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A Word of Caution to Fire Starters

Thursday, January 27, 2011

If you hadn’t guessed it already, I work for Phil Johnson, the original Pyromaniac. I’m sure you have your own view, but in my opinion he’s not the Pyromaniac because he starts fires. No, he burns with a fire like Jeremiah (Jer. 20:9) and preaches God’s Word, which is like fire, and like a hammer that breaks the rock in pieces (23:29).

Phil learned at least some of what he knows about preaching by watching another prophet-like preacher, John MacArthur. So, maybe John is the original Pyromaniac. But John doesn’t set out to start fires either…it just happens. Like many of you, I’ve appreciated their ministries, and the ministries of many other faithful preachers around the world who are “worthy of double honor” because of their diligent “labor in preaching and teaching” (1 Tim. 5:17).

So, speaking of starting fires, I was quite surprised that a passing comment John made in a recent interview received so much attention, while his comments on more significant, more controversial issues passed by unnoticed. Someone else made the same point. In my view, a mountain was made out of a molehill (not the issue itself, but the comment), and the mountains were ignored.

Last Fall I attended a new media conference (secular) and listened to Karen Hughes and Mark Penn, both very intelligent, competent, and accomplished communication experts, as they lamented the effect of social media on politics. Perhaps I’ll post more about other points they made, but for now just a few things.

Mark Penn talked about the tendency in the current technological climate for small gaffes to become big news—everything is recorded and spread immediately through online, networked communications. The result is that the small and unintended becomes more important than big, intended policies, issues, and ideas. He believes that demonstrates the distracting influence of the Internet.

As I listened to Karen Hughes, I think she provided some good reasons for what Mark Penn had to say. Hughes said the anonymity of the Internet has a debasing, degrading effect on political conversation in particular, and conversations in general. That has had a dehumanizing effect—people seem readily willing to humiliate fellow human beings, sometimes ruthlessly.

(Incidentally, Hughes’ point was later punctuated by a somewhat disheveled-looking woman from the audience who commandeered a microphone and lectured her, Mark Penn, and the moderator; she was crass, vulgar, and, well, ruthless. Hughes couldn’t have paid for a better illustration of her point! Okay, back to this article…)

Hughes went on to talk about how the speed of the Internet makes it increasingly difficult to find out what is true, what is real, what has been verified. People no longer think in terms of the “24-hour news cycle,” but rather the “1440 news cycle” (1440 = number of minutes in the day), so it’s become even more difficult to verify something. The demand of speed has become more paramount than veracity, at least in this Internet generation.

I know I’m not the only one to make this point, but it’s worth bringing it up from time to time. Recent posts, tweets, and comments have highlighted for me the truth of Proverbs 18:21: “Death and life are in the power of the tongue, and those who love it will eat its fruits.” It’s not a stretch to see the reference to tongue in that verse as an example of synecdoche, in which the tongue stands for communication as a whole. That’s how I take it anyway.

I can imagine James thinking about that proverb when he penned chapter 3 of his epistle, which he specifically applies to teachers in the church. Teachers, be warned—you will incur a stricter judgment because your tongue, your communication, speaks louder and goes further than that of the average person.

Now, I realize what happens on the Internet isn’t exactly the same thing as being a teacher in a local church…in fact, it’s quite different…okay, it’s not even remotely close. A sermon is not a blog post, and it shouldn’t resemble a blog post. A sermon is to be the product of the hard work of sound exegesis, based on a consistent historical-grammatical hermeneutic.

Blogs can sometimes be as thoughtful, but not always. Twitter posts? Uh, no—one hundred and forty characters or less. And comment threads? Some people show restraint, posting substantive, carefully crafted, biblically consistent comments as if God cares what we write, as if edifying speech matters (Eph. 4:29).

So here’s the point: Don’t you think we—bloggers, tweeters, online communicators, digital dudes—will be held accountable for what we write and what we say online as well? Jesus said, “I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak, for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned” (Matt. 12:36).

I’m concerned about that. It’s not that I think I’ll be condemned in the end—“There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:1). But I am concerned about pleasing the Lord and not grieving the Spirit in how I communicate, including how I blog, tweet, and comment. Brothers, our online communication must be governed by the fear of the Lord.

James says our communication is like the bit in the mouth of a great beast, able to put the power of the horse to great use in battle, in plowing a field, or in carrying a messenger. Or, it’s like a small rudder, steering a massive ship according to the pilot. The tongue—a.k.a., our keyboards—is like that bit or that rudder. Very small, but very influential. It’s that small spark that can set an entire forest ablaze.

