Sunday, March 16, 2008

Christian Watchbloggers- Good or Bad?

Recently Christian blogger Carla Rolfe asked the following questions about the term "watchblogger". Noting that the term has been used as a compliment or as an insult, depending on who is using it, she asked:

1. Please define watchblogger for me?

2. Please give examples of watchbloggers?

Defining the term: Watchblogger
A number of people, including myself, chimed in with answers to her inquiry in the comments section on her blog. Here's part of what I said:

I believe the term "watchbloggers" --especially if talking about Christian blogs/bloggers-- is referring to those who "watch" and report on false or un-biblical trends and teachings via their blog ministries. Examples would include Pyromaniacs, Apprising Ministries, Camponthis, Lighthouse Trails, Kjos Ministries, Slice of Laodicea and many others. I think a similar but broader term is "discernment ministries", which would include sites that are not necessarily blogs...

I noted in my comment that sometimes watchbloggers have also been referred to as "discernment" ministries (other commenters quickly pointed out that both terms have been used in a negative sense, especially when referring to certain Christian bloggers). I've been thinking a bit more about these questions and would like to weigh in on the issue further here. But before doing that, how is the term "watchblogger being defined by others? Here's one definition, from the site

Watchblogger: An derogatory term for an individual who establishes a blog for the purpose of attacking, smearing, and/or discrediting a specific faith group or belief system. They frequently use quotes selected out of context, misquotes, guilt-by-association, genetic fallacies, ad-hominem attacks, and other tricks to maximize their impact.

Well, if you read the above definition, to be a "watchblogger" doesn't sound like a very attractive calling, does it? Steve Camp, who's probably been called a "watchblogger" many times by those who don't like what he has to say, wrote this about the term "watchblogger":

Listen, the watchblogger term is a pejorative used in an egregious manner to stereotype and belittle anyone who speaks the truth in love about the skewed orthodoxy and assuaged orthopraxy that currently exists and is embraced in contemporary evangelicalism.

Mr. Camp seems to be saying that it is possible to write critically about both "skewed orthodoxy and assuaged orthopraxy" in the Christian church, while at the same time speaking "the truth in love". Of course Steve's statement assumes that there is such a thing as truth that can be objectively defined and apprehended by human beings. As a fellow Christian I agree with this assumption, but it is clear that many today don't agree with it and question the very notion that one can be so dogmatic as to claim that one set of faith propositions is true while another set isn't. So really there is an underlying debate about truth and the nature of truth, that precedes the issue of whether watchblogs serve a useful purpose. If one's perspective is that all religious truths are equally valid-- equally true-- then to such a person the Christian watchblogger will come across as one who is intolerant and hateful in speech, merely because he or she dares to proclaim and show that one truth is more in line with Christian and biblical teaching than another.

But here's another take on the term, from Christian blogger David Kjos. He commented on Carla's blog:

As I see it, a watchblogger [is one] who: can't read anything they disagree with without instantly rattling off a screed condemning the perpetrator and warning all the other poor souls who couldn't possibly survive without them. might be right most of the time, but rarely writes anything positive or encouraging. Edification = screaming "repent!" Their "faith" is all about what they are against. What they are for is less clear.lives in a constant state of panic, fancying themselves to be like the Dutch boy with his finger in the hole in the dyke, trying valiantly to save the church from the destruction that would surely come if not for them.scoffs at anyone who doesn't adopt the same combative attitude as they do ("Compromiser! People-pleaser! Wimp!") justifies being a total jerk by claiming Jesus was, too. ("I'm just driving money-changers from the temple!")... I could go on, but in a nutshell, a watchblogger is an internet troll with his own blog.

It's not necessarily just the non-Christians then, who can have a problem with Christian "watchbloggers". In an article titled Diss Isn't Discernment, J. Mark Betrand wrote:

Here's what I'd say the underlying philosophy of discernment is for the average watchblogger: There are two groups of people and things: the good and the bad. Good is, well, good ... and bad is off limits. The art of discernment involves examining them and determining which group to categorize them in. Everyone is called to make these category distinctions, but some of us are also appointed by God to make them for others. Because most people are undiscerning, it falls on the discerning few to lead the way, especially when it comes to exposing bad people and things that are generally held (by the undiscerning masses) to be good -- the wolves in sheep's clothing.

