How not to rebuke someone over the internet.

by K.W. Leslie, 22 November
Questions? Comments? Email. But remember, my feedback policy means I can post it. Maybe even make fun of it.

Y’might notice on some of the older TXAB articles, the Disqus comments have closed. I put an expiration date on posting comments on the article itself. It’s just weird when someone comments on something years later. It’s weird when they do it on YouTube (and super annoying when it’s something inane, like “Hey, who else is watching this video in 2019?”); it’s weird when they do it anywhere. So I prevented it on this site.

But nothing can stop you from throwing me an email, so people will do that.

So I got feedback on my article, “The fear of phony peace.” Wasn’t positive. A lot of Christians believe the great tribulation is definitely gonna follow the rapture, and somehow my saying otherwise is doing people a disservice: Christians need to be prepared for… utterly escaping all the bad stuff?

Seems if we did need to be more prepared for anything, it’d be in case the rapture doesn’t precede tribulation, and we do have to live through 3½ to 7 years of suffering. In which case one of Jim Bakker’s buckets of End Times pizza would be looking pretty good pretty fast. But this person’s pretty sure my rejection of getting skyhooked out of suffering is “false doctrine.” I’ll let him say it.

So you’re saying that the antichrist wont make a peace treaty with Israel and break it after 3.5 years?

I had tremendous respect for your teaching until the fear article. You are the one deceived. I am gifted to discern right and wrong doctrine. And boy! You are wrong! No other way to say it.

I know you will try to persuade me further but don’t. I have done all the research and you are just wrong. Now you are accountable for spreading false doctrine. I admonish you to remove this garbage and get right with the Father once again. You can’t go doing that. You can’t.

Peace to you.

My response to him was, “Okay, you persuade me. Give me the scriptures.” But he didn’t respond. Likely he figured it’d be a frustrating waste of his time. Maybe so. When people are convinced we’re right (whether it’s him or me), someone who won’t accept this can get really aggravating. When he’s absolutely certain his reasoning is sound, yet I keep poking holes in it (as I was trained to)… well you can quickly see why ancient Athens decided to be rid of Socrates.

So this fellow rebuked me. Productively? Not unless you count this article, which I’m gonna use to show you how not to rebuke someone over the internet.

Relationship is key.

First of all, I don’t know this guy. His email was my entire introduction to him. He might know quite a bit about me; I’ve written a bunch about myself, both here and elsewhere. I’ve been blogging for 15 years now; I wrote for newspapers for roughly 15 years before that. So any relationship we have is entirely one-sided.

Which happens all the time when you’re a writer. Back in my newspaper days, certain of my regular readers were convinced they knew me well. They’d meet me in public and greet me like an old friend, and my reaction would be, “And you are…?” because duh; I don’t know them! This happens all the time to celebrities: People watch their videos, read their posts on Twitter and Instagram, read the gossip sites, and think they know them—and it’s not true of course.

In the newspaper I wrote about politics. On TXAB I write about Christ. I did and do write about personal stuff from time to time, but I leave out an awful lot. Still, people regularly presume a closer connection than we truly have.

So from my point of view, I don’t know this email-writer from Adam. He’s new to me. The claims he makes of himself—

  • “I am gifted to discern right and wrong doctrine.”
  • “I have done all the research and you are just wrong.”

—are claims I can’t verify. I’m expected to take his word for it. I don‘t know what he means by “all the research,” but if it’s anything like all the research my sister-in-law has done on vaccines, I’m pretty sure I’m not gonna agree with any of his sources or methodology. But what if he has some access to some literature which I might find credible or revelatory? Well he didn’t respond, so I have no idea. And when you have no relationship with a person, you simply don’t know where they’re coming from.

So. Is my correspondent truly knowledgeable about the subject, and able to straighten me out? Or is he some wannabe cult leader who wants to lead me in the same wrong direction he’s headed? I dunno. I don’t know this person. All I know is I’ve offended him. If he knows better than I do, he’s doing me a vast disservice by cutting me off. (But if he’s a cult leader… well, the fewer of those guys I have in my life, the better.)

This is something we Christians need to bear in mind whenever we try to correct or rebuke another person. (Especially online!) If they don’t know us, or our relationship isn’t all that, we have no position of authority with them. They feel no obligation to heed our warnings or hear us out. Doesn’t matter what God anointed you as, what titles you’ve adopted, what supernatural gifts the Spirit gives you, what promises God makes you, which territories he gives you (or you claim for yourself), which foes God said you’d conquer. If people don’t recognize you as someone to listen to, you won’t get listened to.

This is why Jesus could throw out the demons no one else could: The critters recognized his authority. Likewise it’s why he got crucified: The Judean senate and Pontius Pilate didn’t recognize his authority. It’s why Christians follow Jesus, and pagans don‘t… till he returns in power.

All I know of my correspondent is he’s the guy who threw an email grenade at me, then ran away and left me to pick shrapnel out of my keister. Which doesn’t help his case at all.

Fruit is key.

Of the email correspondents I’ve collected through TXAB, I don’t really know any of them. I’m getting to know them, but just a little. They read the blog, contacted me to say hi, and sometimes they send me questions. There’s some back and forth. Unless, like my critic, they don’t care to be known; they don’t care to communicate back and forth; they can’t forgive what I’ve written.

