At 10:36 PM on Thursday, August 25, 2016, I was blocked from the popular Facebook group, Christian Bloggers Network. At over 9,000 members, CBN is a conglomeration of bloggers from all corners of the Christian faith; a place where such well-known bloggers as John Pavlovitz and Jory Micah regularly share their work.
The group has often been a source of controversy, a place where Jory Micah and myself were once kicked out for espousing non-complementarian views of gender.* It is notorious for lack of moderation, and there have been multiple periods in which trolls simply seemed to run free without fear of consequence. But it has also proven, for many of us trying to establish a foothold in the blogging world, a good place to connect with and learn from other like-minded bloggers.
The posting guidelines have always been fairly free-form, with diverse conversation encouraged even on controversial topics. So, even though we could expect opposition, many of us chose to post there because it gave us opportunity to expose the corruption and hate seemingly endemic to the broader conservative Christian culture which dominates the American church.
However, recently the group has taken a turn for the worse. This month, the group was handed over to a new administrator, Derick Dickens. With this appointment, there were promises of better moderation of comments and an end to the hostile and often abusive behavior of a small but exceptionally vocal group of trolls. These promises proved entirely empty in the following statement by Derick Dickens:
While Dickens claims he is only acting in the best interest of the group, a quick look at the evidence demonstrates he is being anything but straightforward here. He is serving a personal agenda of bias and denigration.
Before I take a look at the controversy itself, it is important to take a moment to determine: Who, precisely, is Derick Dickens? In answering this question, I decided do some research. The following seems relevant to the conversation.
According to Dickens’ Facebook profile he is a Presbyterian and “confessionally reformed Christian” who wishes to distinguish himself from “Liberals, Catholics, and Evangelicals.” He is a speaker, a professor, and a “Gospel Minister.” He has graduated from Liberty University, including an MBA, and is currently pursuing a PhD in Industrial and Organizational Psychology. Dickens’ LinkedIn profile lists him as a leadership expert.
This is more than a little vague, but conservative non-evangelical Reformed Presbyterian certainly indicates he is likely to be decidedly antagonistic toward the LGBT community. A look at his blogging history quickly confirmed this.
Dickens has written blatantly anti-LGBT posts on the Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood site.
For instance, Dickens openly supported the homophobic rhetoric of Phil Robertson of Duck Dynasty. I found it particularly telling how Dickens chose to spin this article.
Instead of analyzing the actual words of Robertson, Dickens chose to focus his attentions on how much “liberals” are supposedly persecuting and abusing Christians. In doing so, he intentionally ignores that in the same GQ interview in question, Robertson also said the following:
I never, with my eyes, saw the mistreatment of any black person. Not once. Where we lived was all farmers. The blacks worked for the farmers. I hoed cotton with them. I’m with the blacks, because we’re white trash. We’re going across the field…. They’re singing and happy. I never heard one of them, one black person, say, I tell you what: These doggone white people—not a word!… Pre-entitlement, pre-welfare, you say: Were they happy? They were godly; they were happy; no one was singing the blues. (source)
Let that sink in for a second. Dickens’ hatred of the LGBT community is so strong, he fights to paint Robertson as an upstanding Christian man targeted and persecuted for his faith. In doing so, he conveniently glosses over the fact that Robertson called black persons in the Jim Crow South “happier” and “godlier” than the “entitled” black community of today, which has apparently been heathenized by welfare.
To further put that in perspective, Phil Robertson believes that the black community was better off when schools, restaurants, restrooms, drinking fountains, and public services were all segregate – a time when black persons were not permitted to vote. Robertson, born in 1946, was nearly 20 years old when the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was passed.
Further Dickens once said a transgender man’s only hope to find sanity is in the cross of Christ. This transgender man was H. Adam Ackley, who at the time had chosen to transition from female to male while on the theological faculty of Azusa Pacific University – a decision which led to his dismissal. That is, Dickens refused to call Ackley a man, referring to him in the feminine multiple times before questioning his faith, calling him an unrepentant sinner, and saying he needed to pursue sanity.
Despite the fact that Ackley was fired as a result of gender discrimination, Dickens maintained there was nothing wrong with firing him and that, in fact, criticism of Azusa Pacific’s actions among Christians served to diminish the Gospel. He also argued that “transgenderism” is evil because it violates a Christian worldview, which mandates “biblical” gender roles (read complementarianism).
Posts such as these provide a telling window into the prejudice involved in Dickens’ management of the Christian Blogger’s Network.
It is no coincidence, then, that the current controversy centers around the topic of LGBT equality within the Church. Several LGBT bloggers and their allies have been outspoken with their views and shared blog posts and general opinions accordingly. These posts were met with a flurry of abusive comments as well as antagonistic counter posts. As tensions continued to escalate, the moderators were forced to make a decision.
Laura Haines – blogger and LGBT ally – pushed to enforce the existing commenting guidelines, which seem more than adequate for dealing with things like name calling, insults, inflammatory rhetoric, and attempts to derail the conversation with other various forms of trolling behavior.
