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'Excommunitweets', Social Media and Spiritual Discipline

Monday, 2 February 2015  | Megan Powell du Toit

I learnt a new word last year. As a self-confessed ‘word nerd’, such a discovery is usually cause for delight. Not this time. This neologism has come into use this year to describe a lamentable online Christian phenomenon. And when I say ‘Christian’, let’s be honest: this is mostly an Evangelical phenomenon. The word is excommunitweet. The word was coined by Matt Archbold in 2012 in reference to Catholicism, but has been revived for usage amongst evangelicals.

Perhaps the most famous is a tweet by John Piper in 2011: “Farewell, Rob Bell”.  The tweet cast Bell outside the gates of Evangelicalism in reaction to the apprehension that his (then forthcoming) book Love Wins would reveal him to be universalist. That’s right, the book had yet to be published. Piper was reacting to a trailer for the book.

But this is merely the most famous of a host of other such social media sound bites. In May this year, Owen Strachan tweeted that Rachel Held Evans’s use of ‘She’ for God in a single blog post was heresy. Also this year, Denny Burk echoed John Piper by tweeting “Farewell, World Vision” in response to World Vision US’s decision to employ people in same-sex marriages—a decision soon rescinded because of public outcry.

Now, disunity amongst Christians is hardly new. Jesus himself foresaw it and prayed against it (John 17). Paul addressed it on multiple occasions. Personally, I am passionate about the cause of Christian unity—and Evangelical unity. Part of what horrifies me about these excommunitweets is the divisiveness they betray. Yet there is a particular distastefulness for me in these ‘farewells’; something that sets them apart from other such gatekeeping efforts.

An aspect I find difficult to stomach is the way these communications are made in the global public arena. In a post-Christendom world, these quarrels would otherwise often take place wholly within the Christian world or on a smaller stage. Christians are falling prey to a larger societal change in the internet age.  As the title of a 2009 documentary puts it, We live in Public. And not only do we live our lives publicly but also globally. What we disclose via social media (Twitter, Facebook, and blogs among other platforms) can be immediately viewed worldwide. Thus, we cannot as easily curate our public profile and reputation. No longer are we known by carefully selected, edited and prepared communications. If we remove material, it has often been preserved somewhere—either by impersonal, automatic caching, or the personal action of someone keen to keep a record of what has happened.

We befriend or follow an admired, ‘famous’ Christian and we are thrilled by a more personal and frequent access to this hero of the faith. Yet we also now see more of the person behind the name.  And we see more of the unguarded person since another feature of online lives is greater public exposure of impulsivity. Previously, communication with such reach was tempered by the time it took to create and to get it out. Now, we are betrayed by the ease, speed and brevity of online communication. It is as easy to communicate in the global public arena now as it is to make a quick quip to a colleague sitting at a neighbouring desk. We are all familiar with the ill-advised, off-the-cuff remark. Now such events become highly public.

Am I attempting to urge Christian public figures to eschew the delights of social media? No. Arguably, some people may be better to avoid it, but then I suspect such people may also be best advised to leave public life altogether! Rather, social media has brought us face to face with our own inadequacies—inadequacies of theology and of character.

These excommunitweets have, to my mind, revealed inadequacies in Evangelical theology: how we understand the church, how we understand Evangelical identity, and how we understand unity. These 3 areas of theology are well known Evangelical weak spots, areas in which we need to do more work. So, for example, do we need to police Evangelical boundaries, as these excommunitweets seem to be doing? And if so, how do we determine what legitimate boundaries there might be, and how do we relate to people who transgress them?

These ‘excommunitweets’ have been revelations in and of themselves—the breezy callousness of “Farewell Rob Bell” is breathtaking—but so also has the reaction to them. The response has often been public warfare amongst Evangelicals on social media and the blogosphere. Within a day of John Piper’s tweet, the topic #robbell was trending on twitter, so much so that a hapless UK web designer of the same name found himself caught in the storm, wondering why his computing skills were generating such disdain! The fractures and tribalism of Evangelicalism, writ large for the world to see.

They have also revealed the extent of the problem with much Evangelical character. Such storms would not occur if we all had more self-control, more grace, and more patience. And less judgment, self-righteousness and hypocrisy. Evangelicals often bemoan the bad rap we get in secular media, the way that ‘Evangelical’ has become synonymous with religious bigotry. It is true that this popular conception of Evangelicalism does not represent the complex reality. Yet it also does reveal a truth about us. Our character betrays us. We are too concerned with defending truth, and too little concerned with who we are. Our ethic must be centred in character.

Who we elevate to Evangelical celebrity status is also revealing. We often elevate the bold communicator rather than the person of quieter virtue who lives a life of consistent integrity. We frequently fail to see that those people who most inspire the public imagination do so on the basis of character. Mother Teresa and Gandhi spring to mind. The message is important—so Martin Luther King, Jr—but it is best supported by a life seen to conform to the ideals espoused.

My response to the culture of ‘excommunitweets’ is to suggest we reflect on our social media presence as a spiritual discipline. Richard Foster says spiritual disciplines are a way “to place ourselves before God so that He can transform us”. Here then is the mirror held up to us: a picture of fracture and lack of love. Are we going to grow up?

Megan Powell du Toit is a pastor at Gordon Baptist Church in Sydney and a PhD candidate in theology.


Jim Rawson
February 4, 2015, 2:47PM
Thank you. This needs to be shared widely. We keep shooting ourselves in the head, not even the foot.

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