to-face relationships within which to engage in those debates. Occasionally I will speak out on topics for which I have researched and thus can provide a meaningful contribution. Even on topics for which I have expert knowledge, I don’t feel that memes and similar forms of communication provide any tangible long-term value and thus avoid their use.
On the rare occasions that I do share articles or quotes, I make an effort to inspect the sources and determine if I should trust them and whether I wish to be affiliated with them. For my own writing, I stick to areas for which I have expertise and thus can judge the quality of other work. This doesn’t provide 100% assurance that I am right but it’s a good hedge against falling into serious error. Also, I don’t anticipate that my expertise will necessarily cause readers to accept my views but at least I won’t be responsible for spreading false facts, gross exaggerations or be serving someone else’s interests.
Many of you will recognize that I do write about and share material that expresses strong and sometimes unpopular viewpoints. Most notably, I have written regularly and strongly about what I have concluded are abuses of scripture and science of Ken Ham and colleagues. However, despite expressing strong opinions, I don’t believe I’ve ever posted a meme poking fun at Ken Ham. I’ve also made it a point not to like or promote any Facebook or Twitter post that puts Ken Ham or other creationists’ brothers in a position that denigrates them as people and makes caricatures of them. Mocking, name-calling and so forth is inappropriate and does nothing to foster understanding and fruitful dialogue. It would greatly harm my witness and my periodic lack of self-control in this area is truly embarrassing to me.
Engaging in profitable, honest dialogue is hard but necessary work, especially for those that have been called to preach the gospel (See Book Review: The Fool and the Heretic for an example of how it can be done). I know it is a lot to ask but I, along with the apostle Paul, ask it anyway. Christian leaders on social media: you need to take the truth seriously. You cannot simply assume that because you know the truth of the Gospel that everything you believe and consequently everything you say is true.
Am I guilty of the errors for which I am writing about? Of course I am. I know I have held tenuous positions too strongly in the past and regret many things I have said. I will redouble my efforts to do better—but how much more important is it for those in a greater position of authority to lead by example? By the grace of God we can all do better.
Grace and peace to you,
Preacher’s kid, Father of 5, Justified by grace alone through faith and in the process of being sanctified
Editing kindly provided by LC
Cover Image: Screenshot of Social Media images – Google Images