Diatribe or Debate?

My post about petitions provoked a wide range of responses, not all of which were positive. The nature of those responses interests me and provides an opportunity to opine on a topic that I think is very important—how we handle disagreement.

Let me recap my earlier post by reducing it to the three main points and the clarification which I offered. The three arguments are that online petitions designed to pressure a person or organization to act righteously: (1) are adopting a carnal, not biblical, methodology learned from the culture around us; (2) are trying to coerce spiritual change rather than appeal for it; and (3) seldom a display of biblical love. The clarification was simple and straightforward: I am not suggesting that evil and foolishness not be confronted; I am arguing against this way of doing it. Now, it seems to me that all three of my arguments could be challenged.

One way to do that would be to ignore them while: (1) assigning evil motives to me for making them; (2) implying that I don’t care about important moral issues, only silencing people; and (3) redirecting the discussion away from the subject that I was discussing to conjectures about whose backside I’m trying to cover. None of this really needs to address the question at hand in order to score points. Rhetorical devices like these are used precisely because they work to some degree. Wrap them with some form of “speaking truth to power” garment and it might even work better with a certain segment of people.

Another way to do it would be to actually refute or rebut my points. Demonstrate that I am misinterpreting or misapplying the Scriptures that I reference. Point out the weakness of the argument because it is uninformed, misinformed, or illogical. Provide some evidence that I’ve skewed the argument in some way. Raise questions about the validity of my applications. There are many ways you could seek to refute my point, and some have thoughtfully done so via email or in Facebook conversations. I’m all for debate about this because I think it is an important subject that has real impact on how believers relate to one another and, ultimately, what the spirit of our churches will be like.

One important factor in a debate is to make sure that you’ve actually understood what the other side is saying. If you will re-read my post, you’ll notice that it says nothing about any current issue being addressed by online petitions. It was not about that. I am talking about process. Ten years from now, my post will say the same thing it does today and will have the same level of applicability as it does today simply because its argument does not depend on any current situation. To read it as if I am advocating for the other side of any current petition (and I know of at least three) reflects the bias of the reader, not the text of the post. It’s not about a position or particularly petition, but about the use of online petitions to advance righteousness.

Addendum. SharperIron has opened a thread on this and I commented with this clarification:

I would like to make very clear that my post was not about the Phelps situation. I never mentioned it in my post and was speaking to the larger question as to whether this mechanism is the right way to pursue righteousness. There are at least three online petitions that I am aware of currently. Given the rise in popularity of this tactic, my aim was to address the concept.

My concern on it is pastoral. When God’s people embrace the spirit of the age, it inevitably will influence life in the local assembly. My post was aimed at expressing concern that online petitions aimed at effecting some righteous outcome reflect more of the spirit of the age than the Spirit of Christ.

I am not defending the status quo. I am addressing how change should happen in ways that are consistent with the Scriptures. I certainly will concede that authoritarian leadership styles have contributed significantly to the sense of frustration which results in petition-like tactics. No debate from me there. It doesn’t seem, though, wise to advocate an approach which only entrenches more distrust. If you are connected to a leader or institution that will not listen to biblical truth, then separate yourself from him or it. But do it consistently with the Scriptures and in a way that does not bring reproach on the Gospel.

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