Opinions on faith and life

Cyber Community

2009-02-12

Message boards and blogs have become the latest incarnation of meeting halls or booths in a marketplace. And like their physical counterparts, they can be fully public, restricted to members, or very personal “soap boxes”. Most people seem to be comfortable in these venues, becoming accustomed to this new abstract world. Yet in some respects we still have a way to go in developing an orderly society within it.

Specifically for Christians, these new ways of association have created some difficult questions: Can an online community be considered a “church”? Does the NT address these gatherings with the same rules that apply to physical meetings? What about accountability? How do we handle trolls, spam, cyber bullies, etc?

First, I think we need to distinguish between a blog and a message board. In a message board or forum (I know, a forum is really just one area in a board, but it’s easier to write repeatedly), it’s more like a town or even a city. There are civil magistrates (owners, admins, moderators) who run not a democracy but really a dictatorship. They pay the bills, they maintain the software, they guard against intruders, they determine the features, they set the requirements for membership. You could say it’s like a private club whose “minutes” can be read by the public. Nobody can tell the magistrates what to do because it belongs to them, and they let others join as a privilege and not a right. Yet at the same time, we can expect them to be reasonable and allow some slack. But even so, if we don’t like how a board is run, we are free to leave. Staying to bash the owners about how they run their board just doesn’t make sense.

Now add Christianity to the mix, and you know what happens: things get much more complicated. We expect the admins to act like believers, but we frequently try to impose our own narrow definition of that on them and then claim spiritual high ground as our right to judge them and make demands. But unless you’re a paying contributor, or the admins have violated some agreement, you have nothing to say to them, even as a believer. You can try to talk to them as you would any fellow believer about spiritual things, yes; but you have to separate that from the “civil magistrate” realm. Think of it as having the mayor of your city as a fellow believer in your local fellowship. No matter what your spiritual relationship with them, they are still the city’s mayor and you cannot give them orders or make demands on how the city is run simply by virtue of the two of you being believers. You are both believers and citizens of a larger community.

This is why I cringe whenever I see a believer tow out Mt. 18:15-17 in rebuke of how a board owner handles a divisive person. There are civil and spiritual issues to consider. If the troublemaker has violated board rules they can be disciplined in that regard. But if they have not violated a rule, then the admins have no authority over them (except if they have posted an escape clause to the effect that anyone can be banned for any reason, and yes any board owner has the right to make that rule). But here’s the crux of the matter: unless all members have agreed that the community is in fact a Christian assembly* (“church”) with approved elders guarding it from falsehood, then Mt. 18 cannot be applied. That is, nobody can demand that the procedure listed in that passage must be followed in dealing with troublemakers in forums.

Disruption of a meeting is nobody’s right, and there is no requirement to follow Mt. 18 when removing a divisive person from a fellowship, meeting, club, forum, or anything else it may be called. Mt. 18 is about sin and keeping the other believers from being infected with it. So unless blatant unrepentant sin is involved, this procedure is not to be invoked.

The same all goes for blogs as well, but blogs are more personal, like someone’s home. Treat blog owners as home owners, and don’t go trying to make them re-arrange the furniture to suit your personal taste. If the blog owner allows discussion, fine; if they don’t; fine. It’s their home, and they can do whatever they want.

For Christians, we could very well think of a blog as a house church. You respect the homeowner as a homeowner, but if said owner has agreed to allow a Christian assembly in their home, then the owner’s rights are not to be imposed over the group meeting there in spiritual matters. It is the elders who guard the group in that respect. But determining a group of elders in a blog isn’t so easily done. It would be better, I think, to set up a blog or board as a meeting place run by a group of elders, where any believers are welcome. That would be very much a “church” like those of the physical gatherings of the first century. In such a situation Mt. 18 could apply and actually mean something.

But most blogs, this one included, are not set up that way. This is my personal soap box, my home, and I can either allow or deny entry to whomever I choose. If I visit another blog then I try to respect their home and behave as I would if it were a physical location. If the owner allows wild brawls, that’s up to them; if they want polite tea parties, that’s up to them. But I won’t wave Mt. 18 in their face.

Well, I’ve just been musing about all this today, and I’m sure it needs more work. But it was on my mind and I wanted to put these issue on the table, because as believers we really need to get a handle on how we apply NT teachings in this new and unique technology. Comments?

* We need to make a distinction between an assembly that can possibly administer discipline and a simple meeting of believers per Mt. 18:20. The context is about seeking the lost and welcoming back the wandering. The aim is to restore and heal, if possible, and to have an attitude of care and love. But there are times when, for the sake of the Body, a person must reluctantly be expelled from fellowship. Mt. 18 simply is impossible to follow when there are only “two or three” total in a fellowship. Where do the two or three of you take the matter? And couldn’t the expelled one simply join another fellowship?