As a kid, I loved to start fires and watch stuff burn. That’s a boy thing, and to be honest, it’s not quite out of me yet. But there are consequences to starting fires, literal ones or speaking metaphorically. And the fires that burn through cyberspace can move more quickly, with greater consequence than wildfires racing across thousands of acres of bone-dry tinder. (If you live in Southern California, you totally get that word picture.)

So, as we handle God’s Word (which is like fire) on the Internet, let’s be careful to strike our matches responsibly. (I’m the target of my own warning.) God is watching, and so are others.

Travis Allen
Managing Director


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#1  Posted by Joseph Whiting  |  Thursday, January 27, 2011at 5:18 PM

Hello brother and thank you for your ministry. I like your blog/article...not sure what to call it now-a-days. You raise some good questions and observations. I'm going to focus on you paragraph using Matthew 12:36. Correct me if I'm wrong on this; vv36-37 are dealing with judgment of men because of what is in their hearts (thus their mouths have spoken). Jesus had just cast out a demon and healed the man involved of several physical manifestations of sin however, the Pharisees (in spite of the obviously miraculous)denied Christ as from God. In stead they attached His works to Satan. We all know why they did this. It was self righteous unbelief. Their motive was to remain in the spot light of being right. Their motive was all wrong in wanting to be right.

I agree 100% with wanting to please the Lord and being accurate in our communication no matter what form it may take and, that teachers will be held more accountable. My point; its all about our motive. The pharisees had the wrong one and, so would we if the intention was to start a fire. The gospel seems to do that well enough on its own does it not? We should then try to remove every offense we may hold.

Keep it up Travis!

Joe

#2  Posted by Joshua Berdiel  |  Thursday, January 27, 2011at 8:12 PM

Great post Travis. This is a good post after all the back and forth there has been about this issue. I also would like to apologize again to the gty community for getting wrapped up on a off topic debate in the previous blog. I feel I didn't say anything that I would be ashamed of biblically, but I should have used a bit more tact looking back.

I also agree about being accurate what all of us say. Like what 1 Peter 3:15 teaches we are accountable before God to defend his truth, but with gentleness and respect. This post is a good rebuke towards myself for making sure that zeal doesn't become unbiblical anger when it is not properly controlled. Thank you for the moment of reflection Travis.

May the Lord guide us all

Josh

#3  Posted by Jared Cline  |  Thursday, January 27, 2011at 9:13 PM

Hi Travis, thank you for posting this, it is very hard hitting. I was recently asked to leave my church over posting a couple different statuses on my Facebook that were contrary to two of the doctrines that the church holds. One being my disagreement with women pastors, the other being my stance on tithing, which the church heavily endorses. I recognize that making this public was unwise, but I don't think it was worthy of the result that came with. If you are by any chance interested in knowing the whole story I can give you the whole scoop on it. Again thanks for this, it help put alot of things in perspective.
#4  Posted by Shauna Bryant  |  Friday, January 28, 2011at 5:36 AM

*Shauna Bryant*

Travis,

Excellent article - it reminded me of a few months ago when I wasn't taming my own 'typing tongue' here. After receiving proper correction here I realized that I need to 'type' as if I am speaking face to face to someone and keep my words in consideration (the 'tone' thing I can't help, people will read into something whatever they want I've realized) and a proper biblical attitude. Oh, and I agree with you, Phil Johnson isn't a fire starter - but he does he burn like one.

We really appreciate the ministry here at gty and also appreciate the fact that we can come and listen to sermons and bible studies. And we doubly appreciate the fact that Dr. MacArthur isn't looking for a following for himself - he is following Christ and we right along with him, which is why he obviously is not a man all caught up in himself, but rather caught up in Christ.

#5  Posted by Ekkie Tepsupornchai  |  Friday, January 28, 2011at 5:45 AM

Well said. One of the hardest things to master is knowing when a friendly debate has stretched beyond the point of edification. I struggle with this myself quite often.

Joshua, for what it's worth, I thought you handled yourself well, but I agree that the previous discussion had run its course.

