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Christians are in danger of becoming digital Pharisees, here’s how to avoid bigotry online

Premier’s political editor, Martyn Eden, says recent events have led to an outpouring of acrimonious opinion online. He explains that Christians who communicate with a tone of arrogance in online debate risk being dismissed as religious bigots

Have you ever felt ashamed of the way some Christians express themselves in a bigoted legalism that is the very antithesis of Jesus’ life and teaching?

As a Christian for 51 years who writes books and blogs and enjoys reading other people’s writings, I am embarrassed and ashamed of some of the responses from people who profess to be Christians but behave like the Pharisees who opposed Jesus.

Of course there is nothing wrong with honest criticism. No one is perfect and capable of 360 degree vision in everything they write.  We can all learn from the insights of others when they are offered graciously.

However, some of the comments on articles and blogs I have read have been so nastily acrimonious that it is hard to think they have come from anyone who has understood the centrality of grace and love that characterised Jesus’ life and teaching. There is a huge difference between taking Christian doctrine seriously and using it to verbally beat up anyone with whom one disagrees.

There are lots of examples. Bishop Curry’s sermon at Harry and Meghan’s wedding was one. The merits of that 13-minute address were well affirmed by my colleague, Sam Hailes, but acerbically denied by others who bemoaned what he did not say, or what his American denomination believes about same-sex marriage. The latter is a real issue but it did not feature in his sermon and no-one could cover every Christian doctrine in a 13-minute wedding sermon.

Brexit is another issue that has evoked unreasonably nasty comment. It seems that anyone of the 48 per cent of the electorate who voted to Remain must now repent for their vote and remain silent, while the 52 per cent who voted for Brexit have their way. That is a strange view of democracy that fails to remember that the referendum included no details of what Brexit might mean and the consequences it might have.

The issue of abortion brought back into political debate by the Irish referendum has also elicited some rabid Christian comment. It is a complex moral and spiritual issue and traditional Christian concern for the aborted life, as well as the mother’s wellbeing, are both important. That does not justify extreme responses from either side in the debate, and Christians have a special duty to be gracious. We risk being dismissed as religious bigots if we aren’t.

Women in Christian ministry is a fourth example and the appointment of Rt Rev Sarah Mullally as the new Bishop of London has evoked some unbiblical hostility from Christians who should know better. Out came selected quotes, like Paul’s statement in 1 Timothy 2:12: “ I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet.”

Conveniently overlooked was the role of Priscilla teaching Apollos with her husband Aquila (Acts 18:24-26). At a deeper level, there was a failure to recognise the role of women in Jesus’ ministry (Luke 8:1-3); the importance of their role after Jesus’ resurrection (Luke 24:9-11 and John 20:11-180); and their involvement in the founding of the Christian church (Acts 1:14).

There is room for differences of opinion in all these issues, but what matters from a Christian perspective is that those differences are expressed with grace and love. If we want to speak as Christians we have to remember the centrality of both grace and love in Jesus’ teaching. That includes loving those with whom we disagree (Matthew 5:43-47). The Apostle Paul reminds us that we have all sinned and fallen short but are equally justified by God’s grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. (Acts 3:22-24).

So by all means let us have genuine debate, but please let it be graciously Christ-like, without arrogance and bigotry.

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