I see a lot of Christians interact on social media channels, including many uni students and graduates who are engaging with culture makers and shapers. I don’t spend too much time reading the news or watching news or current affairs—but when I do, I also watch and listen and learn, both from good examples and from critiquing poor examples.
As I watch all this unfold, and try to do my bit in contributing, there are three simple things I am constantly persuaded we must remember—and check—before we post or speak:
1. Be honest, gracious and temperate in our speech.
Peter urges us to answer people’s questions with gentleness and respect. Paul commends his ministry to the Thessalonians as being one that is honest. When you speak in social settings are you gentle and kind? Do you speak the truth and not make false, unjustified or overblown claims? Do you seek to make peace in what you say and how you say it?
Scripture does model for us a great deal of variety in rhetorical technique and tone and style. There is a place for denunciation, satire, sarcasm, exaggeration, ad hominem attack and so on. So it would be unbalanced to suggest that only measured, calm, cool, collected, conversational, rational modes of communication are legitimate. There is a place for more ‘high risk’ methods of communication.
But the more ‘high risk’ the technique, the more cautious we should be in using it. It requires some level of mastery, a great deal of wisdom, and a heart full of love to be provocative without becoming hateful or unfair. If you operate heavy machinery, you need to bear with higher standards of training, safety checks and insurance premiums: and in some ways ‘heavy rhetorical machinery’ should also come with higher standards!
2. Unearth false dichotomies and unjustified conflations.
I suspect this might be a particular intellectual disease of our day, but false dichotomies and unjustified conflations abound, both among Christians and non-Christians.
A false dichotomy is a polarising of discussion into choices between one thing or another: so that, for example, either God is a God of judgment or a God of love; or, we must either totally accept people or hate them.
False dichotomies refuse to allow for messy, complex answers. They also make mutual understanding and compromise impossible—producing instead, escalation, accusations and condemnations. They make it harder for us to pinpoint the key points of difference.
An unjustified conflation occurs where two slightly different, but related, things are blurred together. It confuses a guilt-trip with objective guilt; or declares every exercise of power to be oppressive and corrupt. Conflating things unfairly is a way of ‘fighting dirty.’ It enables people to attack an idea based on personal flaws, extreme examples, and associated issues, rather than actual, careful critique of the topic at hand.
A careful gospel preacher will seek to unearth and expose these false dichtomies and false conflations wherever possible. When confronted with a false dichotomy we will say things like: ‘Can’t it be a bit of both?’ When confronted with an unjustified conflation we might reply: ‘Aren’t those two slightly different things?’
And so we will work to express clearer distinctions to help people see things more clearly. We need to identify them when non-Christians use them, but break the bad habit of lazily doing them on behalf of Christianity as well! By cutting through the fog of clusmsy thinking we will give the gospel a fuller hearing.
3. Be clear on the saving work of Jesus Christ.
This might seem obvious, but it is so important to keep remembering. When we speak as Christians we should want to speak about Christ—not just passing references to his moral teaching, but about his gospel purposes in the world.
I don’t think this means that we can only speak about Christ, or need to articulate a full gospel presentation. Contrary to what some people say, I don’t think we must justify all our views and ideas from within a Christian framework: there’s a place for speaking to others based on shared principles and values.
But it does mean that whenever we speak we should really really want to speak about Christ. When we are asked as Christians (how much more as Christian leaders), we should consider how we can say something that is uniquely Christian.
It’s really sad and really frustrating when Christian leaders and Christian groups speak publicly and forget to talk about the saving work of Christ. Of course sometimes this stuff is edited out, but it would be great if we spoke of Christ so often, that such editing would be almost impossible!
Next time you speak up as a Christian: be kind, expose false dichotomies and unfair conflations and be clear on the saving work of Jesus Christ. This week: watch how other Christians do it, for better or for worse, and have a go yourself!
Photos: [head] Clem Onojeghuo, unsplash.com; [body] laura*b, flickr