by David Van Bebber
In the last few weeks, yet another social media controversy has erupted within the confines of the Southern Baptist Convention. This exciting controversy, aptly named Bindergate, to go along with sermongate, CRTgate or Resolution-9-gate (and the other gates I probably missed), seems to be just another example of some SBC’ers gating themselves off in an attempt to troll each other to death. The firing of verbal mortars across social media platforms and in their discussion groups is well exhibited already. I will remind you that this hub-hub occurs while many pastors waste serious ministry hours on this issue being as non-charitable in social media communication as possible.
That is not to say that online discussions and disagreements should never occur. Obviously, I wouldn’t be posting this if I didn’t believe in the impact or the use of meditated means to deal with differences. I am posting this. So, I would like to briefly engage not Bindergate or any of the other “gates” directly. I am interested in how I see Christian online communication, specifically in the SBC, as void of any attempt to be persuasive, winsome, or follow any rules of reasonable argumentation. I will keep this somewhat generalized as this is a vast problem. If you need evidence of this problem, just go to one of the numerous SBC specific groups and read a comment chain.
I don’t pastor a church in the Southern Baptist Convention, but the impacts and ramifications of things within the Southern Baptist Convention emanate within the larger evangelical world. I am a part of that world. The irony of all of the social-media-fed “gates” at hand coming out of the SBC is that the Southern Baptists Messengers noted in the 2018 resolution On Christlike Communication And The Use Of Social Media “The use of social media by Christians for dialogue, expressing opinions, and argumentation also is a public representation of the faith of believers in our Lord Jesus Christ. . . . Christians are called to exhibit self-control . . . understanding that our actions and character, seen by a watching world, are directly tethered to our witness and testimony of the person and work of Jesus Christ.” 
I agree with that statement, but that is not where the largest protestant group in the US ended. They went on to stand resolved that “[We] commit to maintaining brotherly and sisterly love by resolving our differences in a biblical manner . . . guard our tongues, using caution and wisdom in our media and social media, and refrain from remarks that tear down others made in the image of God, including refraining from gossip and slander; and . . . even in the midst of differences, disagreements, and conflicts, we will engage one another with respect and winsomeness (emphasis added), speaking truth in Christlike love while pursuing unity.”
Therefore, it would seem that as a public representation of Christ, Southern Baptists would be most mindful of social media comments and discussions. In a time where increased communication toxicity invades our social media spaces and seems to invade our face to face interactions as well, I am reminded of Paul’s words to the Colossians “Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person” (Colossians 4:6). Deborah Tannen of Georgetown University calls our current communication climate the “argument culture.”  Tannen contends that our mediated interactions are a war zone. People approach any disagreement as a riot and strap up their riot gear, verbally speaking, and go to seek and destroy. She continues, “The argument culture urges us to regard the world and the people in it in an adversarial frame of mind.” 
As an Adjunct Communications Professor at a Southern Baptist institution, a pastor, and an active apologist, spoken words and mediated messages are the main focus of my study, teaching, and research. They are likewise mediums where I am constantly trying to improve personally and mediums I use to shape others in advancing the kingdom.
I am blessed to constantly interact with students, members of my church, and other faithful shepherds through mediated communication. Unfortunately, as Jason Duesing notes, “with instant global interconnectedness . . . are society appears to have defaulted either to resigned despair or distracted indifference.”  Yet, over the course of the last two years (if not before that), evangelical cynicism and indifference have altered to a form of toxic, condescending, and outright hateful interactions. Numerous studies have been conducted on the rising toxicity to which social media platforms have contributed. That’s not my point here. My point is to question how we are to be winsome and persuasive in our online interactions.
Scripture calls us to not only “be gracious” (Colossians 4:6) with our words but to “destroy arguments” (2 Corinthians 10:5). I am not about to attempt to create a false dichotomy here. Still, my appeal is to evangelicals to not forget to be both persuasive and reasonable as we interact online in front of a watching world.
Therefore, let me briefly look at a few passages of Scripture that demonstrate the Christian paradigm for the application of persuasion and then provide a few tidbits on how to accomplish this.
First, what is persuasion? Put simply, it is an attempt to “convince, simulate, or actuate [an] audience.”  Yes, Scripture deals with persuasion. In fact, Paul writes in his second letter to the Corinthians notes “knowing the fear of the Lord, we persuade others” (2 Corinthians 5:11). Ironically, this appears in the portion of the epistle where Paul communicates the excellence of the gospel ministry and how Christ has reconciled us before the Father.
