Home Pastors Articles for Pastors 7 Rules on Engagement for Online Theological Discussions

7 Rules on Engagement for Online Theological Discussions

Ball-players also freely and honestly acknowledge what is good and right in the opposing view, and avoid intemperately damning the whole because of a defect in the parts. They seek to stick to the issue at hand, and not broaden or generalize the disagreement into a questioning of character or bona fides.

Playing the ball also means seeking to remain in good relationship with the person you’re disagreeing with, so that you can hopefully shake hands and share a coffee after your debate, or continue to work together on other projects or platforms. This is the ideal, and we should strive for it—to avoid targetting the person, and to deal instead with the issue, in the hope of coming to a common mind.

A very helpful and extensive word on gospel polemics comes from Tim Keller’s Center Church, and in the rest of this article I distill his wisdom to seven rules that ought to guide our hearts, our minds and our words as we have these difficult discussions.

1. Carson’s Rule

The first rule comes from D.A. Carson and states: You don’t have to follow Matthew 18 before publishing polemics. “[I]f someone is publicly presenting theological views that are opposed to sound doctrine, and you are not in the same ecclesiastical body with this person (that is, there is no body of elders over you both, as when, for example, both of you are ministers in the same denomination), then you may indeed publicly oppose those without going privately to the author of them.” This responds immediately to a common but misguided charge: But have you approached him personally? A person who publishes his words publicly can be responded to publicly.

2. Murray’s Rule

The second rule comes from John Murray and states: You must take full responsibility for even unwitting misrepresentation of someone’s views. “In our Internet age we are very quick to dash off a response because we think Mr. A promotes X. And when someone points out that Mr. A didn’t mean X because over here he said Y, we simply apologize, or maybe we don’t even do that. John Murray’s principle means that polemics must never be ‘dashed off.’ Great care should be taken to be sure you really know what Mr. A believes and promotes before you publish.” To rule #2 I might add that if you have a relationship with a person with whom you disagree, it may be wise to attempt to contact that person to ensure that you have, indeed, understood their position and are now able to accurately represent it. More importantly, though, is to ensure you are being as accurate as possible in all you say.

3. Alexander’s Rule

The third rule comes from Archibald Alexander and states: Never attribute an opinion to your opponent that he himself does not own. “[E]ven if you believe that Mr. A’s belief X could or will lead others who hold that position to belief Y, do not accuse Mr. A of holding to belief Y himself, if he disowns it. You may consider him inconsistent, but it is one thing to say that and another thing to tar him with belief Y by implying or insisting that he actually holds it when he does not. A similar move happens when you imply or argue that, if Mr. A quotes a particular author favorably at any point, then Mr. A must hold to all the views that the author holds at other points. If you, through guilt-by-association, hint or insist that Mr. A must hold other beliefs of that particular author, then you are violating Alexander’s Rule and, indeed, Murray’s Rule. You are misrepresenting your opponent.” Be fair and be accurate. You can point out what you see as an inconsistency and you can even point out that the author seems to be influenced by authors you consider dangerous. But do not conflate the two.

4. Gillespie’s Rule A

The fourth rule is from George Gillespie and states: Take your opponents’ views in total, not selectively. “Just because someone says (or fails to say something) in one setting—either for good reasons or because of a misstep—does not mean he fails to say it repeatedly and emphatically in the rest of his work. Gillespie is saying, ‘Be sure that what you say is Mr. X’s position really is his settled view. You can’t infer that from one instance.’ If we build a case on such instances, we are in danger of falling afoul of Murray’s rule as well. We must take responsibility for misrepresenting the views of others.”