#6  Posted by Mary Kidwell  |  Friday, January 28, 2011at 5:48 AM

Thank you for the reminder and exhortation. It is so easy to respond in the flesh rather than the Spirit. Perhaps we would all do well to have Ephesians 4:29, Ephesians 4:15, and Matthew 12:26 written on reminder cards and taped to our monitor screens. We really need to stop and think about our motivation in saying what we feel like saying, and purpose in our hearts to speak only for God's glory and the benefit of those who hear (or read).

As a side, thanks for saying the love of watching things burn is a boy thing. I always wondered about one of my son's fascination with fire.

#7  Posted by Mark Tanner  |  Friday, January 28, 2011at 6:14 AM

Hi Travis,

I believe something important was left out although it was implicit by the verses concerning the tongue. People are able to communicate their thoughts in a different ways; some better than others. It is the intent of the heart that God pays attention to and the visible signs/outward communicated to each other is what mans sees. A biblical example is Abraham being justified in Romans 8 before God because of the inward (heart) faith and justified before man by the outward expression of faith by offering up Isaac in James account. Both justified and righteousness come from the same root.

Unlike God, man is subjective in discerning the intent of the writer in many cases. I am often misunderstood because I an outward and straight foreword and tend not to "sugar-coat" things. Does this change my heart-attitude? No, but it often changes others perception of my intention (AKA: being misunderstood). This is amplified often when it comes to writing because we do not see each others "body/facial language", which give indicators of the writers true intentions.

Once one becomes aware of this, then I believe we/I am to exercise additional caution when writing; knowing that I may be misunderstood. Thank God He does know the true and correct intent.

Then you have the opposite problem because of the "hyper-sensitivity" of the receiver of any given message and then the issue that some people have "hot-button" issues. Their responsibility is to ask for clarification if they sense the possibility of a misunderstanding.

The point I am making is we need to try to be firm; yet sensitive and no matter how hard you try; you will be taken out of context some of the time and will take others out of context even with the best efforts and intentions.

Ask "MacDaddy"; he has a history of being misunderstood, which is why I can relate to him because I am often misunderstood and have been called all kinds of things as a result and it grieves your heart especially when it concerning the things that concern God such as the gospel, because you know people's souls are at stake. Not that we can save anyone; God saves using us as tools and saves despite ourselves...praise God for that.

#8  Posted by Elaine Bittencourt  |  Friday, January 28, 2011at 9:31 AM

I am reminded of how many times I've listened Pastor MacArthur say in several of his sermons, more or less like this: people should get offended at your message (the Gospel) and not by you.

I too would like to thank you and the others behind the scenes who have been showing nothing but biblical behaviour in the entire life of this blog, as well rebuking with love and kindness. You have been an example to all of us.

I agree with Mark Tanner on the "hyper-sensitivity" of the receiver. Most of us have experienced both sides. People (and surely I am included) don't take the time to consider what they read/listen before reacting to it. It's the "fast food" syndrome that has spread itself to everything that we do.

Grace and peace,

E.

#9  Posted by Joseph Whiting  |  Friday, January 28, 2011at 9:46 AM

Hello again Travis,

I forgot to mention another observation. When texting, emailing, etc we should also take into consideration (in addition to our motive), the fact that we lack halo data within an email. There is a lot of communication that happens through halo data that goes along with our words. A very possible result is that something typed in love can come across as very blunt without the aid of facial expressions, tone of voice, body language, etc that make up halo data. It's happened to me before. Something to consider...

Joe

#10  Posted by Dan Wilson  |  Friday, January 28, 2011at 10:53 AM

I want to apologize for my behavior. I need to relax and allow the

Lord to work in one's life. I will read the blog and let you know

what I think.

#11  Posted by Joshua Berdiel  |  Friday, January 28, 2011at 11:00 AM

Hi Mark. I think Travis was trying to get across on this blog, and please correct if I am wrong Travis, is that although most of us aren't pastors or such, we do have to make sure, with this new high speed world, a statement made, in or out of context, is thought out before saying it. Although James 3 may not perfectly apply to the blogging world, it does in a sense because anyone can go to one of the bloggs and, if a person is young in Christ or not saved, can read something and think it is sound doctrine not knowing any better. There will be conflict when defending the good old gospel, but we must make sure in an enviroment like this that words are typed to the degree of what we are trying to say is clear to all, without there being, as much as possible for a blog, room for wrong understanding of whats trying to be said.

#12  Posted by Ekkie Tepsupornchai  |  Friday, January 28, 2011at 11:10 AM

We should always strive to be clear, leaving as little room as possible for misunderstanding. That said, we should also remember that there will always be those whom will misunderstand or even twist the truth, no matter how it's presented (2Pe3:15-16).