And in some cases I stop communicating, ’cause their lack of fruit alienates me.

As regular readers know, I’m really big on how we Christians have to produce the Spirit’s fruit. It’s not an optional practice; it’s the inevitable product of actually having the Spirit within us, assuming we actually listen to him, and the overflow of his character starts to change our character.

So the Spirit’s fruit must be evident in everything we Christians do. Including every email we write. When it’s not, our fruitlessness undermines everything we try to do. Especially rebuke.

To be fair, few people react well to criticism. I give people the benefit of the doubt, but I had to learn to do this. Instinctively, people defend themselves. Right or wrong doesn’t matter: Our hackles go up, and we’re ready to fight. I could write the most fruitful, encouraging, uplifting email to someone, and because of one critical comment, they’re ready to tear me a new one. Doesn’t matter that the rest of my email is loving, peaceful, patient, and kind; any critique changes their entire attitude.

But I’m willing to accept criticism if I can detect the fruit of the Spirit in the comment. I’m way more amenable to what a Spirit-led Christian has to say. Not so much with a graceless know-it-all.

Paul and Sosthenes touched upon this idea:

1 Corinthians 13.1-3 KWL
1 When I speak in human and angelic tongues:
When I have no love, I’ve become the sound of a gong, a clanging cymbal.
2 When I have a prophecy—“I knew the whole mystery! I know everything!”—
when I have all the faith necessary to move mountains: When I have no love, I’m nobody.
3 Might I give away everything I possess? Perhaps submit my body so I could be praised for my sacrifice?
When I have no love, I benefit nobody.

If I address somebody—even if I’m right, and easily proven right—but I address them in anything but love, their first reaction will be, “Who does this dirtbag think he is?” Well, nobody. Thanks to my sucky attitude, I’ve just nullified my right to speak into their lives. They won’t hear it.

I might actually have no sucky attitude. Problem is, when people read, they regularly overlay their own attitudes upon what they read. (It’s why people regularly misinterpret Jesus: They forget he has the fruit of the Spirit in abundance, so they assume Jesus’s motives are the same as their own fruitless, self-centered motives.) I’ve listened to people read my articles aloud, without any of the good humor and optimism I put into ’em. Instead they read them sarcastically, humorlessly, angrily. And all of that is totally coming from them. Out of the overflow of their heart, they read. And if I write something short and brief—like a Twitter comment—where I have no space to spell out my motives, people can far more easily misread me.

My critic was brief, but his attitude is pretty clear to anyone who reads it, optimistically or not: He’s right and I’m wrong, so get that garbage off the blog. (Rather than us both being wrong, and Jesus being right.)

Yeah, a lot of people will assume sending me a strong warning—“Get away from the cliff before you fall over!”—is love. Tough love, perhaps. But if we’re following Paul’s definition (which is the only definition we should care about), actual love needs to have patience, behave kindly, not draw attention to how qualified it is, not ignore others’ considerations, and exhibit patience, trust, and hope. This love will be a lot less quick to condemn, and a lot more interested in trying to find out where I’m coming from—if only to figure out where I went wrong. My correspondent didn’t. He just went the “I’m right; you’re wrong; submit; and I quit” route which nearly everybody finds off-putting. Even when God tells us something like that. (God won’t quit though.)

The takeaway.

So let’s learn from this.

When we correct someone, we need to bear in mind our relationship. Do we even have one? If not, you’re not as likely to be heard. Begin by establishing a relationship. Ask questions. “Why do you believe that? I’ve heard otherwise—where do you think I’ve gone wrong?” Be diplomatic, and start a dialogue. Don’t just dive in with criticism.

Or let scriptures do all the criticizing. After all, if the person you’re writing to, claims to be Christian, it’s fair to assume they respect the scriptures. (Even though they might greatly twist them.) So just point to verses. Don’t make accusations; just point at the bible. “In Romans 12.2 Paul said not to copy the behavior and customs of this world.” That sort of thing. Make sure you, at least, are quoting it in context.

As much as we can, we must be patient, kind, and gracious. Always give others the benefit of the doubt: Assume they never mean to be wrong—for unless they’re evil, who does? Assume they’d be shocked and horrified (and annoyed with themselves, as I am) when they find they are wrong. Assume they need to be eased into this knowledge, ’cause people are much too quick to defend themselves. Even when we’re wrong.

And if you started with less-than-fruitful behavior, you can always undo your damage. Years ago another person wrote some obnoxious, impatient comments to an article I posted. When I pointed out—his point aside—how they were making him sound, he immediately apologized and withdrew them. Before he apologized, I was ready to ban him from ever commenting again; but after he apologized, no problem. I’m willing to forgive. Plenty of Christians are. It’s never too late to clean up your act.

Unless people get abusive—or until you’ve reached a point where you’re just gonna have to agree to disagree—keep the dialogue going. I might have written nothing about my critic had he responded to my email. After all, he might have undone every single conclusion I came to about his lack of fruit. He might be a very loving Christian who just had a bad day, and my article just happened to poke him in a sensitive place. You never really know until you talk these things through.

Am I gonna make hash of your emails? Well, only if you forget about being relational, and being fruitful. And if you quote the bible out of context. I think those are my three big peeves. But I’ll try to be kind about it.