A few years ago, when I was a pastor, I had a hard time explaining to a rather cranky member why we, as a church, had to pay for a license to use Christian music in our worship services. "They should give it away freely. Why do I have to pay for it? I thought this was ministry. Why they are out to make money?" What made this man's beef all the more interesting is that I had just concluded, a day earlier, a long conversation with him about what he considered unfair pay at his work. The irony was lost on him, but not me.
But alas, this complaint about Christian content costing money is one I've heard in a variety of forms most of my adult life. It goes something like this:
Christian publishers should not be so eager to make money. Why not give their books away free?
Christian musicians should not charge to sing at a Church. Why not sing for the Lord?
Christian conferences should offer all their content online, right away, for free, right now.
Well-known speakers shouldn't charge so much to speak at someone's church. They should just come to be a blessing.
So, the question is this: Should all Christian content be free? And to this I say a hearty, "No!"
I understand the desire to get resources into the hands of those who can't afford them. The impulse to break down financial barriers so people can hear the gospel and so God's people can grow is good. I'm thankful for all of the free content, readily available online and elsewhere. But there point we must understand is that good content always has a cost.
For free stuff, somebody, somewhere was kind enough to fund the spread of the good news. Praise God for this kind of generosity. May He raise up more Christian philanthropists in this generation.
But I want to tackle this idea that there should never be charge for Christian content--books, sermons, study guides, music, teaching textbooks. This is not a right argument on many levels.
First, the Bible says that hard work should be rewarded with adequate payment. Paul said to Timothy that "the worker" is worthy of his wages. Christians shouldn't succumb to greed and materialism. This is a sin and can be a soul-sucking snare (1 Timothy 6:9). But money is offered in Scripture as a reward for hard work. Work was instituted by God at Creation, before the Fall. And the rewards of hard work are woven into the mandate to subdue the earth. To diminish reward is to cheapen, in my view, the value of hard work and to soften the God-glorifying act of creating.
Secondly, Christians should be rewarded for their ministry work. We have this idea that because someone is in "full-time" ministry that they should give their time and effort away for free. But Paul told the Galatians that those "One who is taught the word must share all good things with the one who teaches" (Galatians 6:6). In other words, those who benefit from the teaching ministry of others should support those who teach. How this works out in real life often differs. Some work full time and get their sole paycheck from a Christian organization. Others are "tent-makers" who, like Paul for a season, offer their ministry work in a part-time or free basis. Still, there are many who have some combination of an agreement. But, the principle still stands: there is nothing wrong with someone getting paid for their Christian content (music, books, preaching, etc). In fact, there is everything right.
Third, by depriving Christians of payment for their work, at times, we could be causing them to disobey Scripture. Scripture says that a man who doesn't provide for his family is "worse than an unbeliever" (1 Timothy 5:8). Paul scolded lazy men who refused to provide for their families (2 Corinthians 3:10). Sometimes in our desire to demand free Christian content or when we grow upset at Christian organizations for charging for content or services, we forget that the men and women working in those organizations would like to feed their families, have health insurance, and own homes just as we do. Many serve and work at drastically reduced rates. They consider their vocation a calling, a mission, a chance to serve the body of Christ. But, that doesn't mean the should work for free. Imagine if you were asked to do your job for free--if you had no paycheck to take home to support your wife and children? Imagine if someone demanded you do your job for free? You wouldn't do that. You couldn't do that. And neither should we expect editors, writers, web guys, recording artists, pastors etc give us the best and most edifying Christian content without cost.
Of course there are many caveats to this. There are legitimate and illegitimate ways to make money in the Christian world. There are, sadly, pastors who fleece their flocks and live lavish lifestyles off the backs of poor widows. There are some who claim that financial prosperity is a sign of God's blessing. This wicked and destructive teaching is anti-gospel. And there are times when Christian organizations make decisions based on revenue streams rather than what is enriching for the body of Christ. That is wrong.
But let's trust that these are a few examples out of the many faithful believers who serve the body well and deserve to be paid fairly for their labors. Let's not simply rush to the conspiratorial idea that "That publisher/organization/church/pastor is just out to make money." You actually don't know that. It could be they are serving with an earnest desire to bring the good news of the gospel to those who need to hear it.
Today communication has never been easier. Most of the time this is good, allowing us to communicate good news quicker, to socialize with family and friends, and, in emergencies, get a hold of people faster. It also allows us to publish our thoughts at lightening speed. Most of the time, this is good as well. But not always. The ease of pressing "send" has not always brought out the best in people, even God's people.
I've often said that James 1:19 has never been more relevant and never more ignored: "Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger." Slow to speak sounds like a old-fashioned relic from another era. How quaint, we moderns say, to actually be "slow to speak." Why, that blog post, that tweet, that Facebook rant must be posted. And it must be posted now or I'll lose clicks.
Following Christ means following him even in the way we engage online. I'll admit that if this verse from James hits anyone, it hits me first. As disciples of Jesus, we can and should do better. So here are three things we might try to consider before we hit "send" on that tweet, post, or blog:
1) Did I get my facts right?