Provisions for dealing with such behavior can clearly be seen in these screenshots.
However, Dickens and other members of the moderating team decided to instead outlaw all discussion, issuing the statement pictured above. As I read this statement, a number of inconsistencies stood out to me.
1. The group has an explicit policy that all persons be called by their preferred labels. As an example, the policy asks that someone wishing to have their faith labeled as complementarian be referred to as such – hardly an accidental choice of words given his CBMW affiliation. It is troubling, then, for the administrator of the group to refer to all LGBT persons as “homosexual.” In doing so, he not only refers to gay and lesbian persons in a manner many consider offensive, he also entirely erases bisexual, transgender, pansexual, intersex, asexual, polysexual, agender, and gender queer persons. This statement entirely violates the commenting policies of the group.
Already Derick Dickens has shown he pays a respect to people within his own camp that he denies to the LGBTQ+ community. This point alone is enough to argue that the entire statement is rife with blatant and unrepentant prejudice.
2. If Dickens truly wanted to promote fruitful and edifying conversation, it would behoove him to enforce the rules he created for the group. Instead, he chose to embrace the narrative of those participating in abuse and insult by banning all conversation. It is simply inconceivable to ban a conversation for being heated and thus not “fruitful” while refusing to do the basic work necessary to ensure the conversation remains civil in the first place.
3. It is never in the best interest of a group for leaders to succumb to the wishes of the most abusive and belligerent members. As administrator, Dickens and those moderators who have remained loyal to him, have made it known that any conversation that these trolls deem undesirable can be completely silenced by creating a heated and insulting exchange, then claiming the topic – and not their own abhorrent behavior – is the problem. For a leadership expert, this seems the opposite of sound judgment.
The reality is, Dickens’ did not give into trolls because he had no choice. Instead, it appears he has taken the opportunity presented by controversy to silence a conversation in order to force the group to align with his own personal theology.
While it is certainly his prerogative to do so, the dishonest way in which he has gone about this demonstrates that this is not simply a matter of “peacemaking” but of exercising personal prejudices under the auspices of “moderation.”
Laura Haines’ Letter of Dissent
Among the moderators, Laura Haines was the one person who opposed Dickens’ decision. Laura is a fellow blogger and LGBTQ+ ally. Below I have reproduced her letter of dissent with her permission.
As several others pointed out, the problem was not the topic or the level of engagement it inspired, but the hostile behavior of a handful of folks who chose to engage in disrespectful and trollish behavior. Moderation of this unacceptable behavior was only 11 days long. And we were all in agreement with moderating and discouraging such, alongside of encouraging respectful discourse and promoting of what others were sharing from their blogs. We are less than 2 weeks out from the installment of active admin and moderators. A learning curve is to be expected. We assured everyone we would not be making sweeping changes, we would simply be moderating for “blatant misconduct” while still “grant[ing] levity in discussions.” We agreed that “the purpose of this group [was] to engage people [with whom] we may disagree.” And this recent decision flies in the face of all of that. I echo the sentiments of John Van Randen and Peter Dunn that it feels like a “slap in the face” and “a case of bait and switch.”
What about members like Zoe Rose? What about Mark Buzard? Both are LGBTQ. Both are Christian. Both have actively participated here. And now we are going to restrict their freedom to even blog post here about something that is very much a part of them and how they live out their life of faith.
Further, it is a demeaning insinuation that all our members here are a bunch of children who require our parenting or a church congregation that requires our shepherding, when neither here is true. We are big boys and girls. Adults. Yes, we should be expected to behave as such and encouraged to. Like Jory Micah said, “If someone can’t handle a heated convo, that is their personal problem to work through.” As moderators, we can inform adults that they can personally turn off notifications for or hide posts they don’t care to see or engage in. We can remind and encourage adults to scroll and look for the blogs and topics that do appeal to them, cuz they’re there. And when one of us resorts to unacceptable behavior, it is reasonable to expect that consequences would be administered for that one. That’s how we treat adults, and how adults should expect to be treated. To now insinuate and treat everyone like children is demeaning and offensive.
Jory Micah said it best, “While I greatly appreciate you taking over this group, Derick, I don’t think this is a fair call whatsoever. I would be highly upset if you said, ‘We are going to stop talking about Christian feminism for a while because it is causing too much of a stir and taking over the group.’ All subjects we are working through, as the body of Christ, will cause a stir. You are shutting down a crucial conversation that both conservative and progressive Christians need to work through. As the leader of this group, your job should be to correct individuals who are being disrespectful and maybe even block them if they won’t stop, but to shut down an entire subject, is to be a controlling leader, friend. It’s not fair and I am very disappointed by this call.”
Like Jory and others who respectfully voiced their opinion regarding this huge change, this indefinite banning of the topic of homosexuality and conversations about it is a “bad leadership call for this group” and “breaks down trust of the leaders.” And I agree further with her statement that “the initial restriction is wrong and will only lead to more wrong restrictions. I hope Derick can be a humble leader and admit this wrong call. We all make mistakes as leaders. There is no shame in retraction of unfair rules and statements.”