And this is really no different than in the physical world. A person can “church hop” and find acceptance, no matter what the sin. So even then it boils down to local fellowships and how well they stick to the NT and interpret it. You can “Mt. 18” only to the extent of guarding your own fellowship, but if the “home owner” has an issue with someone yet the believers meeting there don’t agree, sometimes the fellowship has to move. I don’t know, it can get very tough to figure out sometimes.

8 Comments

Jamie

.. But I do like blogs better, and I like dropping by your house every now and then for fellowship and spiritual food.;-) I have been expelled and yes, we can just join other fellowships as you well know. hehe

Jamie

I think in some ways forums are worse than churches since accountability rests souly on ones own character. But, they are very much the same things. I guess I’ve become the uncommitted drive-by "parishioner". I just think face to face relationships are a lot more realistic and fulfilling.

Thanks for the interesting point of view, Paula. I will re-read it later.

Paula Fether

Yes, nobody knows the meaning of expelled like we do. ;-)

And that really makes a good point about Mt. 18. How can it be enforced? In fact, we need to ask why it isn’t repeated in the epistles. Paul did talk about expelling someone from the Corinthian fellowship, but that only works if all believers have the same standards, which should come from the epistles.

If an ekklesia is when two or three are meeting because they are Christians and for the purpose of Christian fellowship, worship, or study, then any such gathering can decide who is allowed in the fellowship. If it’s a meeting for believers then only believers should be in it, and if a believer is violating basic teachings like the gospel or condoning sin, then they should be expelled from that fellowship.

The problem here in cyberspace is that each of us belongs to more than one fellowship. We have overlapping groups of believers we meet with in different places. So there really isn’t any kind of "uber church" that can expel anyone from all groups.

In light of that, if it’s accurate, then it really isn’t right for anyone to invoke Mt. 18 on a board or blog. The "elders" can help identify sin, but the whole group should "be of one mind" in dealing with it. These are like open air meetings where pretty much everything is done in public, while Mt. 18 was about one person sinning against another. I think that would equate to someone offending someone else and the offended one letting them know privately that they were offended. Let the two of them work it out. If the offender won’t budge, then get a friend or two to privately try to persuade them. If that doesn’t work, then the people of the board or blog could decide whether the offender is allowed to stay in the fellowship.

But even then, we do have to be very careful to honor the "homeowner’s" rights. So again, I think it would be most difficult to justify invoking Mt. 18 over the internet.

Jamie

One thing that will work when dealing with an "offender", is to completely ignore them. The problem is it’s about impossible to get a whole group of people to follow the simple principle in Romans 16:17. On the internet someone is always either going to feel sorry for them.. or argue with them. When someone obnoxious/divisive realizes they are being completely ignored, it weakens their control and they either have a change of heart or they leave. But it usually, if not always, becomes a battle for who gets the last word in cyber communities.

Lin

I can remember reading on Doug Wilson’s blogs and from some of the guys in the Patriarchy movemnt like the Baylys who would DEMAND the name of your church and pastor so they could call them have you disciplined if they did not like what you said online. Used to crack me up. Some folks bought in to it like these guys has some sort of spiritual authority or something. It is ridiculous what poses for Christianity out there. But one thing this showed me is that these guys have WAY too much time on their hands while being paid with tithe dollars.

Paula Fether

U got that right, Lin. Too much time on their egotistical hands. I’d like them to explain why one part of the Body should get permission from another part instead of talking directly to the Brain.

And I was just thinking about the context of Mt. 18. It was before there was any such thing as "the church". Ekklesia didn’t yet mean anything more than a gathering of people, and the listening audience when Jesus spoke the words were all Jews who would have taken the word to refer to them as Jews. While we do know that there was some overlap in that the transition was already beginning, even so this teaching was not given to "the church". Something to think about.

BowWow

EDITED BY PAULA:

This person came to make a personal attack on one of the commenters. His (presumably male) little temper tantrum will not see the light of day in my blog. His IPN and email don’t match a certain infamous and obsessed cyber stalker, but people like that typically make up new identities in the vain hope of catching somebody off guard. Or maybe this is a new one, but they all look the same to me: big ego, hypocritical, and way too much time on their hands.

Jamie

""I can remember reading on Doug Wilson’s blogs and from some of the guys in the Patriarchy movemnt like the Baylys who would DEMAND the name of your church and pastor so they could call them have you disciplined if they did not like what you said online.""

Hilarious!