From time to time I get questions about the legitimacy of certain Christian websites and online articles. I’m thankful for this on two levels: first, Christians are researching and studying; second, they are asking me, a trained and ordained pastor, for guidance in studies. Those are good things!
At the same time, I have to say I’ve become skeptical of many “Christian” websites. It seems to me that for every solid Christian website, there are three mediocre ones and many more cultic, heretical, and extremist “Christian” websites on top of the mediocre ones. In today’s American religious and political climate, you can find websites arguing that the president is the antichrist, that the NKJV (or NIV, ESV, NLT, etc.) is of the devil, that the swine flu is the fulfillment of some obscure verse in Ezekiel, that Satan has taken over some city council, that four comets in the last four hundred years have to do with the New World Order, and the like (not to mention all the conspiracy theories out there!). These websites are the online religious equivalent to those tabloid newspapers that talk about celebrities having alien babies.
In light of these crazy websites, I like what Andreas Kostenberger has to say about diligence, studies, and the Christian life. “Our goal is to please God through excellent scholarship, rightly handling his Word of truth, and diligences is a necessary virtue for the accomplishment of that goal” (Excellence, p. 94). And more:
“Diligence requires thoroughness rather than superficiality. Look at several sources on a given issue. It is certainly not possible, nor always necessary, to be exhaustive, but you should be comprehensive in looking at all sides of an issue instead of being selective in your use of evidence” (ibid., p. 95).
Of course Kostenberger wasn’t specifically talking about online research when he wrote, but his discussion is valid for it. Also, his chapter on wisdom and scholarship is very helpful for this topic of online research. “The wise scholar will be careful not to go out on a limb with risky, improbable theories” (p. 181). In light of these chapters of Kostenberger on diligence and wisdom, here’s a basic guide on evaluating websites. These are some questions to ask when considering the validity of “Christian” websites. (Please note this guide is a work in progress; I offer it here for reflection and comment.)
First, what is the religious, denominational, and educational background of the website author or ministry leader? Find out the background of the author(s), and it will help you see where he’s coming from in his writing. For example, if you read an online article about Israel and America and find out the author is a member of the Worldwide Church of God Restored, you’ll know he’s not coming from a historic Christian perspective. Or, if you like what one website says about abortion and home schooling, but the theology behind the website is legalistic, patriotic, and theonomic, you’ll know the views are not necessarily confessional in the Reformed/Presbyterian sense of the term.
Second, what are the belief statements of the website ministry/author? If there aren’t any written ones, don’t use the website. Most of the time they are minimalistic, saying they affirm the inerrancy of the Bible. However, this affirmation doesn’t give the author freedom to speak authoritatively about the relationship of the Cold War to Jeremiah’s prophecies; nor does it give the author the right to condemn Christian schools, shopping at Wal-Mart, or drinking a Starbucks latte. I’ve noticed that solid Christians sometimes trust and utilize websites with quasi-Christian belief statements and bizarre political/social views; I believe this is a big inconsistency in the Christian life.
Third, what accountability does the ministry or ministry leader have? Is the website hosted by one man/woman with no accountability to elders, creeds, confessions, or denominational standards? Are the online articles proof-read by peers or some type of editors? Don’t use it if there is no accountability. Maverick theology is typically not orthodox theology; internet theologians often do more damage than good. Also remember that just because the “ministry” has a (self) publishing wing doesn’t mean the books they publish are quality monographs that have been peer-reviewed, edited, and gone through the time-tested path to print.
Fourth, does the website or author major in the minors? In other words, does he/she have a hobby horse that is constantly being promoted? Some websites attempt to make matters of Christian liberty into matters of orthodoxy (i.e. political views, Bible translation, boycotts, child-rearing, schooling, etc.), which is essentially legalism. Does the author find his hobby horse in every verse in Scripture or in every political position, newspaper article, or TV show? Hobby horse theology is typically not confessional theology but instead is often one big step on the path to denying Christian liberty.
Finally, I’d recommending using Google as little as possible when doing biblical/theological research. Google’s methodology in finding websites might be helpful in some areas, but not theology. Google works with clicks and cash; good theology isn’t determined by popularity or money, but by Scripture as read and interpreted in and with the historic Christian church. The top search results on Google are not necessarily the best sources for research and study. Rather than Google, email your pastor, elder, or another wise/mature Christian and ask them where they would recommend getting reading material on a certain subject. Or, look for information on websites whose authors are accountable to elders, creeds/confessions, and/or denominational standards.
As I’ve said here before, I actually do very little research online, and when I do it, I stick to websites like CCEL.org, monergism.com, puritanlibrary.com, and opc.org – excellent sites which host previously edited and published documents that have been digitized. My policy for online research is that if I wouldn’t cite something in a scholarly essay, I shouldn’t use it as an authoritative source in my studies. [Concerning this blog, you’ll notice that we are ministers who subscribe to the Reformed Creeds and Confessions and answer to a plurality of elders. Furthermore, most of our blogging simply consists of quotes from published books that we recommend for your further Christian studies.]
In summary, the ninth commandment should instruct us in the area of online biblical and theological research. Christians should be a people who love the truth, know the truth, and seek the truth in all areas of life – internet research included. Freedom of speech doesn’t mean everything out there is good! To be blunt, I believe it is foolish and dangerous for Christians to get political, social, and theological views from “Christian” websites that are religiously sectarian, heterodox, and even heretical. To end on a positive note, we can all be thankful for good websites which clearly promote and submit to the truths of historic, orthodox Christianity. Those are the ones we should be utilizing.
If interested, here are some older blog posts on the related topic of technology and the Christian life: Christian Virtue and Technology, Internet Moderation and Online Research, The Internet and Our Brains, and Getting an MDiv Online.
Comments are welcome, as always (but remember courtesy).