One of the wearying aspects of church life these days is the constant weaponizing of disagreement. I’m referring to the tendency to take an honest disagreement we have with someone (perhaps over secondary points of theology, or matters of political prudence, or parenting methods) as a sign he or she must be “unsound”—and so we wield that disagreement as a weapon, as a way of smearing the person’s entire outlook or ministry.
The shallowness we see on display today stems at least in part from what Nicholas Carr described as the new mental patterns that develop in a world of online scrolling and commenting. In this new world, Christians seem increasingly unable to critique without canceling. We don’t see in our disagreements an opportunity to pursue truth together—to argue by appealing to Scripture, logic, reason, and tradition. Instead, disagreements devolve into quarreling. All heat, no light.
Easy labels play a big role in weaponization. Words like “based” or “woke,” “progressive” or “right-wing,” “problematic” or “troubling” often get deployed not because of theological disagreement exactly but because we may think others unwise, inconsistent, or just wrong in how they apply theological convictions to the choices we face in today’s world.
- She voted for Trump, so she’s a right-wing fanatic whose approach to everything else must be suspect (and she’s probably a closet racist!).
- He expressed doubt about vaccines or the wisdom of school lockdowns, so he must be a gullible conspiracy theorist who doesn’t love his neighbor or who harbors authoritarian desires!
On the other side . . .
- This church was closed for more than a few weeks and the pastor encouraged vaccination, so they’re obviously in line with compromised “woke” evangelicals who are “progressive.”
- This author believes there may be human causes to climate change, so he’s obviously “liberal” or at least duped by global elites!
Faded from view are the detailed and historic confessions of faith that once marked out faith traditions and communities. Slogans, labels, and epithets remain. From a theological perspective, you can’t label “liberal” anyone who gives full-throated affirmation to the Westminster Confession of Faith or the Baptist Faith and Message. And you can’t fairly label complementarians “abusive” or “misogynist” just for aligning with the traditional and ecumenical consensus of the church on the matter.
Unfortunately, political debates loom so large in the consciousness and imagination of the evangelical mind that we’re increasingly unable to separate out the issues, to welcome good-faith disagreements on matters of prudence without casting opponents in the worst possible light or castigating them for (gasp) disagreeing with us.
Signals over Substance
In the past eight or nine years, I’ve noticed a shift toward signaling over substance online. Not only do we expect others to agree, but we think we should all agree in the same way and by sending the same signals.
If you’re not commenting on every major case of racial injustice, if you’re not announcing every time another church leader is exposed for sex abuse, if you’re not weighing in on the latest crazy tweet from someone claiming the mantle of Christian Nationalism—well, you’re part of the problem. You’re complicit. Compromised. Suspect. “Silence is violence!”
The same goes for the other side. If you’re not signaling your outrage about the latest harms of doctors given over to gender ideology, if you’re not expressing regular and vociferous disagreement with proposals from the president, if you’re not broadcasting your alignment with the “fill in the blank” news story of the day, you’re not really sound. You’re uncommitted. Asleep. Weak.
Late last year, a colleague of mine was accused of being a “progressive” agent working undercover to undermine the theological foundations of his denomination. The evidence? He had a few friends whose disagreement had already been weaponized (Aha! Fraternizing with the enemy!) and he hadn’t issued on Twitter any comment or celebration about the overturning of Roe v. Wade last summer. Gotcha! Never mind the fact this colleague was hit-or-miss on social media, rarely engaged in saying much of anything online, and was so devoted to the pro-life cause (in reality, not just on social media) that he and his wife had taken in multiple foster kids.
See what happens here? It’s not even disagreement that divides but not agreeing in the same way. You’re not loud enough in your agreement! You’re not adopting the same posture or proposal! The result is more fracturing, even among people on the same page, simply because they don’t signal their allegiance the same way. (I’m reminded of the thunderous applause everyone was expected to give when Nicolae Ceaușescu was dictator of Romania. Don’t be the first to stop clapping! Don’t be the first to sit down! Your “loyalty” will be suspect.)
Different Members of One Body
When differences of perspective and opinion get melted down into bullets that become ammunition for the Great War we see ourselves as engaged in, our targets become brothers and sisters in the barracks instead of the powers and principalities where the true, spiritual battle rages. Christ’s Bride is the casualty, and the Evil One laughs.
If the body of Christ seems out of shape these days, perhaps it’s because we’re getting body parts all out of proportion, insisting everyone be an eye, or an ear, or a mouth. Rather than recognizing and appreciating different gifts and competencies (not to mention different callings), we adopt a totalizing view of online engagement.
The body is complex. If we’re to heal an ailing and divided church, it might come through multiple medicines and treatments. But we’ll never return to health if we assume anyone with a different mixture of medicine is trying to poison the church instead of heal it.
What’s the solution to this wearisome warfare? We can’t just paper over disagreements and cheer “unity” over and over again, as if this will solve all our issues. Denominations don’t heal that way, just like churches and families don’t heal by shoving disagreements under the rug. We should aspire to unity, yes, and we must stop weaponizing disagreement in ways that mischaracterize, reduce, oversimplify, or attack brothers and sisters acting in good faith. But talking about unity won’t resolve the disagreements.
John Stott found ways for creative collaboration and partnership by doing his best to listen carefully to critics who were concerned about this or that—whose disagreement was sincere and well-meaning—and he often found the truths they wanted to safeguard were ones he considered precious as well. Creative solutions could come about once that common ground was established enough for productive conversations. But I sometimes wonder if any of that is even possible online.
Which pushes me to look deeper into the reasons why we’ve arrived at this place.
Why is it so hard to critique without canceling people?
What has happened to us online that makes it so easy to write others off?
How can we speak truthfully when doctrinal drift poses a danger to a leader’s soul and the souls of others, without contributing to the culture of easy labels and rapid canceling?
What habits would help us cultivate charitable critique, to follow the counsel of James to be “quick to listen” and “slow to speak” and especially “slow to become angry”?
What have we become? Who are we becoming?
I don’t claim to have all the answers, but I know the church would be better served by more Christians insisting on face-to-face interaction, resisting the impulse to constantly signal online that we belong to this or that tribe, and choosing to avoid the constant carping and criticizing on issues where we’re unlikely to persuade others. Maybe we need more cold takes than hot ones. And maybe it starts with reevaluating our habits and, at the very least, committing to no longer weaponizing good-faith disagreement.
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