Jan 21, 2011

Implications of the Internet for Theological Debate & Shepherding

Another chapter in the ongoing controversy of the Federal Vision theology in the PCA. The theological issues are beyond the scope of this blog (and I don't have a dog in that race anyway) but the presbytery report discussed in this article is interesting for the technological implications for the Church (big "C").  Item 15 of the presbytery's preliminary report reads:
MOP instructs its Administrative Committee to draft an overture for the Presbytery to send to the General Assembly or seek some other way to initiate a denomination wide conversation regarding public disputation on the Internet. Such a conversation should also include a) questions regarding the relevance and application of Matthew 18 and other Scripture that might help foster and promote Christ-honoring discourse throughout the PCA; b) a discussion of possible revisions to the BCO that could be brought by presbyteries to the General Assembly (e.g., make more explicit the process for injurious reports derived from Internet sources); and c) a basic set of standards outlining the duties presbyters owe each other as brothers in the faith and fellow servants of the church in the midst of theological disputation.
A little background knowledge. My denomination (the PCA) is presbyterian. We work through various "church courts" starting with a local session, the regional presbytery, and the General Assembly (other terms and levels are used in other presbyterian bodies). Formal rulings on a theological debate occur in these courts, which are made up of the ordained elders of the church - all of which are considered equal. The highest office in the PCA is the moderator of the General Assembly - he serves for one year and just runs the meeting.  If an elder is thought to be in error on some doctrine, a court can examine him - and either side can appeal to a higher court if they disagree with the ruling. The issue of Matthew 18 is brought up as the church courts are part of the process described there for correcting erring brothers and sisters.

We as a denomination (and I imagine others) are now struggling with what happens when someone puts out something through this very easy to use broadcast channel known as the Internet.  Apparently, there is the claim that one group of elders is putting out a bad or possibly false view of another elder on the internet rather than going through a church court. There is in fact a fine line here - Galatians 2 shows us how one apostle rebuked another publicly, and so we presbyterians take that to mean that elders should (at least at some point as a correction process proceeds) have a public rebuke.

Now, I think the Internet can be a very useful tool for theological debate, given some guidelines (basically treating a debater the same as you would in person). However, in the case of shepherding/correcting, I think it is telling that both passages above sound like you're talking to someone in person. Paul opposed Peter "to his face" in front of others. Jesus tells us to "go to" your brother that sinned. Maybe Skype counts, but these sound like "in person" events. Thus, it seems to me that technology mediated communication is not the way God intends this correction to take place.

Do you think dispute and/or correction can take place via the Internet?

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