#13  Posted by Greg Moering, Jr.  |  Friday, January 28, 2011at 4:52 PM

Travis,

I would like to say that the Lord is using this post as a reminder of what He has commanded in regards to my tongue, pen, keyboard, Facebook status update, etc. I must say to my shame that obeying Ephesians 4:29 is a great difficulty for me. As one who loves to proclaim God's Word I must confess that often I feel like Paul in Romans 7:14-25, but even as I type this out God reminds me of His grace. God is so good! I want to give thanks to God for His grace and mercy found in Jesus Christ before my brethren here. I also want to thank GTY for its faithfulness to the Word because God continually proves Himself faithful to His promise in Isaiah 55:10-11. Thank you brother. I guess it seems like I'm rambling on but I want to give you a word of encouragement. May God continue to bless this ministry.

In Christ,

Greg

#14  Posted by Dan Wilson  |  Friday, January 28, 2011at 5:15 PM

Yes I agree, we must not start fires. Like Proverbs 15:1. Amen.

I read a prophet said like fire shut in my bones. I think it means a strong love for the Lord and his truth. Awesome.

#15  Posted by Scott Davidson  |  Friday, January 28, 2011at 9:08 PM

I thoroughly enjoyed this article. I post on youtube on Christian music videos and what I primarily look for are those who come on and distort what scripture says. I carefully read what they say then I try diligently to respond with the truth of what God's word says. I find sometimes that the Holy Spirit reminds me of what my motives are for responding. I used to be heavily into politics(not anymore) and would find it difficult to tame my tounge there. I would never use profanity but sarcasm would come out. I realize now how wrong that was and now I think first that this is a person that needs the salvation of Jesus Christ and I speak the truth and do not sugarcoat it but I do believe that I speak in the love of Christ. I have enjoyed the responses from other people. It is nice to see we can admit our humanity and that we have a Savior that forgives us.

#16  Posted by Douglas Grogg  |  Friday, January 28, 2011at 10:00 PM

Travis, I’d like to comment if I may, in regards to “the recent interview” and your observation about “the mountain” vs. “the molehill”. In that interview John MacArthur brought out an incident in which Michael Horton “took him to the woodshed” over an issue. John expressed gratitude for Michael’s faithfulness to the truth. In the same way, when Paul publically rebuked Cephas (Peter) and opposed him to his face (Galatians 2:11, 14) what was Peter’s attitude towards Paul? “Our beloved brother Paul (2 Peter 3:15) is the term that he uses. These examples illustrate the “mountain” that was missed! What can explain the response of these two men? It is the love of the truth that sets them apart. He must increase and we must decrease. It is not about us, it must never be about us. One cannot be walking after the Spirit and be focused on self at the same time (see Mark 8:34, 35). It is the faith which was once for all delivered over to the saints that we are to “agonize” to preserve (Jude 3). If we allow that embodiment of Biblical truth to be perverted what can we say to our Master when He returns and we must give account for that which He had entrusted to us?

On the other hand there are those who “have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in [their] heart[s]”. James says they are arrogant and lie against the truth. “This wisdom is earthy, natural, demonic” (see James 3:14, 15). These are those who miss the mountain and see the mole-hill. Why is this? Man in his or her unregenerate (natural) condition is hostile to the truth. They are concerned with the things of this world, with the things of this life and the things which please self. When their desires are crossed they rise up strongly. On the other hand, the wisdom which is from above is first pure AFTERWARDS it is peaceable, gentle, etc (see James 3:17). Peace without purity is a peace of the Devil’s making. It is not the wisdom which is from above. A heart that is full of grace, though content in his own afflictions, will rise up strongly when God is dishonored. Sin and error in the Church is deadly!

Paul prayed that the saints’ love would abound still more and more in REAL knowledge and ALL DISCERNMENT, so that they would approve the things that were excellent, in order to be SINCERE and BLAMELESS until the day of Christ (Philippians 1:9). The negative of “sincere” would be to posses a flaw that would render a vessel unusable but hidden or covered up to hide the defect. An example of the negative of “blameless” in the Greek is the word stumble in 1 Peter 2:8 “for they stumble because they are disobedient to the word, and to this doom they were also appointed”. There is a counterfeit love which covers up serious flaws and is a cause of stumbling, both to themselves and others. They work with the Devil to damn men’s souls. He that hath ears to hear, let him hear. –His Unworthy Slave

#17  Posted by Matt Hauck  |  Sunday, January 30, 2011at 9:02 PM

Thank you for this post, it was challenging and encouraging. We do indeed need to watch all of what we say.