If I'm writing about a news story or reacting to growing controversy, did I read up and get all the facts or am I responding, knee-jerk, to a headline? What's more, am I believing the worst about someone with whom I disagree? Am I leveraging incomplete and sensational bad news to advance my argument? Or have I slowed down enough to read the best of the other side, process their arguments, and respond with charitable disagreement? Of all things, we should be about the truth, not just the objective, orthodox body of Christian truth passed down from generation to generation. We should also be about the truth in every situation, even the truth about those with whom we most vociferously disagree.
One of the things you learn in seminary, at least from the best scholars, is to present the other side's argument so well, so accurately, that he could recognize it. We ought to do that with our online discussions. But this takes a bit of work, it might mean not writing that blog post and not reaction so quickly to breaking news. Thankfully, Christians have the freedom to not be controlled by their passions, but by the Spirit of God (Galatians 5:22-23).
A neglected part of the truth is resisting caricatures and stereotypes. It so easy to simply tag an entire group or tribe, with whom we disagree, as the problem, the enemy. In reality, every denomination, association, network has diversity of views. I always cringe when I see lazy generalizations of networks to which I belong, because I know how wrong they often are. I'm guessing that same reaction happens when I carelessly do this to others.
2) Did I obey this oft-neglected verse?
Galatians 6:10 says Christians should "do good, especially to those of the household of faith." This means we should give other believers the benefit of the doubt. It's so much easier to do the opposite. Today there is so much self-loathing among Christians online, a rush for us to beat up the Church or, rather, "those Christians." There isn't a sense of loyalty anymore to at least give our brothers and sisters in the Lord the benefit of the doubt, to say, "That brother or sister was purchased by the same blood of Jesus that secured my redemption. I at least owe them respect, dignity, and the benefit of the doubt."
Jesus said we were to be known by our love for each other (John 13:35). We have a strange way of showing love. Now, to be clear, this doesn't mean there is no room for substantive, even sharp disagreement. Jesus isn't speaking to his disciples about a kind of fuzzy, touchy-feely love that's all unicorns and no weight. Paul, at times, showed love by sharply rebuking those in error (1 Corinthians 4:21).
And yet, when writing to Christians, about the Church, we should do it, as Paul did, always with a heart of love. And I'm not just talking about loving the people with whom we agree, who are in our tribe, but we should love Christ's church. Some of the rants, blogs, tweets I read from Christians reflect such a near-hatred for the body, the bride, for whom Christ shed His blood. We forget that Jesus loves the Church (Ephesians 5:25). Even though the Church disappoints, sins, fails--Jesus still loves the Church. When writing, posting, speaking, everything we say about Christians, to Christians, should at least reflect this reality. Sometimes we must defend the truth against error, sometimes we must stand against brothers and sisters for the sake of the gospel, sometimes we have to do and say things are unpopular. Even so, in all of that, we should do it with tears, with reluctance, with a kind of heartbroken love for the Church.
3) Did we envision the real person we are criticizing?
There are a lot of things we say behind a keyboard that we'd never say to someone in person. That's because there is something about speaking to a flesh and blood person, measuring the reaction in their eyes and face, and weighing its effect on the heart. But keyboards and touch-screens reduce our communication by a dimension. You can't convey tone in a blog post, or a tweet, or a Facebook rant. This is why, even in an age of email, text, and phone, somethings are best said in person.
So when we go off on a rant against a particular group of people with whom we disagree, we should first envision an actual person. Perhaps it's a friend, a relative, a coworker. If they read what we just wrote, how would it make them feel? Would they at least know, despite our disagreements, that we loved and cared for them? Would they think we had been fair to them? Would they feel we'd taken gratuitous shots?
Digital communication is a helpful tool, in many ways. But it can also remove the personal touch, the layer of one-to-one relationships of community. We'd do well to remember, as Tim Challies says, that "pixels are people." That person with whom we disagree is not an avatar, an entity or a static head-shot. He or she is a person created in the image of God. He deserves respect.
On Sunday, our small group began a study on discipleship, aided by the very good material from Multiply written by Francis Chan and David Platt. The first part of this study challenges us to count the cost of discipleship. I was struck afresh by Jesus' words in Luke:
Now great crowds accompanied him, and he turned and said to them, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple. For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it begin to mock him, saying, ‘This man began to build and was not able to finish.’ Or what king, going out to encounter another king in war, will not sit down first and deliberate whether he is able with ten thousand to meet him who comes against him with twenty thousand? And if not, while the other is yet a great way off, he sends a delegation and asks for terms of peace. So therefore, any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple.(Luke 14:25-33, ESV)
As an American Christian, I guess I've never had to fully weigh the impact of Jesus' words here. We've lived in a bubble of acceptance, especially those, like me, who've mostly worked for Christian organizations. Sure, there is the occasional derogatory remark by a unbelieving family member or neighbor. Yet even among those who don't profess faith, Christianity has been something considered worth commending. For much of the church's history, this was not the norm. Christianity has been uncomfortable. It has involved cross-bearing.
