#clarityforthegospel

During a recent discussion, Valerie Hobbs and I realized that we share a concern about the pitfalls of social media, especially for church leaders. What follows is an article we wrote together addressing this concern.


Some people love twitter. Some people hate it. It seems everyone at least has an opinion about it. Writes Joe Nocera,

So much on Twitter is frivolous or self-promotional. It can bury you in information. Because people often use Twitter to react to events instantly, they can say some awfully stupid things.

Beyond stupid, Twitter users can be mean, hateful even. It is a place where bullies can build a platform and quickly assemble a mob.

Still, we’ve seen some amazing one-liners on Twitter, mostly from people who intuitively understand how to operate within Twitter’s limitations to craft something clever, funny, or sharp. Who can forget this gem, for instance?

And of course, it isn’t just the funny one-liner that is successful on Twitter. This tweet, like all good tweets, effectively packs volumes into a short space.

But how effective is Twitter at expressing complex concepts? Many of us Christians, including our own esteemed theologians, tweet complex ideas, but the results are often poor. Perhaps you too have seen exchanges that go something like this:

  • Pastor/theologian/Christian author/blogger tweets a complex theological concept in an ambiguous way, sometimes intentionally, sometimes not.
  • Readers/followers ask questions, challenge, push back on the ambiguity. “What on earth are you talking about?”, “This could be dangerous!”, “Did you mean it in this (heretical) way?”
  • Tweeter: “I shouldn’t have to respond to these challenges.”, “Obviously, I didn’t mean it like that!”, “Get a life. It’s Twitter.”, [tweets 10 clarifying responses]

Admittedly, Twitter would be a much friendlier place if we all read with charity to a greater extent. But then again, when it comes to the Gospel, clarity and precision are pretty important. The devil is in the details, as they say. If you don’t believe that, here’s a helpful use of Twitter which makes the same point:

The most obvious sources of the mismatch between Twitter and theology are points already mentioned: lack of skill in using a limited space to express complex ideas and, of course, our own sinful natures. That is, some people enjoy stirring up trouble. They like the attention, and they think they can get away with it online. But there’s another factor in the mix that scholars researching and writing about social media have identified: context collapse.

Context collapse “refers to the audiences possible online as opposed to limited groups we normally interact with in face-to-face interactions” (source). Put simply, it refers to the lack of boundaries in many social media contexts, particularly Twitter, as all posts are public. In most of our off-line interactions, social boundaries allow us to assume shared knowledge. When we are with our friends, for instance, we can use a shared vocabulary. We can assume, to some extent, that people we talk to know us in that context, what we are like, the meanings of our words, what we believe and don’t believe.

On Facebook, some users attempt to recreate these social boundaries by setting up sub-groups or private groups. Even still, for those Facebook users who keep their account public or who have hundreds of acquaintances they don’t know personally, context collapse is a significant issue to contend with.

Context collapse means that tweets and posts for a public audience cannot require much assumed knowledge. When we tweet, we cannot assume that readers have much knowledge of who we are, what we stand for, and whether or not we hold dangerous theological views.

No doubt close friends and those who’ve read all of our work and who interact with us frequently can see our tweets in light of that shared context. But most people reading our tweets cannot do that. And it is dangerous to assume otherwise as we run the risk of leading people astray. This is particularly true when it comes to theology. Mascall writes,

To avoid vagueness and ambiguity is even more of a duty in popular work than in learned treatise. The very fact that the Christian mysteries in their profundity outstrip our finite powers of comprehension makes it all the more important for us to express the limited grasp which we have of them with all the clarity and accuracy at our command, while fully recognising how very imperfect and partial our grasp of them is.

So how can we tweet about theology in a responsible way?

Get off Twitter.

No, really. How can we tweet responsibly, especially about theology, in light of collapsed context? We should aim for clarity, edification, and self-control.

1. Seek clarity in your tweeting.

“But let your statement be, ‘Yes, yes’ or ‘No, no’” (Matt. 5:37, NASB)

Remembering that anyone might read and misunderstand what we’ve written, we need to be as clear as possible. Our speech should be open and honest. We should not give anyone cause to doubt our words or cause to question our orthodoxy. While it’s true that anything has the potential to be misunderstood and that no one can prevent that from happening all the time, our goal should be clarity.

How does this apply to Twitter? Retweeting quotes or snippets from sermons or conference talks without the context may lead to confusion. You understood what was meant, but is the tweeted quote clear to someone who wasn’t there?

The same question should be asked when attempting to tweet about a complex theological concept. Is your tweet clear or is it likely to be misunderstood? We’re aiming for sharing the light of the gospel, not muddying the waters. If the concept is particularly complex, maybe it would be better to write more on it elsewhere and link to it through Twitter.

