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July 18, 2012 / nickpark

Church of God General Assembly Agenda 2012 – Item 18

Next week in Orlando, Church of God members from all over the world will be attending the biennial General Assembly.  It’s a time of fellowship, worship and also debate and discussion.  Over the next few days I intend to contribute some thoughts and ideas with regards to the issues under debate.
Let’s start with Item Number 18:

We recommend:
That we amend pages 156, 157, S63. GENERAL INSTRUCTIONS FOR MINISTERS, by adding the following:
10. Responsible Use of Social Media
Christians are exhorted by Scripture to speak the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15), to provide things honest in the sight of
all persons (Romans 12:17), and to do all things for the edification of others (Romans 15:2). The use of social media (such as MySpace, Facebook, Twitter, blogs, websites, and so forth) by believers should conform to these and other biblical standards.
Church of God ministers, as examples of believers in speech, life, faith, and purity (1 Timothy 4:12), shall at all times agree:
a. To write and post only under their own name.
b. To not attack fellow ministers or members of the Church of God. One may disagree with others, provided the tone is respectful and does not become a personal attack.
c. To not disclose any sensitive, confidential, or financial information about the church, its ministers, or its members, other than what is publically available.
d. To not post any material that is defamatory, libelous, threatening, harassing, abusive, or embarrassing to any person or entity.
e. To uphold the doctrine of the Church of God by not writing or posting anything contrary to the accepted doctrine of the Church of God.
Failure to follow these guidelines on the use of social media shall result in the offending minister being subject to discipline

At first glance, there’s a lot here to agree with.  Christian ministers should be careful how they express themselves in public, and that includes the internet and social media.  I’ve had to warn teenagers in our church to pause to think before they post everything they might think or feel on Facebook for the world to view.  How much more embarrassing when pastors start squabbling and griping on the internet as if they were six-year-olds.

It should go without saying that Christian ministers should refrain from being abusive to others – whether online, when writing letters, or in verbal speech.  And there is something particularly repugnant and cowardly about attacking another human being while hiding behind the anonymity of a pen-name.

Jesus gave us guidelines in Scripture about how we should resolve conflicts with our brothers and sisters in Christ.  Such resolution starts with face-to-face discussion.  But that becomes impossible when one party hides behind anonymity in the electronic version of a poison pen letter.  Two years ago, I made a public speech advocating the full participation of women in all aspects of ministry in the Church of God.  Within hours I was attacked on the internet, including some untruthful and personal remarks about myself.

One of those who attacked me did so under his real name.  I was able to take steps to contact this brother directly, arrange a face-to-face meeting (over a fine breakfast) and we resolved our differences.  We still agreed to disagree on certain issues, but we did so with love and mutual respect.  However, such biblical resolution was impossible with those peop[le who attacked me while remaining anonymous.  It is sometimes claimed that the use of pen-names is through the fear of retribution.  In this case that was most certainly not applicable.  I have no political clout or power in the Church of God to harm any of these people – and there should be no physical fear since it is over 30 years since I injured anyone badly enough for them to need hospitallisation.  No, it was simple cowardice and lack of integrity that allowed others to attack me in a way that rendered it impossible for us to pursue any kind of biblical conflict resolution.

So, having said all of that, I should be in favour of Item 18 – yes?

But, in fact, I see more problems with this measure than any good that it might achieve.

1.  First of all, it will be embarrassing to put wording such as this into the Church of God Minutes for future generations.  In ten years it is quite possible that MySpace and Facebook will have gone the way of audio cassettes and the Osmonds.  It’s like reading rules about people who operate ‘moving picture shows’ or condemning coca-cola, chewing gum and bobbed hair (whatever that is).  All it will do is shout to future generations that we are culturally trapped in the past.

2. Secondly, and much more  importantly, trying to legislate for every eventuality leads to Pharisaism.  The most important issues are to do with the heart – and in this case we already have the words of Scripture that our words should be ‘yes’ or ‘no’ without dishonest equivocation.

Pharisaism is often well meaning, but it ends up straining at gnats and swallowing camels.  Already our Church of God minutes sanction the removal of a minister’s license if he smokes a cigar, but provides no penalty if the same minister harbours racist hatred in his heart.  Is smoking a cigar worse than racism?  Of course not.  But it is easier to legislate against – and so such pieces of legislation distract us with minutae while we neglect weightier matters.

Wouldn’t it be better to train our ministers more effectively, so that they have courage and integrity, rather than trying to legislate rules for every new technology or form of communication that might arise?

3.  Thirdly, there are entirely legitimate reasons why people might sometimes use pen-names.  For example, I have on occasion solicited prayer on an internet forum for visits I was making to ‘closed’ countries where believers face persecution.  If I had made these prayer requests under my own name then I would have exposed myself to the risk of arrest, and possibly caused the torture and death of those to whom I was seeking to minister.  If Item 18 passes then I will have to refrain from seeking such prayer in such a forum. or face the penalty of losing my ministerial credentials.

4. Fourthly, how can we have discussions about doctrine if it is forbidden to question existing ‘accepted doctrine’?  If the early Methodists or holiness movement had an Item 18 then would the modern day Pentecostal movement even exist today?

For these reasons I will be voting against Item 18.  I believe it was framed with the best of intentions, but we don’t need more legislation on this issue – we need to start shaping up and living according to the words of Jesus.


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