Jesus wanted his followers to know this. I notice he said these very hard things when the crowds followed him. It's as if he's saying to them, "If you are following me for the benefits, for the goodies, for the anticipated health and wellness, well, you've got the wrong Messiah." It's not that Jesus was sadistic. But the spiritual battle between light and darkness involves hardship, suffering, and a willingness to be considered on the "wrong side of history."
I think this is where we often get Jesus wrong. I think this is where we often get Christianity wrong. The New Testament knows nothing, really, of the Jesus-as-mascot paradigm. To claim to follow Jesus, but reject the radical new way of life He calls to us to is to reject Jesus altogether. The way of Jesus is better. But many don't see that. Many of us don't see that.
For American Christians, I think the coming years will force us to make difficult choices. We will have to choose between cultural acceptance and the way of Jesus. In other words, Christianity, truly bearing the name of Christ, will involve a cross. It will be rough and uncomfortable. Sometimes this discomfort is in the form of cultural rejection. Sometimes it's the discomfort of forgiving someone we want desperately to despise. Sometimes it's the self-sacrifice to give ourselves for those we are called to love and nurture: our spouses, our children, our neighbors. Sometimes it's the discipline to speak the truth in type of love others don't exhibit. Sometimes it involves making reasoned, winsome arguments in favor of truth that are unfairly dismissed as bigotry.
Are we ready for this? I think of the words of Peter to the first-century church in 1 Peter. He reminded the Church that while they were to assimilate into their contexts, they were to remember their status as strangers and foreigners. Christians follow another King and live out the values of another Kingdom. There would be cultural pressure to abandon Jesus or to synch Jesus with whatever is popular. As if Jesus is the clay and we are the potters. Peter urged the first century church to stand strong, to have courage, but also to do this with a kind of joyful anticipation of the world to come. I'm particularly arrested by Peter's words in 1 Peter 3:15:
But even if you should suffer for righteousness' sake, you will be blessed.Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame. For it is better to suffer for doing good, if that should be God's will, than for doing evil. (1 Peter 3:14-17, ESV)
Having warmed himself by the fires of cultural acceptance and having also been the doomsday zealot, Peter argued for a third way. Followers of Jesus must be should not be gripped by fear ("nor be troubled"), but give a calm, rational, joyful defense of Christian faith, shaped by gentleness and respect. Being misunderstood, slandered, and disparaged by the culture and even fellow evangelicals is no fun. But our response should not only be courageously truthful, it should be otherworldly in terms of kindness. We not only communicate the values of another world. We speak with rhetorical tools from another world. We shouldn't add to our suffering with fleshly responses.
As we anticipate life in a post-Christian world, we need to not only reacquaint ourselves with Christian identity (cross-bearing, suffering), but by faith live out this gospel fully before a watching world.
You probably don't want to read one more article on the religious liberty, cake-baking, gay marriage controversy. But let me diverge from the important legal and spiritual implications of this discussion and talk about the actual discussion itself. How should the discussion among Christians be driven around the public water cooler of social media? Here are a few thoughts I have in the wake of this pitched battle:
- We should always assume the very best about those with whom we disagree and we should argue against their best arguments, not caricatured straw men.
- We should remember that there are actual people behind the avatars. And we should remember that we are people, not avatars. As followers of Jesus we are accountable for what we do and say.
- We should not assume the headline, but understand and know the facts behind the headline. Tweeting in reaction to a headline may be fashionable, but it's not worthy of a Christian whose goal is to pursue truth (Philippines 4:8)
- As much as we can, we should not talk at people, but with people.
- We should remember that if someone disagrees with us, they are not necessarily being mean to us, they are simply disagreeing with us. The surest way to shut down a productive discussion is to score cheap political points by hi-lighting how unreasonable our debate partner is. A reasoned argument against your position is not an attack. Know the difference.
- Christians should, as much as they can, support fellow Christians. Paul reminded us to do good to those who are of "the household of faith." Twisting the arguments, fanning the flames of public shame, and advancing the popular narrative of Christians as bigoted, uncaring, ideologues doesn't exactly build unity in the body of Christ. If anything discouraged me in this entire discussion it's the willingness of Christians to throw other Christians under the bus for fifteen seconds of cultural affirmation. Sad.
- It's helpful not to throw a rhetorical bomb out there and then say, "What?, What?" denying an obvious intention to stir things up (Proverbs 26:18-19)
- It's also not helpful to come in late to an important discussion with the pious, "I wish Christians would all stop arguing and get in a circle and sing Kumbaya." Not every argument is worth having, yes. And sometimes Christians fight unworthy fights, yes. But not every discussion is unhealthy. Until we are fully sanctified in Heaven, we'll not stop having discussions and disagreements.
- We should discern between worthy arguments with reasonable opponents and folks who only want a prolonged Twitter battle. Or as a friend tells me all the time: Don't feed the trolls. It's also helpful to actually not be a troll. Twitter discipline is a hard thing to maintain and all of us have had moments where we have failed.
- We should be joyful warriors. There are slippery slopes, troubling signs in our culture, and an increasing marginalizing of orthodox Christian beliefs. Still, Christ is coming. He is building His Church. He is triumphant. And He will renew all things. So onward with joy.