2. Seek to edify with your tweets.

“Let no unwholesome word proceed from your mouth, but only such a word as is good for edification according to the need of the moment, so that it will give grace to those who hear … But immorality or any impurity or greed must not even be named among you, as is proper among saints; and there must be no filthiness and silly talk, or coarse jesting, which are not fitting, but rather giving of thanks.” (Eph. 4:29; Eph. 5:3-4, NASB)

It can be tempting to think that Twitter is fairly anonymous and that no one much will notice what you tweet, comment on, or “like” online. In truth, our words and actions are there for the world to see, and people are watching. People will not always agree with us, and the gospel itself will sometimes be offensive to others. But our words should be edifying, should give grace, and should glorify God. We’re not saying we can’t joke or tease. What we are instead saying is that our teasing shouldn’t be crude, and our jokes shouldn’t be double entendres.

Thom Rainer has a recent article “Five Reasons Why Pastors Are Getting Fired Because of Their Social Media Posts.” (source) In it he notes:

Unsavory comments. A pastor or church staff member making lewd or suggestive comments on social media gains nothing, even if it’s a quote from a movie or someone else. The consequences are always negative.

How does this apply to Twitter use? Be careful what you “like” and retweet. Consider how your jokes and things you respond to online might be viewed by others. We used to say, “Never write anything you wouldn’t want the whole world to see.” Now that the whole world can see what we write, consider this: If someone only or mainly knew you from your tweets, etc, what would their overall impression of you be?

It may seem harsh or unfair to have to police yourself so strongly. But when we are known to be Christians and especially known to be pastors or elders, we will be held to a higher standard. James tells us that this is the way life is.

“Let not many of you become teachers, my brethren, knowing that as such we will incur a stricter judgment.” (James 3:1, NASB)

3. Finally, exercise self-control in your tweeting.

“For we all stumble in many ways. If anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able to bridle the whole body as well. Now if we put the bits into the horses’ mouths so that they will obey us, we direct their entire body as well. Look at the ships also, though they are so great and are driven by strong winds, are still directed by a very small rudder wherever the inclination of the pilot desires. So also the tongue is a small part of the body, and yet it boasts of great things.

See how great a forest is set aflame by such a small fire! And the tongue is a fire, the very world of iniquity; the tongue is set among our members as that which defiles the entire body, and sets on fire the course of our life, and is set on fire by hell. For every species of beasts and birds, of reptiles and creatures of the sea, is tamed and has been tamed by the human race. But no one can tame the tongue; it is a restless evil and full of deadly poison. With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in the likeness of God; from the same mouth come both blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not to be this way.” (James 3:2-10, NASB)

Self-control is included in the list of the fruit of the Spirit. Most often we hear it discussed in conversations about gluttony or sexuality. But it also applies to our behavior online. In fact, it’s the key to this whole discussion.

When we are self-controlled, we are likely to be clearer because we won’t be quick to speak and slow to think. When we’re in control of ourselves, we aren’t likely to be crude or inappropriate. And when we’re self-controlled, we are less likely to stir up trouble.

How does this apply to Twitter? As noted earlier, some pastors/elders/theologians appear to tweet intentionally ambiguous or provocative statements. They seem to enjoy the ensuing firestorm. This is a lack of self-control.

There are many temptations on Twitter to act and react without thought. As James points out, our tongues are hard to tame. It helps if we remember that those people on Twitter who provoke us and tempt us to respond in anger or in ugliness are people made in the likeness of God.

And if the struggle to control yourself is too much? Then maybe it is time to get off Twitter.

Making Patriarchical Heads Explode

Over at Reformation 21, Dr. Carl Trueman has been writing on complementarianism and whether or not it is a gospel distinctive. If a person holds to an egalitarian position, is that person denying or undermining the gospel?

I completely agree with Dr. Trueman that complementarianism is the most biblically faithful position. I also agree that the hermeneutic that leads one to hold to egalitarianism tends to lead further and further away from orthodoxy. But does that mean that an egalitarian is therefore not a believer? Dr. Trueman answers it this way:

Second, if complementarianism is a gospel issue, then I think one is really saying that it is a matter which touches directly on the credibility or coherence of a simple profession of faith by an ordinary believer and one should act consistent with that view. That surely makes it very hard for complementarians serving with egalitarian colleagues at seminaries which claim to be Christian or evangelical to do so with real integrity. After all, the gospel as they understand it is being compromised in the classroom by their colleagues. Yet I wonder if serving on faculty with the late Roger Nicole would have been so very problematic to many members of the Gospel Coalition. It also seems to press towards a position where church membership must be denied to someone who is an egalitarian. If it is a gospel issue, then it seems that denial of it must in some serious sense be a denial of the gospel. Here, of course, ecclesiology can help us out: one can make a helpful (and I believe biblical) distinction between the qualifications necessary for church membership (a basic, credible profession) and officebearing which defuses some of the practical issues involved. Complementarianism becomes a matter of faithful, biblical ecclesiology rather than an immediate gospel matter.

