Image versus Witness: Rick Warren Bans His Staff from Following Atheists on Twitter

Rick Warren “Thou Shalt not follow…”

“No one is to be called an enemy, all are your benefactors, and no one does you harm. You have no enemy except yourselves.” Saint Francis of Assisi 

I was surprised but then I wasn’t. Rick Warren, Pastor of the Saddleback Mega-Church, author of the best selling Purpose Driven Life, political activist sent an e-mail to his staff ordering them to drop “atheists, critics of saddleback, and mean-spirited or vulgar accounts” from those that they follow on Twitter.  He told his staff: “WHO YOU FOLLOW ON FACEBOOK OR TWITTER IS A WITNESS TO OTHERS.” (Warren’s Caps not mine). His edict to his staff was direct and unambiguous: “Go through your follow list. Unfollow any anti-Christian, anti-Saddleback or vulgar/sexual accounts that got automatically added.” 

Now I do understand why an employer would not want employees using their official work accounts to abide by the rules of that organization. Likewise I do think that employers have a right to insist that employees conduct themselves in a manner that befits their organization. Thus if Rick Warren’s employees were saying things and doing things on Facebook or Twitter on their work accounts that went against the beliefs of Saddleback Church that they are wrong.  At the same time a corporate or ministry image is not the same as Christian witness and ordering employees to cut ties with real or perceived “opponents” actually does a disservice to the proclamation of the Gospel and promotes a cult-like versus a Christ-like world view. A worldview that intentionally breaks relationships with opponents and critics is in the end one that destroys the christian witness.  A world view where church leaders are afraid to dialogue or debate with unbelievers and forbid their followers from doing so is a worldview that stems from fear and lack of confidence. It is a worldview antithetical to that practiced by Jesus.

What Warren and others like him imply is a theology of “guilt by association” that is foreign to the Gospel.

Jesus had a habit of hanging out, having dialogue and even praising those that stood outside the religious establishment of his time. His closest followers were from Galilee a place held in distain by people from Jerusalem or Judea. He had close relationships with women, Gentiles, Roman oppressors, tax-collectors, adulterers and prostitutes. He offended the religious establishment by healing and even picking grain to eat on the Sabbath. He told people to pay their hated taxes to Caesar but to give to God what was God’s.  Somehow I don’t believe that Jesus would be welcome at many churches today, he associated with so many people that are just so unseemly….

When Jesus’ disciples came to him to complain that other people were preaching in his name he simply commented “he who is not against me is for me.”

The worldview of separatism and fear of the other that is so pervasive in Christian circles now days is one reason that I believe that so many non-Christians have such a negative view of Christians and the Church.

I have a good number of friends, family members and co-workers who are atheists, agnostics and followers of religions that are not Christian. Some have grown up in the church, some were at one time fervent believers while others have simply been treated terribly by those who call themselves by the name “Christian.” I have one friend, a young Navy doctor who is an atheist who tells me that I am the only Chaplain or minister that he would want in the room if he was really sick. Somehow while that is personally gratifying it speaks volumes about how this young man views others who claim the name of Christ.

Likewise I follow people on Twitter and Facebook that I do not agree with on some things and who certainly if I were a staff member at Saddleback or some other churches that would get me in trouble. The fact that I was told to leave my former church when I wrote about issues that some in our hierarchy opposed somewhat colors my perspective on this but certainly does not put me on the opposite side of what Jesus taught.

My view is that if Christians and the Church are to be taken seriously and to be credible witnesses of Christ is that we must engage in and have relationships with those that do not believe what we believe. In the age of cyber technology and communications this means that some of that has to be done on social networks with people that we may never have met in person but whom we are quite possibly the only positive witness of Christ that they will ever have.  If Christian leaders forbid their followers from contact be it in person or on social media from those that they disapprove it shows a certain lack of grace towards unbelievers as well as a lack of faith and confidence in their own message.

Francis of Assisi said “Where there is charity and wisdom, there is neither fear nor ignorance.” Warren’s words display fear and ignorance and a true lack of charity. I expected better of him. Warren once said “You can use your time to build bridges or walls. The latter is not only unChristlike, it limits impact and creates loneliness.”

Warren’s edict to his staff and for that matter members of Saddleback Church is one that projects an attitude of fear and paranoia. It is a message that also tells church members and staff that they are being watched and their communications monitored by a church hierarchy more concerned with its image than reaching out to those that Jesus died to save.

Such actions by Warren and other major Christian leaders, especially those with large temporal empires and corporate images to defend are a large part of why many people are fleeing the Church. The fact that Christian leaders seem more interested in promoting themselves, their products and embracing political activism and power shows how badly the Church across all denominational borders is in need of reform, reform that is not possible by shutting itself off from the world.

Father Andrew Greeley, a Catholic Priest and Sociologist has been taken to task by many Catholic conservatives because of his rather liberal views on a number of social issues. However he understands something about the Gospel that Warren and others would be wise to learn, something that is firmly based on the Gospel and the history of the early Church: “The Church looks ridiculous to nonbelievers as its leaders offer pontifical advice to virtually every other human institution about the need for justice and freedom, but show precious little interest in reforming their own institution.”

Peace

Padre Steve+

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