In his very interesting article, Mr. Bertrand went on to make the point that "no one can be discerning on your behalf", and that "discernment" ministries that try to do all the thinking and discerning for you are operating with a faulty notion of what discernment actually entails. "To be discerning", Bertrand argues, "you have to be critically engaged with a particular influence, sifting it, taking from it what is profitable. So you can't be discerning about something and ignorant of it at the same time."

He ends the article with this conclusion:

Discernment, to wrap this up for now, is not about flipping a yes/no switch or pidgeonholing other people. It's about individual judgment based on knowledge -- knowledge of self, knowledge of the world, knowledge of God and knowledge of the thing being judged. Given that, you can see that it's as difficult to be discerning for someone else as it is to think for them. If I really want to see more discernment, then I should encourage people to think for themselves, to do the work for themselves, even at the risk that they will disagree with me (and say so in the comments).

My Thoughts on Discernment/Discernment Ministry:
I think that all of the comments quoted above offer valuable insights that can be helpful to a Christian involved with "watchblogging" or "discernment". In addition though I think we need to establish the fact that as Christian bloggers we believe that biblical truth is a revelation from God that is understandable (imperfectly of course) by finite and fallible humanity. Jesus Himself claimed that truth was knowable, and pointed to the revelation given by God through Scripture (your Word is truth- John 17:17) and in His very person (I am the Truth- John 14:6). With this view of truth as a foundation, the Christian is then being called to "hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it (Titus 1:9)."

Yet the task of distinguishing what is true from what is false, what is good from what is evil, is not limited to the teacher or the "discernment minister". It is expected of all Christians that by reading, study and obedience to God's word, we may grow up in our understanding, to the point where we are able to teach the word and that "our powers of discernment [are] trained by constant practice [in the Word of God] to distinguish good from evil (Hebrews 5:11-14)".

So in principle, there is nothing wrong with being a watchblogger or part of a discernment ministry, if what we are doing through such ministry is to be obedient to the command to teach sound doctrine and contradict false doctrine. As I commented over at Carla's blog, "I think it's important that the "discernment" ministries not only point out what is false but also show what is true, biblically." Ministries that spend all of their time reacting to the bad/false but without pointing to the good/true, don't really teach their readers how to discern. And of course poor argumentation and other shady tactics only discredit those who engage in them.

There are also other Christian directives that should guide us as we engage in such ministry. Paul commanded believers: "Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth. But avoid irreverent babble, for it will lead people into more and more ungodliness, and their talk will spread like gangrene (2 Timothy 2:15-16)"... and also,

... flee youthful passions and pursue righteousness, faith, love, and peace, along with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart. Have nothing to do with foolish, ignorant controversies; you know that they breed quarrels. And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth, and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will (2 Timothy 2:22-26)

With the many different callings we have been given as members of the diverse body of Christ, not all will be drawn to the ministry of being a "watchman", yet none of us is excused from being discerning enough to recognize the false teaching and false prophets that Jesus and Scripture repeatedly warn us will arise (Matthew 7:15, 24:11, 24; Mark 13:22; 2 Peter 2:1; 1 John 4:1-6). Those called to a more formal ministry of refuting heresies must soberly and fearfully reflect that they answer to God in the conduct of their charge, and so must avoid guilt-by-association tactics, ad hominem attacks, and uncharitable attitudes. They must avoid everything that it is unfitting to ministers who claim to follow Christ, and, as the Scriptures above (and others) counsel, be humble, pure, gracious, gentle, truthful, charitable, guileless, Christ-like. Surely as fallen creatures we will fall short of this standard at times, but no lesser standard of conduct is acceptable for those who follow a holy Savior. May it be so, and may the Lord's name be glorified by this generation of His followers.

Further reading:
Regarding Guilt by Association- A Gentle Admonition to Some of Our Friends
The Age of Tolerance Calls for Bold Proclamation of Truth

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