In a previous post, I wrote a fairly mild piece on the issue of shaming one’s neighbor. That article was in response to a small, hardly noticed episode of Facebook shaming that affected people known to me. The article was met with a rather bland kind of enthusiasm, rife with atta-boys and way-to-goes. I hardly noticed any opposition, though I was made aware of some through the ever-vigilant eye of my lovely wife, who can sniff when someone doesn’t like me from several miles away. Since there seems to be one mildly serious point of opposition to what I have written, I thought I would use this space to answer it. So, here goes.
The protest runs something like this: didn’t Paul shame Peter when he was engaged in public sin? Wouldn’t that be grounds for shaming others who are in public sin?
Ah yes, the ole’ “if-it-was-good-enough-for-Paul-its-good-enough-for-me” argument. Well, yes, I suppose we might consider dealing with that question. Actually, I can think – off the top of my formerly hairy head – of quite a few examples in the New Testament when one of the Biblical writers started naming names. Of the New Testament name-namers, Paul is probably the most prominent. In addition to Peter (Galatians 2:6-16), Paul called out Barnabas (Galatians 2:13), Demas (2 Timothy 4:10), and even two women, Euodias and Syntyche (Philippians 4:2). John called out Diotrephes, who loved to have the preeminence (3 John 1:9). Peter called out Simon Magus, who (he perceived) was in the gall of bitterness, and in the bond of iniquity (Acts 8:18-23). If these apostles called out public sin publicly, why wouldn’t we? Don’t they set an example for us to follow?
Well, yes. And no. The men and women who are called out publicly in the New Testament all share one thing in common – they all have some kind of position of influence among God’s people. Peter was an apostle, and it was his influence as an apostle that especially provoked Paul to withstand him to the face (Galatians 2:13-14). Demas was well-known by all the saints as part of Paul’s ministry team (Colossians 4:14; Philemon 1:24). Many believe that Euodias and Synthyche were prominent women in the church at Philippi, that they held much influence in the church there (Euodias means “one who has arrived”). Evidently, their influence among the people caused strife and division in the church. Diotrephes loved to have the preeminence. And Simon Magus held great power over the people of Samaria (Acts 8:9-11).
Pairing the New Testament warnings against false teachers with the New Testament examples of naming names, we can conclude that a false teacher should be called out publicly when he has been afforded some degree of influence among God’s people. When a false teaching gains momentum, it ought to be publicly exposed and refuted. My objection to the use of Facebook shaming to deal with the couple at the receiving end of this shaming is largely based on this standard.
The claim has been made that they posted their pictures publicly, and therefore opened themselves up to public comment. My answer is that they were both fairly anonymous Christians prior to the exposure. As I understand it, the young man doesn’t have a Facebook page, so the pictures were taken from the young lady’s Facebook page. Neither of them were attempting to lead a movement of hand-holding couples. They have not gained a position of influence or prominence among Christians. Nor, by the way, has the claim been made that they are false teachers. When this episode of Facebook shaming was defended, the argument was made that since the older brother posted these kinds of pictures without rebuke, the younger brother felt free to do the same. In other words, the couple who paid for their audacity was merely following someone else’s bad example. That hardly qualifies as a false teacher.
False teachers should be opposed rigorously and publicly. But, before we get carried away with branding everyone who holds a different viewpoint from us as a false prophet, we ought to consider what would be a Biblical definition. And while I believe that a false prophet should be publicly exposed, I would also argue that public shaming should not be the first resort in such a case. This is especially the case when dealing with a personal friend. I believe that before we deal publicly with error on the part of a friend, we have a duty as a friend to approach that person with their error and seek to restore them (Galatians 6:1).
Here then are three rules for public shaming.
Rule #1: Public shaming should be reserved for false prophets.
