Once upon a time, when I was new in the blogosphere, I argued with anyone and everyone. I was a bit of a cage phase Calvinist, but worse than that I didn't understand how to talk to people online, and even worse than that, I was not gospel wakened so I gave the energy of utmost importance to stuff that was good but not of utmost importance.
I don't do that any more. It's dumb.
But one thing I do try to do is respond to my online critics. I know lots of bloggers/authors don't do this, whether out of busy-ness or lack of interest. Some don't do it because they consider critics not worth the time, ever. I don't think that's true, and in an effort not to seem "above" people who'd disagree with me, when I do have the time and think the criticism about something important, I try to respond. Sometimes it works out great. Sometimes a critic receives clarification on something they thought I was saying but really wasn't and is appeased. Sometimes dialogue yields more understanding of each other's stances, whether we end up agreeing or not. I would call that fruitful. It's always good to agree or disagree with what someone actually says/thinks, not with what we think they say/think. Agreement or not, better understanding is always a good thing.
But other times . . . well, other times it doesn't work out so well. A couple of weeks ago a blog commenter was convinced, by one post that said nothing of the sort, that I was defending socialism. Despite many posts already written staunchly defending that the gospel is something God does, not anything we do, despite the fact that the post in question said nothing about "works of justice" being or contributing to the gospel, this person insisted on accusing me of the social gospel. After I denied that several times, he invented other charges easily refuted by what I was actually saying. (One thing I have learned since blogging/tweeting is that for these kinds of critics, what they read is reality; what you've actually written is not.)
It happened again yesterday. I tweeted this: "Count me one Calvinist more interested in a gospel resurgence than a Reformed resurgence."
This led to someone asking if I wasn't setting up a false dichotomy.
I responded to say that if Calvinism = the gospel, Arminians believe a false gospel.
Enter a critic to chastise me for fearmongering about hyperCalvinists. Talk about a curve ball!
Trying to explain oneself on Twitter is difficult. Trying to explain oneself on Twitter to someone apparently unable or unwilling to understand is impossible. But I didn't know that about him at the time, so after a series of tweets, we took it to email. Surely that will work. But it didn't. And in the end, as I grew weary of defending against the charge that I blur the gospel news with our response to it, my dialogue partner began drawing new charges out of a hat, insisting each stuck. I was accused of some things nobody's ever accused me of, some that are actually the exact opposite of what I'm usually accused of. The whole thing was bewildering. And that's how I knew it was a vain disputation.
I want to be an accessible guy. (One person emailed me a few weeks ago, saying, "I heard from a friend you respond to emails from normal people." I thought that was funny. But it was encouraging to me. It said to me, "Some bloggers/authors don't take time to respond to readers, but a friend said you're accessible.") But I don't have time to get into fruitless debates with argumentative people.
Here's how I know when a disputation is vain and how you might, also:
1) The critic's rhetoric increases in "heat." He is not being calmed, even in disagreement. He is being exercised. That's not edifying for either party.
2) The critic hops from charge to charge, creating new ones out of thin air, so that you enter an apparently endless cycle of being asked to defend against straw men.
3) You find that denying you believe a certain thing is no hindrance to being charged with believing it.
4) It becomes evident your critic cannot understand what you are saying, even after you've said it in several different ways, as clearly as you can. This could indeed be your fault in failing and failing to express yourself clearly, but in any event, it's evident they don't understand you. If neither party can re-state the other's stance to the other's satisfaction, fruitful debate is a non-starter. (This is why when Zach Hoag and I did that point/counterpoint synchroblog, we agreed on a thesis for him to affirm and I to deny. We knew that would make for a fruitful disagreement. It would make no sense for me to just craft some thesis I wanted to attribute to him, whether he would affirm it or not, and vice versa.)
I don't believe the answer to online critics, as some prominent pastors seem to insist, is to completely ignore them. Bloggers/authors/pastors are not above being challenged, being criticized. We don't exist in a vacuum. We shouldn't pretend we reside up on high, dispensing our posts and tweets to the masses as if elevated above having to answer for what we say.
At the same time, however, once one begins taking the time to respond to criticism, one may learn quickly why some opt to ignore critics altogether.