From what I’ve read this morning, there are a number of Biblical patriarchy guys who are spitting nails over Dr. Trueman’s post. This confirms for me a thought I’ve had. For many of the Biblical patriarchy guys, the issue of the roles of men and women is THE issue. It is the root of all problems in the church and in the world. It is the one issue that holds them together despite pretty significant theological differences.

Which brings me to Dr. Trueman’s final point:

Third, we have to be careful what we decide to make into gospel issues and not simply allow our own immediate context or admittedly important cultural struggles to be decisive. Luther thought affirmation of the presence of the whole Christ, in, with and under the elements of the bread and the wine in communion, was a gospel issue such that those who denied this were ‘of a different Spirit.’ Zwingli thought infant baptism was a gospel distinctive, such that he collaborated with the council in Zurich in the judicial drowning of Anabaptists. Indeed, Baptists have to face the fact that most of their theological heroes throughout history have baptized babies and, indeed, thought it a gospel distinctive. I am not saying that they should therefore become paedobaptists (though they could do a lot worse); but I am saying it should give us pause for thought before we start declaring what are and are not gospel issues and distinctives. This has been a perennially tough question for Protestants and needs to be parsed with care.

Peter Enns: “the gospel is not about how you get saved”

Peter Enns has a recent blog post answering the question: What is the gospel? According to Dr. Enns, Martin Luther (and all the Reformers and all pretty much all the church since the time of the apostles) were wrong. The gospel is not about how people are saved from their sins:

Rather, the common Christian way of answering the question–like the example I give above–misses a lot of what the New Testament says about the gospel. Which, if true, is a big problem.

That is what Williams is getting at in his posts, and they’re well worth reading.

Williams points out that “gospel” as it is commonly understood, at least among conservative Protestants, is tied to issues that were big during the Reformation. Martin Luther and others were struggling with the question of how we are made right before God, or as we might put it today, “how do you get saved?”

To make a long and complicated story short and simple, Luther argued that we are justified before God by faith alone, not by works. As we might put it today, “good deeds don’t get you to heaven.” Luther got that idea from the New Testament, especially Paul’s letters–or better, how Luther understood Paul’s letters given the kinds of questions he was asking, but I digress….

Here is the point: How Luther understood “gospel”–how someone gets right with God–is not really “the gospel.” Rather, it is part of the gospel, an implication of the gospel. Luther talked about the gospel the way he did to address a theological concern of his time, but that doesn’t mean Luther’s definition gets to the heart of the matter. In other words,

…the gospel is not about how you get saved.

If the gospel is not about how you get saved, then what is it about? According to Dr. Enns (and N.T. Wright, among others):

According to the Gospels, the gospel is not about the afterlife, but what “kingdom” you belong to here and now. Jesus talks a lot about the “kingdom of heaven” (or “of God”), and this is commonly misunderstood as a kingdom “up there” somewhere. But read what Jesus says about the kingdom. It is about the rule of God on earth, with Jesus as king. “Kingdom of heaven” doesn’t mean “kingdom that is IN heaven” but “kingdom FROM heaven.” God’s reign, though King Jesus, is setting up shop here and now. The question Jesus asks the people is, “Do you want in or not?”

I once asked a pastor two questions to clarify what he was teaching on the gospel: what is the gospel, and what is the mission of the church? He answered that the gospel is the Good News that Jesus has broken into history and has ushered in the Kingdom of God and begun His work of redeeming the cosmos. The mission of the church, according to this pastor, was to invite people to join in this work of redemption. What about salvation and the forgiveness of sins? Well, that’s part of the whole thing, of course, just not central. That’s when we decided to leave.

The church has one thing it can offer that no one else can: forgiveness of sins and salvation. Any secular organization can rectify social ills, provide basic human necessities, and build parks and schools. I’m not saying that these are not worthy goals. We should not forget about the physical needs of the people we minister to. What I’m saying is that if we forget that we have a mission and that that mission is preaching the Good News of salvation and the forgiveness of sins, then we are salt that has lost its savor. If we are not reconciled to God, no amount of clean water, social justice, and redistribution of wealth will save us. We will have stored up our treasure here on earth and kept the most important treasure hidden from those we are helping.

Is our sin so minor a thing that our salvation can be treated so contemptuously? May God have mercy on us all.

Blue Like Jazz Movie Misses the Gospel?

