Be cautious about issuing counsel remotely

Most American newspapers over the past few decades have regularly printed advice columns, where readers can write in with relationship questions and receive an answer from a professional. I do not read these columns regularly, but I have glanced at them a few times, and it is obvious to me that this mode of giving advice comes with significant challenges. To begin with, the person giving the advice does not really know the person asking for it, nor do they ever get to hear more than one perspective on the “facts” presented in the letter. Therefore it is easy to give bad advice despite good intentions, because you have no idea what other important information that the individual asking for advice has left out.

The Apostle Paul faced some of these same challenges when He wrote his epistles which God has seen fit to include in the canon of Scripture. Paul could not always be present at the churches that needed his advice, so he would send them counsel remotely. He would tell them in clear terms what was right, and what was wrong, and would praise them or criticize them accordingly.

But Paul also knew his limits. He knew that he could not solve every dispute from afar. Many issues needed to be dealt with in person, as we see from the excerpt below:

So then, my brothers and sisters, when you gather to eat, you should all eat together. 34 Anyone who is hungry should eat something at home, so that when you meet together it may not result in judgment.

And when I come I will give further directions. (I Corinthians 11:33-34 NIV)

Paul, in this passage, and in the preceding verses, gives general instructions on church fellowship. He tells them that if they are to have a public meal, they should all share their food and eat together so that some do not pig out on the food that they have brought for themselves in the presence of others who are forced to look on helplessly while they are starving. Paul included this advice in his public letter, because the information needed to be relayed immediately, before the Corinthians’ selfish behavior could result in judgment from God.

However, Paul does not try to fix every fault of the Corinthian church remotely. Instead he tells them that when I come I will give further directions. Paul realized the danger of trying to answer every question in a letter. In addition to the obvious mistakes, the people in this church were doubtlessly committing many more sins that were more subtle and perhaps too sensitive to be addressed publicly. Paul only deals with the obvious mistakes in his letters. He addresses the sins that are so clearly wrong that there is no room for real debate. But the more complicated issues or “gray” areas he avoids until he can meet them face to face and learn all the facts for himself.

Paul here gives us a good example for how to give advice over the internet in the computer age. We must be cautious when people, especially people whom we do not know, ask us for advice. We must be sure that we do not hurt these people by giving them too much advice remotely. We must not be arrogant enough to think that we can answer all their questions without face to face contact with them. I myself occasionally receive requests for advice by readers of my blogs, and I am eager to give it, but it is important for me to know my limits and restrain myself from giving too much advice. If you ask me for counsel I can only really respond with general principles; it is up to you to apply those principles in your individual situation. For instance, there is a lot of advice I can give other Christians about dating. I can tell you not to date an unbeliever, I can tell you not to engage in a physical relationship before marriage, and I can tell you not to marry someone who has been divorced. But I cannot tell you whether or not you should marry some guy named “Fred.” I don’t know Fred; I don’t really know you either. You are the one who knows Fred, and you need to decide for yourself whether or not Fred fits the general criteria that I have given you. If you need more advice than I can give, then you must find some wise Christian who knows you better than I do and has closer contact with you to give you the advice you need.

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