High-Tech Church Fights

October 21, 2006

I ran across these two articles about local church conflicts that became so bitter that they spilled out onto the Internet:
Church Fights Turn High-Tech
Bellvue Conflict Bleeds Onto Internet
What should we say about this?
1) Church fights are nothing new. Go all the way back to the New Testament and you discover that Christians had trouble getting along from the very beginning. Read the epistles and you’ll read about church members in Rome, Philippi, Colosse and Corinth (especially Corinth) who had a hard time staying in the same church together. They fought over what to eat, what to drink, what to wear, which religious customs to follow, how long to wear their hair, which spiritual gifts to emphasize, and they argued about how much of the Jewish law should be brought over into the church. Sometimes they disagreed about missionary strategy, sometimes they couldn’t agree on which leaders to follow, and sometimes they fought about the very heart of the Christian faith–who is Jesus Christ and how are we saved from our sin?
2) Things haven’t changed all that much in the last 2000 years. We still argue about baptism, church government, music, the right kind of preaching, the best way to educate our children, the clothes we wear, the movies we watch, which Bible translation is best and how often to serve communion. You could almost say that church history is the story of a 2000-year-old church fight.
3) So it’s not a big deal that Christians disagree inside local churches about things like worship style, electing elders, dismissing staff members and how much the pastor is paid.
4) And it’s not entirely new that church fights spill over into the public arena. After all, Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of the church in Wittenberg, Germany, sparking the Protestant Reformation. Of course we know he didn’t intend to spark anything but a discussion over certain church practices, but his intentions don’t matter. Nailing those theses to the church door was exactly the same thing as hitting the Post button on your weblog. He was putting his ideas out for everyone else to read.

5) It’s not surprising to me that local church conflicts are discussed on the Internet. The whole concept of the blogosphere levels the playing field so that ordinary people have an outlet to “speak to the world” even if no one else is listening. The Internet by definition is a democratic technology because anyone with a computer and an Internet connection can become the next Rush Limbaugh or the next Bill O’Reilly or the next Katie Couric or the next Oprah or the next Paul Revere sounding the warning, “The British are coming! The British are coming!”
6) I doubt there is anything church leaders can do to control what their people write on the Internet. In extreme cases you can dismiss people from the congregation, but that won’t stop them from writing whatever they want on their weblogs.
7) I think we will see many more examples of this in the days to come. The first article quotes one man who seems to like the fact that weblogs played a part in Southern Baptist politics before the convention last June, but he dislikes that weblogs are now being used in local church conflicts. I don’t think you can have it both ways. The same technology that influences denominational elections will do the same thing in the local church. You can say, “I don’t like that,” but it won’t change reality.
8) By the same token, I don’t think the people who start these opposition websites can claim to be the “friendly opposition.” When you start a website to “save” your church, you have declared war on the existing church leadership. There will no happy ending and no sweet reconciliation once those websites are up and running. Who knows? Maybe in some cases the opposition leaders truly have the moral high ground. Fine, but they shouldn’t piously claim to be trying to “save” their own church. Going public on the Internet about internal church problems is an act of war, pure and simple. It’s like destroying the village in order to save it.
9) Add a big grain of salt whenever you read these websites. By definition they are telling only one side of the story. They interview disgruntled staff members, former deacons and unhappy church members in order to make their case. They are about as neutral as the Democrats and Republicans two weeks before the mid-term elections. Remember the words of Proverbs 18:17, “The one who states his case first seems right, until the other comes and examines him.’ Don’t believe everything you read.
10) Perhaps the most unfortunate part is that these websites air dirty laundry that the rest of us have no way to evaluate. At least with denominational issues you are dealing with matters that impact hundreds or thousands of churches. Frankly, I don’t know how much Steve Gaines is paid and I don’t care. The opposition apparently thinks he is being paid $500,000, which is an enormous figure but Bellvue is an enormous church. Would the opposition feel better if he were paid $350,000? Suppose he is paid $225,000. That would still seem unbelievable to a reader in Bangladesh. And when these websites make accusations about what the pastor and other leaders said in a private conversation, the rest of us have no way to evaluate the charge because we have no way to supply the larger context. It can’t help to discuss these “family matters” in a forum that by its nature is public and worldwide.
11) It certainly can’t help the church’s reputation in the world. That applies to the churches torn by controversy, but it cannot help the larger body of Christ either. It gives ammunition to the foes of the gospel and turns off seekers who desperately need to find Jesus but don’t know where to look.
12) Church leaders would do well to embrace the Internet and use it as a means of communicating not only to the congregation but also to the community at large. Once the Internet gets hold of a story, it spreads around the world within a few seconds. I am not advocating getting into a tit-for-tat Internet argument, but wise leaders will use technology to get their message out.
13) If anything good comes from these high-tech church fights, it may lead to greater openness by church leaders. Openness is a not a word normally associated with church leaders, is it? Sometimes leaders squelch honest debate in a congregation. I can remember an occasion during my junior high years when our church was about to hire a new music/youth minister. For some reason or other, he didn’t make a good impression and some people hoped he wouldn’t come. I recall that when the time for the vote came, the pastor (who had been clued in about the potential opposition) asked all those in favor to say Aye. Then he said, “All those opposed will please stand and state why you are voting No.” As I recall, no one stood up. That sort of thing wouldn’t pass muster today.
14) Having said all of this, I don’t think the Internet caused the problems in any of these churches, but putting the fight online definitely made things worse. The Internet only revealed what was already there, bubbling under the surface.
15) Technology by itself is morally neutral. I thank God for the Internet because it has opened amazing doors for the gospel in our generation. But anything good can be used in a wrong way.
16) Embrace the Internet but not uncritically. And don’t be surprised when some Christians use it to fight over money and power, which is what most of this is about.

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?