I should preface this by saying I haven’t ever read the book, Blue Like Jazz. I know it’s a tremendously popular book, and apparently, it’s been made into a movie. A writer at World Magazine has written a review of the new movie. She is concerned that:

While the movie successfully explores themes of forgiveness, authenticity, and the question of God’s existence as it follows one man’s journey to find God, it struggles to offer a clear explanation of the gospel.

She goes on to write:

While the film’s Don character is able to finally face his own hypocrisy and learn the power of forgiveness, the film fails to offer a clear vision of the hope of the gospel. Instead, it places more emphasis on the failures of the church and the broad question of whether or not God exists. The film refers to Jesus but it never explains who Jesus is or what He did.

Miller admitted he left the resolution murky on purpose, saying that he wanted to “show, not tell” the gospel, but vague scripting and ambiguous theology might leave the audience with more questions than answers.

Both Miller and director Steve Taylor insist the movie isn’t a Christian film. Instead, they emphasize that it is about “real people in a real world and one of them happens to be a Christian.”

Miller said he hoped the movie would explore the conflict in which many Christians live: balancing their desire to be a follower of Jesus with being intentionally present in the lives of the nonbelievers around them.

Does anyone know if the book does a better job of presenting the Gospel and describing what Christ has done through His death and resurrection?

What is the Gospel?

While it may seem like an easy question, it might surprise you how many different answers there are. Is the Gospel the “good news” about salvation? Is the Gospel something to be lived out or embodied? Here is R.C. Sproul’s answer to this very important question:

There is no greater message to be heard than that which we call the Gospel. But as important as that is, it is often given to massive distortions or over simplifications. People think they’re preaching the Gospel to you when they tell you, ‘you can have a purpose to your life’, or that ‘you can have meaning to your life’, or that ‘you can have a personal relationship with Jesus.’ All of those things are true, and they’re all important, but they don’t get to the heart of the Gospel.

The Gospel is called the ‘good news’ because it addresses the most serious problem that you and I have as human beings, and that problem is simply this: God is holy and He is just, and I’m not. And at the end of my life, I’m going to stand before a just and holy God, and I’ll be judged. And I’ll be judged either on the basis of my own righteousness – or lack of it – or the righteousness of another. The good news of the Gospel is that Jesus lived a life of perfect righteousness, of perfect obedience to God, not for His own well being but for His people. He has done for me what I couldn’t possibly do for myself. But not only has He lived that life of perfect obedience, He offered Himself as a perfect sacrifice to satisfy the justice and the righteousness of God. Continue reading

The “New” Gospel: Is It the Same as the Old?

Kevin DeYoung wrote an excellent article comparing the “new” gospel message that has become so common in today’s evangelical discussions. He starts the article with four features of the new gospel:

It usually starts with an apology: “I’m sorry for my fellow Christians. I understand why you hate Christianity. It’s like that thing Gandhi said, ‘why can’t the Christians be more like their Christ?’ Christians are hypocritical, judgmental, and self-righteous. I know we screwed up with the Crusades, slavery, and the Witch Trials. All I can say is: I apologize. We’ve not give you a reason to believe.”

Then there is an appeal to God as love: “I know you’ve seen the preachers with the sandwich boards and bullhorns saying ‘Repent or Die.’ But I’m here to tell you God is love. Look at Jesus. He hung out with prostitutes and tax collectors. He loved unconditionally. There is so much brokenness in the world, but the good news of the Bible is that God came to live right in the middle of our brokenness. He’s a messy God and his mission is love. ‘I did not come into the world to condemn the world,’ that’s what Jesus said (John 3:17). He loved everyone, no matter who you were or what you had done. That’s what got him killed.”

The third part of the New Gospel is an invitation to join God on his mission in the world: “It’s a shame that Christians haven’t shown the world this God. But that’s what we are called to do. God’s kingdom is being established on earth. On earth! Not in some distant heaven after we die, but right here, right now. Even though we all mess up, we are God’s agents to show his love and bring this kingdom. And we don’t do that by scaring people with religious language or by forcing them into some religious mold. We do it by love. That’s the way of Jesus. That’s what it means to follow him. We love our neighbor and work for peace and justice. God wants us to become the good news for a troubled planet.”

And finally, there is a studied ambivalence about eternity: “Don’t get me wrong, I still believe in life after death. But our focus should be on what kind of life we can live right now. Will some people go to hell when they die? Who am I to say? Does God really require the right prayer or the right statement of faith to get into heaven? I don’t know, but I guess I can leave that in his hands. My job is not to judge people, but to bless. In the end, God’s amazing grace may surprise us all. That’s certainly what I hope for.”

So what’s wrong with the “new” gospel?

It shouldn’t be hard to see what is missing in the new gospel. What’s missing is the old gospel, the one preached by the Apostles, the one defined in 1 Corinthians 15, the one summarized later in The Apostles’ Creed.

Continue reading