Beth Moore once tweeted the following:
“Oh man, there’s bouta be a fight. I love this.”—Beth Moore.
Someone jokingly responded and asked if she was watching the NBA Finals or taking a shot at the Southern Baptist Convention. I’m pretty sure Mrs. Moore was talking about the NBA game on television at that point, but the joke hit home.
There is fighting afoot in the family.
And it seems everybody is watching the show.
Fighting is Fine, Sometimes
Now, I’m not one who thinks every scuffle is out of place. Sometimes, we need to fight. Or, at least we need to wrestle with things, engage in healthy debate, and call each other to account. The idea of “contending” is not foreign to NT Christianity (see Jude 3). This is true at the level of local churches, the larger world of evangelicalism, and conventions like that of Southern Baptists. The debates in reference to social justice, ethnic harmony, the abuse of women, and even to who is best suited to lead the convention forward, are not necessarily unhealthy discussions and debates. The way in which we conduct the conversations and where these conversations take place (blogs, Twitter, Facebook) is perhaps something we need a committee to look into.
What saddens me at the moment, however, and what I think is grievous in the present era, is how family squabbles go viral and too often invite the gaze of those on the outside. It is possible that people are gazing at Christians at unprecedented levels. And they are looking in our direction precisely because of our problems. This seems particularly true when one thinks of the Southern Baptist Convention. This, in my opinion, is one of the saddest realities of the day. Today, Southern Baptists are busy debating the merits and extent of complementarianism. We are fighting about how the gospel and social justice go hand-in-hand, if they do at all. And that’s a shortlist of what faces us today. The problem, however, is not necessarily the presence of the debates but the platforms we are using each and every day (like Twitter and Facebook) to hash these things out. These platforms usually offer little room for nuance, are devoid of the relational closeness that these debates probably demand, and, to my present concern, invite the world to watch for free.
Talking with a Brother in Private instead of Public
A while back, a brother in my local church wanted to meet and chat. I initially told him I’d be happy to meet him for coffee. The day of our meeting rolled around and he asked if we could meet at his house instead. His reasoning? He knew we had some potentially divisive things to discuss. He wanted to meet in private because he did not want two Christians putting their potential division on display. I thought this was a wise and mature perspective and happily met him in his dining room. The conversation was emotional at times, and we disagreed about a few things, but we could speak with conviction, even passion, face to face and before the face of our God. The gaze of the unbelieving world was not a concern because they had no view.
Similarly, Gregory of Nazianzus, the great Cappadocian theologian, exhorted his opponents to conduct their debates “within [their] own frontiers.” Why? Because Gregory knew our enemies (and sometimes even our so-called friends) “keep all too close a watch on us, and they would wish that the spark of our dissensions might become a conflagration; they kindle it, they fan it, by means of its own drought they raise it to the skies, and without our knowing what they are up to, they make it higher than those flames at Babylon which blazed all around.”
Gregory’s point is that the world keeps a close watch on how we engage with each other. And if our fighting is laid bare for all to see, if every disagreement in the SBC is published to the general public, then we give our enemies the chance to fan the flames and burn us down. Thus, we should be careful about inviting the watching world to gaze at every family fight.
Let the World Watch If and When It Matters
Now, for the sake of nuance, we should acknowledge it is not always a bad thing when the world watches some of our family squabbles. This is particularly true when we fight over central concerns. If people in the family begin to drift on the issue of the good news of Jesus and his substitutionary atoning work, we will fight to the death. If churches in our denomination waver on the sinfulness of homosexuality, then we rise to wrestle for the truth. If those in our ranks abuse women or distort the divine design of complementarianism, then let us invite the world to listen to our exchange of words. And when the giants among us falter publicly, then the public should see us holding our leaders accountable. When it comes to those matters (and others), we are not afraid of the gaze of the world as we fight for the truth in the present evil age.
However, I would wish that some of our fighting, some of our debating, some of our back and forth would take place away from the gaze of those outside our ranks. I think we should stay away from social media when we are dealing with less than ultimate things and keep our family fights “within our own frontiers.” When it comes to the Southern Baptist family, for instance, I do not believe we should take the Calvinism vs. non-Calvinism debate into the New York Times or Washington Post. Nor do I believe at the moment we should take our wrestling with the limits of complementarity into the public sphere at every turn. Beyond those two issues, we could create a nice long list of things that are not worth hashing out before the eyes of the world.
What issues or debates or fights (whatever you want to call them) go public and what issues stay private, well that’s a matter of prudence. I have not worked out the application grid for such things. What I do know, however, is that we should think more carefully about how we conduct our family affairs, including our fights. And we need to think about these issues for the good of our churches, the future of our convention, the joy of all (the watching) peoples, and the glory of our King.