One of the greatest privileges of my life was to have served as a pastor to Mrs. Helen. The saintliest of widows, Helen was always gentle in spirit, encouraging, and thoughtful towards others, even as she ever so slightly bristled at the kids running through the aisles of our small church plant in South Texas. Kids should sit still in church is the way she grew up. But Mrs. Helen never once voiced condemnation, nor did she even look with condemnation. In my book, her name will forever be listed next to the phrase “blessed are the meek.”

My spiritual father, Fr. Ben Sharpe has modeled for me the rare Christian virtue of actually addressing controversies in person. Many of us pastors are quite happy to address controversies through blog posts, podcasts, tweets, and social media commentary. We’re spineless with the vestry and decisive on the interwebs. We are quick to pour out the coins of every money-changer we’ve ever seen online, justifying every theological jab as “zeal for the house of the Lord,” without any of the lifelong learned meekness of Mrs. Helen. Agitators, pot-stirrers, and self-proclaimed prophets will always be ready with their whip of cords. It’s when someone like Mrs. Helen (or Jesus) starts flipping over tables that you should pay attention.

The twin virtues of Christ-like meekness and righteous conviction in the face of controversy rarely go together, but they must. How then can we begin to cultivate convictional gentleness in this inflammatory internet age? I submit that one way to recouple meekness and conviction is to look back at another age, just as another patron saint of these twin virtues did in his day. In 1594, Richard Hooker, the esteemed Anglican theologian wrote:

“IN ANCIENT times, such simplicity and gentleness of spirit prevailed in the world that highly esteemed leaders were always reluctant to pass judgment against anything that was publicly received by the Church of God, unless it was obviously evil. They were less inclined to the severity that delights to find fault with every small error, and more inclined to that charity which wants to give everything the benefit of the doubt. In this present age, zeal has conquered charity, and rhetoric has drowned meekness.” (Hooker, Richard. The Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity In Modern English, Vol. 1., p. 218. The Davenant Press.)

Written Communication – The Sometimes Necessary Tool

The internet stirs up passions, which means it is nearly always the last place to have a constructive conversation. There are many men and women who have the Spirit-given virtue of self-mastery requisite for writing on the internet. But my general impression is that far too many of us believe we have the self-control required for such a dangerous medium of communication. I certainly do not (and yet, here I am… Lord have mercy!).

Still, we must not be foolish and write off the whole enterprise. Writing is a gift of God. The Apostle Paul was known for his weak rhetoric in person, and for his powerful pen on paper. Praise God for his letters. I have never languished in a jail cell with a “legitimate and unavoidable impatience” that must be written down like the Apostle Paul or Martin Luther King, Jr.

No person in human history save our Lord Jesus holds together meekness and conviction perfectly. The Apostle Paul wrestled with this tension throughout his second letter to the Corinthians. The arrogant conviction of Corinthian crusaders required crucifixion, just as the passive meekness of many Christians in our day requires death and resurrection to action.

My personal temperament intermingles Spirit-gifted patience and sinful passivity just as it did for many who said, “Wait” in the 1960’s. Like King, we must not be too harsh with them (meekness), but we must also boldly proclaim the reconciling blood of Christ in a convictionless world. While I have struggled through years of infertility and miscarriage, among many other hardships, I have “never felt the stinging darts” of so many broken and sin-soaked realities in this world like St. Paul or MLK.

The power of the written word can and must be used to rekindle gospel conviction; yes, even on the internet. But words can also burn and destroy (James 3:1-6), and we are hellish fools if we form habits of reflexively confronting every controversy online. I would venture to say that very few blog posts and even fewer tweets have been run through the filter of 2 Corinthians 2:4 (“For I wrote to you out of much affliction and anguish of heart and with many tears, not to cause you pain but to let you know the abundant love that I have for you.” ESV), much to our shame.

Read Less Twitter and More Hooker

As you might’ve guessed by now, all of these thoughts began to form in my mind after reading some of the back-and-forth regarding women’s ordination in the ACNA. No need to recap that here. But even with all of that, this article would’ve never been written had I not been reading the wonderful new volume of Richard Hooker’s The Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity In Modern English. For those who’ve read Hooker in the past and found him difficult to understand, give him another shot with this translation. C. S. Lewis considered this to be, stylistically, the greatest theological writing in the English language.

Anyways, here’s a few more gems from Hooker, hopefully enough to attract you to purchase this volume, and then to distract you from reading your Twitter feed for a few days.

In this first selection, Hooker highlights the importance of being physically together when we speak, because our eyes, facial expressions, and tone of voice form a “deep and lasting impression” that online communication will never attain. (The original context was the controversy concerning the use of Roman Catholic liturgical forms in the Anglican liturgy, which just so happens to be an up-and-running missional conversation in our day.)

“In determining the outward form of any religious action, our chief goal should be the edification of the church. Men are edified either when their minds are led by such actions to the consideration of some truth that demands our attention, or when their hearts are moved with any suitable affection—when they are in any way stirred up to an appropriate reverence, devotion, attention, and due regard. Therefore, not only speech, but also many different sensible means have always been thought necessary for this purpose. Of these, the eye is the most active and receptive of all our senses, the organ by which to best make a deep and lasting impression,” (Ibid., Hooker, p. 219.)

There have been several carefully considered exchanges throughout this conversation about women’s ordination. But I have read many more comments that were not so considered. Inflammatory rhetoric is rarely helpful in person, and never leads towards resolution online. Calcifying foolishness and igniting your base are a fool’s errand. There is no “winning” at the end of this discussion, and Hooker helps us to consider our words carefully in this final quote:

“[Thomas Cartwright along with other Puritan writers] preferred this way [of derisive communication] because the term “popery” is to the common people more odious than paganism itself, so that whenever they hear something called “popish,” they come to loathe it, imagining that anything that merits that label must be detestable. They have therefore filled the ears of the people with a great clamor: ‘The church of England is fraught with popish ceremonies! Those who favor the cause of reformation do nothing more than maintain the sincerity of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and all who resist them fight for the laws of Jesus’ sworn enemy, upholding the filthy relics of Antichrist by defending that which is popish!’ These are the notes which draw so many sighs from the hearts of the multitude;” (Ibid., Hooker, p. 229.)

Helen and Hooker’s Petitions Before the Throne

There are many living saints who wisely hold together meekness and conviction, each in unique and beautiful ways. Nearly all of these living saints are unverified, unpublished, and unknown, laboring in crisis pregnancy centers, nurseries and naves, living rooms, board rooms, and classrooms. We must not forsake gathering together with these living saints, on our knees in worship, and even, occasionally online.

But for my time and attention, I prefer to read those who have finished the race: St. Paul, accounts of nameless martyrs, MLK, Mrs. Helen, Richard Hooker, Blaise Pascal, C. S. Lewis, among countless others. And with the heavenly host, I imagine Mrs. Helen and Richard Hooker praying for us before the throne even now. Amidst their praise and their cries for the Sovereign Lord to come and restore all things, they pray…

  • That we would all be slow to speak and quick to listen.
  • That we would crucify the desire for the esteem of men and vivify the desire for the esteem of God.
  • That we would send a DM or an email rather than an extended subtweet.
  • That we would rather speak and listen face-to-face than send a DM/email, especially when the conversation deals with controversy.
  • That we would make the best use of our time because the days are evil.
  • That we would daily walk that fine line of meekness and conviction.
  • And in all things, that we would proclaim the excellencies of the holy and true King Jesus, not only with our lips but in our lives, and yes, even on our blogs.