But we ought to get it settled in our minds what qualifies as a false prophet. Variations in standards hardly qualifies a person as a false prophet. I’ll get myself into trouble here for the sake of argument. In my initial post, I facetiously used a picture of myself in a pair of shorts. Ignoring the aesthetic value of the picture, I was making a point. I have several friends (my own father being one) who have convictions against men wearing shorts. Underneath my picture, I used the passage of Scripture that is often used to argue this particular standard. My reason for posting it was to make the point that if we are going to start shaming those who hold to a different standard than ourselves, then what is the line? If I post a picture of myself in a pair of shorts (I generally try not to for the mental health of the viewing audience), am I therefore a false teacher who must be exposed and shamed? Should I expect my anti-short-pants brethren to raise a ruckus on Facebook and inveigh against my breech of standards or protocol?
The answer should be obvious. There is (or should be) room for differences among Bible-believing Christians. Such differences hardly qualifies a person as a false teacher.
Scripturally then, what is a false teacher? The Bible calls them wolves. A false teacher is one who has influence and who uses it to lead others into soul-jeopardizing error (Matthew 7:15; Acts 20:29-30). A false teacher is a heretic, one who actively sows division and strife amongst brethren (Titus 3:10-11). A false teacher promotes false doctrine, contradicting the clear teaching of the Bible (Jude 1:3-4, 10-11, 15-16).
Rule #2: Public shaming should be used against false prophets who put themselves forward as teachers and have achieved some degree of influence among Christians.
I believe this to be equally important with the first point. Pastors are a notoriously opinionated lot. If you get a roomful of pastors, you will find many different opinions. Some of those opinions I strongly disagree with. Some I consider to be dangerous, even heretical at times. The question that we must answer is, at what point am I obligated to expose the false teaching or error of a fellow pastor?
First, let me say that I believe a pastor has a duty to address and refute error when preaching and teaching in his own pulpit. He has a duty to name sin and to warn his people against it.
Second, if a pastor holds a different view of some doctrinal point, and if he limits the teaching of that doctrine to his own pulpit, I believe I would be in sin to expose him for it. I have no Scriptural warrant to sift through his online sermons in order to find and expose any error I hear coming from his pulpit. And this is true, though his sermons are posted online.
Third (and this is the point), my duty to publicly expose doctrinal error or false teaching would be in proportion to the amount of public influence a pastor has. Is he gaining a following in this? is he leading others astray? Is his false teaching affecting my ministry?
I suppose that if a pastor wanted to justify his use of public shaming, he could make the case for it from the slightest provocation. But we have a duty to be honest, and to use this tactic sparingly. There is a huge difference between a man who snoops through another pastor’s online sermon collections in search of any doctrinal error in order to bring it to light, and a man who recognizes that a certain doctrinal error is gaining momentum among God’s people. The one is a tattler, a busybody in other men’s matters (I Peter 4:15). The other is a watchman.
Rule #3: Public shaming should be used after repeated, gracious warnings have been ignored.
In other words, it should not be the first tool we grab from the toolbox. Especially when the false teacher happens to be a friend. If I don’t know the person but I recognize that they have been afforded a great deal of influence among Christians, then I ought to expose it. But even in this, I should be aware of what steps have been taken to correct the error from other quarters. Have others sought publicly to correct the error, and how have their efforts been received? If the false teacher has been correctible, it would seem pretty lame if I come along two months later to lambast the already-corrected brother. If nobody has addressed the error Scripturally, the first response shouldn’t come with Agent Orange and a heavy payload of TNT. We should always start with a reasoned response, answering the false doctrine from the Bible (2 Timothy 2:23-26). Only after repeated, gracious warnings have been given should we ramp up the rhetoric against the erring brother.
Public shaming is a powerful weapon. When we use it, we should be mindful of the potential to cause real harm to believers, to churches, and to the cause of Christ. Consider this particular weapon like a hand grenade. Use it as a last resort. While it may be an effective way of dealing with a wayward neighbor, it may cause more harm than good in the end.