I would like to respond to one part of it, however: "I was quite surprised that a passing comment John made in a recent interview received so much attention, while his comments on more significant, more controversial issues passed by unnoticed."

I am frankly rather surprised at your surprise. If there is one point of your post, it is that all of our words matter--even those in 140 characters or less. Do not passing comments fall in this same category as well? Why does the mere fact of it his comment being "passing" make it a molehill if the issue itself is not so small?

If someone in an interview makes a passing reference about denying the deity of Christ, it would not be wrong to focus on that issue no matter how insightful or important other things were he said in the interview.

That example is a little too radical, involving heresy... If Obama were to call someone out in an interview that many argued was unfair, would that not deserve much attention?

When someone gets called out in an interview as promoting radical individualism, when they do not claim to, and when the evidence cited is not entirely convincing, is that not something worth attention, even if it was just said in a few words?

#18  Posted by Travis Allen  |  Monday, January 31, 2011at 8:30 AM

Joseph Whiting:

Thanks so much for your comment. It's true that God is able to see and judge the motives--He can see to the depths of every man. But in Matt. 12:33-37 Jesus was explaining the connection between heart motive at the internal root, and words and actions at the external fruit. He ended that section with a warning about the day of judgment.

Here's what John said about that passage from his study Bible note:

"The most seemingly insignificant sin--even a slip of the tongue--carries the full potential of all hell's evil (cf. James 3:6). No infraction against God's holiness is therefore a trifling thing, and each person will ultimately give account of every such indiscretion. There is no truer indication of a bad tree than the bad fruit of speech (Matt. 12:33, 35). The poisonous snakes were known by their poisonous mouths revealing evil hearts (v. 34; cf. Luke 6:45). Every person is judged by his words, becuase they reveal the state of his heart."

So, our online communication also reveals what's in our hearts. What we type should concern us because God takes note of all of it. As John pointed out, "No infraction against God's holiness is therefore a trifling thing."

Thanks again for your comment. Point taken!

Travis

#19  Posted by Travis Allen  |  Monday, January 31, 2011at 8:47 AM

Matt Hauck:

Thank you for commenting, and I see your point. My article wasn't trying to dismiss what John said in any part of that interview as being too minor for divine scrutiny. Not at all. God holds John, and every one of us, accountable for all that we say (or type).

But from my perspective, I thought the criticisms would come from other quarters of the blogosphere, not from the missionals in the Acts 29 camp.

Those folks claim to be so humble, teachable, and have such a tremendous amount of respect for John MacArthur. And yet, one blogger who noted John's comments about Patrick's book invited people into his comment thread with this: "Anyone care to rip this apart? MacArthur should be embarrassed."

From what ensued, a care to rip apart they had. Okay, they disagree and see things differently. I get that. But the way they spoke about a man who has been preaching for two of their lifetimes was deplorable.

If they truly had the respect they claimed, I would've expected their response to come across something like this: "Did you hear what MacArthur said about Patrick's book? I didn't get that from reading it, but he did. I wonder what he sees in it that I missed."

So, Matt, the mountain vs. molehill thing is a matter of perspective, and when I write, I write from my perspective (which is why I started that sentence with, "In my opinion"). But I merely used that recent controversy to introduce the issue (the molehill), which was write a word of caution about how we communicate online (the mountain).

Fair enough?

Thanks again for your thoughtful comment. Helpful questions like that help me clarify the point.

Travis

#20  Posted by Joseph Whiting  |  Monday, January 31, 2011at 8:51 AM

Hello Travis,

Thank you for responding back to me. We are in 100% agreement brother. I probably didn't make my point too clearly. My point was; the motive in the heart will evidence itself in the speech and actions just like it did with the Pharisees. They had bad fruit because of a bad root. Thus, if we keep God's glory as our motive (unlike the Pharisees) our speech/text/blog/tweet/post will manifest that motive just as self-glorification will manifest it's motives. I'm left with one question: whatever happened to a simple telephone call for communication???

Thank you for your ministry!

Joe

#21  Posted by Matt Hauck  |  Monday, January 31, 2011at 6:04 PM

@Travis: Thanks for the clarification. Fair indeed. =)