So, in being missional, we are to persuade others. Paul demonstrated this type of action in Acts 28:23-24, where Scripture notes, “23 When they had appointed a day for him, they came to him at his lodging in greater numbers. From morning till evening he expounded to them, testifying to the kingdom of God and trying to convince them about Jesus both from the Law of Moses and from the Prophets. 24 And some were convinced by what he said, but others disbelieved.”
In both cases mentioned above, Paul engages those who are not saved. How did this play out when Paul dealt with conflict in the church? Acts 15:7 notes that the dispute over circumcision led to “much debate.” As defined by Freely and Steinberg, debate is “The process of inquiry and advocacy; The seeking of a recent judgment on a proposition.” 
Scripture does not provide all the discussion details in a transcript format. It does not detail how individuals engaged one another directly. Still, one can undoubtedly apply how Paul dealt with those who criticized him, as demonstrated in the epistles, to ascertain the pattern in which Paul handled arguments.
We can safely assume that if Paul was consistent, he did not go ad hominem. He did not try to red herring or straw man his opponents. He engaged them in a critical analysis of objective facts and handled his opponents graciously.
The real question is whether or not Christians desire to be persuasive anymore.
One does not have to travel far down a discussion board to see that how Christians engage in controversy is no different from the patterns set forth by this world. When the manner and methods employed by the world are the standard by which the people of Christ engage one another, we have the wrong standard.
Much of the conflicts in the Southern Baptist Convention over the last few years have only been amplified because people will no longer engage each other in a winsome manner. Instead, they would like to throw mud, offer strawmen arguments, go ad hominem, or in the case of some people, attempt to coerce the voices of those that they don’t want to hear.
Speaking directly to the conflict at hand, bindergate, didn’t Dr. Merritt himself say, “the world is watching us.” Yes, the world is watching the way evangelicals behave in online interactions. We have left the world of logic partly because many of us have never taken a formal class in logic, nor have we taken courses in argumentation. Our failure is more significant than simply rejecting logical and reasonable patterns of communication and argumentation. We have a pride issue, and we have made an idol of expanding our platforms. We’ve allowed the new paradigm of online communication to devolve into the methods used by this world as the means through which we engage one another. This is a travesty and a disservice to the gospel. It is a public sin.
So, what do we need to do?
Let me make it simple.
End the name-calling (i.e., Social Justice Warrior, the Woke, etc.); address actual arguments and specific points of real contention; accurately represent those with whom one disagrees and go to Scripture with them.
Then, when someone demonstrates from Scripture an argument that cannot be consistently refuted from Scripture, repent and allow Scripture to reign supreme.
This article could go on much longer and deal with numerous controversies, but that’s not my point. The point is that evangelicals need to quit abandoning persuasion in our online dialogues and discourse.
We need to quit retreating from reasonable argumentation and attempt to winsomely persuade according to the authority of Scripture and do so in a manner that honors Christ. Just like Dr. Tom Ascol did in his article Bindergate: An Appeal for Honesty and Integrity in the SBC, evangelicals must be direct in approaching problems and controversies.
More winsome and honest appeals are needed, specifically in the largest protestant denomination in the US.
Tim Muehlhoff and Todd V. Lewis, Authentic Communication: Christian Speech Engaging Culture (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2010), pp. 182-183.
Deborah Tannen, The Argument Culture: Moving from Debate to Dialogue (New York: Random House, 1998), p. 3, cited in Muehlhoff and Lewis, Ibid.
Jason Duesing, Mere Hope: Life in an Age of Cynicism (Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing Group, 2018), p. 6.
For further review of the rising toxicity and problematic concerns in general on the trends of social media communication, one can examine the following articles: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/20539517211023533, https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20200601-how-is-covid-19-is-affecting-relationships
Thomas B. Harte, Carolyn Keefe, and Bob R. Derryberry, The Complete Book of Speechwriting for Student and Professionals 4th e.d. (Edna, MN: Burgess Publishing, 1999), p. 191.
Austin J. Freely and David L. Steinberg, Argumentation and Debate: Critical Thinking for Reasoned Decision Making 10th e.d. (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Thomas Learning, 2000), p. 2.
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