An ugly and public Twitter war broke out last week between two Christians over allegations that one, a popular Christian writer, had inaccurately interpreted the other person's tweets. For a medium that attracts passionate and opinionated comments, the argument only exemplified the obvious: not all Christians think alike.
In a blog post titled "Setting the Record Straight on Jesus, 'the Friend of Sinners,'" Jonathan Merritt explained that after he tweeted in January "about Christian singer Natalie Grant walking out of The Grammys, Joe Carter, prominent Calvinist and director of communications for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission rhetorically asked, 'Didn't [Jesus] only welcome those seeking forgiveness?' He went on to agree with another that, "The sinners Jesus partied with were already followers."
"Theological sirens blared inside my head as Carter doubled down on his assertion that Jesus wasn't really a friend of sinners, but I assumed it was probably a fringe view I wouldn't likely encounter again," continued Merritt, who used his Twitter conversation with Carter as the lead for his story about Christ, embedding tweets at the bottom of his article to support his case.
Carter quickly sought to clarify that Merritt had incorrectly characterized his point.
"I can't tell if @JonathanMerritt's misrepresentation of my opinion is a case of journalistic incompetence or malice," Carter tweeted shortly after Merritt's post was published and later argued that his "wholly uncontroversial claim is that Jesus didn't quietly condone events where sin was openly flaunted and celebrated as normal."
Over the course of last week, a number of Christians chimed in to the discussion, confronting, attacking and attempting to make light of Carter and Merritt's spat, which was in full view on Twitter and in the comment section of Merritt's blog post.
Alan Noble, a Baylor University professor and editor of Christ and Pop Culture, who attempted to mediate between the Carter-Merritt spat, told The Christian Post that while disagreements are inevitable, part of the problem is the channel of communication itself.
"The difficulty, it seems to me, is that on Twitter we talk about issues that are really important sometimes, and important issues tend to be complicated," said Noble. "There can be a lot resting on them, so I think there are times when you need to take a firm stance, even on social media, and say something's wrong or right. Sometimes that doesn't look pretty, but it's important."
"With some topics, airing our business out in publics does end up hurting," Noble said, calling the Merritt-Carter debacle "ugly."
Noble added that there are instances where it is necessary for Christians to play peacemaker between two warring commenters.
"One of the recommendations I have is I don't think you should use the verse from Matthew 18:15: 'Have you brought this charge to this person privately,' because you're in sin if you haven't?" Noble said. "Often times, when people disagree online or make a charge against someone for what they've done, it's often a public sin, so someone will write something and lie publicly, and so that needs to be addressed publicly and that's fair."
Yet Noble does not find fault with dissent on Twitter, and noted that it can help to diversify perspectives on a particular issue and dismantle the idea that there is one monolithic Christian perspective on a particular issue.
"There will be times when a very well-known Christian will take a stance and they may say something, for example, 'If you're not a six-day literalist, then you don't have a high view of Scripture.' Sometimes I feel the need to respond to it, not to get to a public debate about it, but just so that people who are listening will know that there are other believers out there who have a high view of Scripture that don't think that way," Noble said.
Sarah Jones, another avid tweeter and fundamentalist-Christian-turned-atheist who often engages with Christians about homeschooling or her alma mater Cedarville University, said she also interprets social media disagreement within the church similarly.
"I'm very wary of stereotypes that position any one group as a monolith and I think that Twitter can be a really valuable way to see the diversity of belief in the Christian church and other social movements for that matter," Jones told CP.
Noble said he feels obligated to use Twitter because it "is one of the main forms of contemporary communication that we have."
"As a Christian and as someone who writes and wants to engage people, I need to have a presence there. It's kind of important to show up and have conversations," said Noble, who admitted "meeting" at least one of his writers for his website through a Twitter conversation.
Twitter's designed for users to be able to share thoughts easily – an aspect which can also undermine one's thorough consideration before posting an opinion, argued Noble.
"I try to use discernment and think about who I'm talking to. What interactions have I had with them in the past? If I say something, are they likely to consider it, or will they just react impulsively and be offended? Do I think this is actually going to make a difference if I say something right now?" said Noble.
Twitter also makes it easy for users to engage issues with those who do not share their faith, though Jones notes that at times she has been trolled for sharing her beliefs on issues on which Christians disagree.
"There have been times when my account gets flooded by tweets and a lot of them just have really vile content, particularly when the subject has anything to do about the pro-choice movement," said Jones. "I've been accused of hating children. I've been told I shouldn't have children because I'd obviously be abusive to them. [There's been] comments about my hypothetical sex life and just really inappropriate things, and often when I click through to the account in question, there's a Bible verse in the bio."
What does healthy engagement on Twitter look like?
"The people that I tend to have the most successful conversations with are people who are just very calm in their demeanor, who don't start out with insults, who indicate they are generally interested with what I have to say and who understand that if I'm getting overwhelmed with tweets and I need space from the subject right now, they back off," said Jones.