I understand you are resolute, Derick. However, I’m hoping you’ll be open-minded and hearted enough to consider the thoughtful and respectful dissents offered and reconsider your decision. Particularly when there are less invasive ways to accomplish your/our personal goals/vision for the group, a number of which have been suggested by both sides.
You brought me on as a moderator knowing full well that we would not always see eye to eye but that we could still agree to strongly disagree. This is one of those times. And it’s a big one. Please consider and consider again.
Laura has also provided me with a portion of dialogue between she and Dickens. Out of respect for the confidentiality expected in a moderator’s forum, Laura has provided only her side of the conversation. Below I have provided excerpts from this conversation which demonstrate the ways in which Laura caught Dicken’s in dishonest and deeply arrogant rhetoric. Where a comment has been shortened, elipses will be used to mark my edit. Neither wording nor punctuation have been changed.
- […] Those of us who are free in Christ are preaching freedom to the captives, including LGBTQ people, welcoming them to the fellowship hall of grace, and there are folks in this hall who don’t like it, won’t stand for it, and want us put out, so they call us heretics, lawless, sin-affirmers, and try to shame us for daring to call out their intolerance (which is what bigotry is)!! And you, who as a pastor is supposed to know better, are kowtowing to the worst behaved among our own little legalist/separatist group, and instead of publicly admonishing them for their awful behavior, you’re siding with them, sitting with them, and silencing the freed in Christ, forcing them to keep silent on their freedom and the gospel message they have for LGBTQ people. That you fail to see the distortion of the true doctrine and gospel of Christ in that is as astonishing to me […]
- You give yourself way too much credit and authority. You are an admin of a forum. You are not these members’ pastor or “shepherd”! And outside of providing a relatively safe environment in which to share blogs and share in discussions within the guidelines stated up front, they do not and should not see themselves as being under your “care” or spiritual headship. Holy cow, Derick? That’s way above your pay-grade here and not what these folks are signing on for! That is seriously disturbing. More disturbing than a 2000 year old debate about what Scripture does and doesn’t say
- The ones who haven’t figured out yet that your “cooling off” time is indefinite, or as you said “quite a while,” are not upset yet, but they will be. And I may as well tell you that I now have my doubts that you’ll ever lift that ban.
- Again, no one has joined this CBN forum to come under your spiritual direction or spiritual headship. This exemplifies yet again your well-overblown and worrisome view of yourself in this role.
- Fairness is absolutely biblical. God abhors dishonest scales and favoritism and upholds justice. While we seek to oppress the weak and marginalize those we deem as less than, God’s plan is to correct that ugly imbalance by making the last, first, and letting those formerly shut out, in, and putting the shutter-outers out.
- Your timeframe is indefinite. There is a huge difference between a 2 hour cooling off period and an indefinite one […] When you’ve been asked how long you intend to “pause” all conversation on this topic, you avoid giving a time or timeframe. “Quite a while” or some vague and subjective ideal of waiting until a “new norm” or “new culture” is established are indefinite answers and are again telling. Disturbingly so.
- You had some from “my side” agree with the “pause” when they believed it was simply a pause that would be unpaused relatively shortly. Now that these same folks are starting to realize that’s not the case, they are no longer going to be in agreement with you. And rightfully so. No surprise at all that so many from “your side” agree with your call. They’re the ones who routinely lose their little legalistic nuts over anything LGBTQ, or egalitarian, or “worldly”, or anything that doesn’t have a bible verse in it. To the point of displaying hostility and unacceptable behavior toward their fellow contributors and we who tried to moderate such unacceptable behavior. And yet, rather than focus on fixing the problem of unacceptable behavior, you chose to focus on the issue of homosexuality as a whole and ban all discussion of it indefinitely, giving the worst behaved among you exactly what they’ve wanted from the start.
From these excerpts it is quite clear that Dickens has fashioned himself the authoritative spiritual leader of the Christian Bloggers Network without so much as asking any members their feelings on this. Further, while peddling a “short” break from discussion, he clearly intends to uphold the ban for “quite a while” until a “new norm” is established. But as his own work above shows, Dickens openly opposes any such “new norm.”
He saw his opportunity, and utilized the oppressive and abusive comments of a handful of belligerent persons to silence all discussion of LGBT equality because he does not believe LGBT persons deserve to be treated as equals. Quite literally, he has chosen to silence the abused persons while supporting and uplifting their believers.
Again, his CBMW affiliations prove influential on his leadership style. Just as CBMW has backed Together for the Gospel, the conference started and headlined by CJ Mahaney – a pastor who has been unrepentant over his involvement in a conspiracy to silence victims of sex abuse while keeping their abusers in positions of power and privilege within his church. In fact, the current president of CBMW, Denny Burk, has openly and unabashedly given his assent to statements which imply that the victims’ testimonies are unreliable or entirely false. It seems Dickens is bringing the culture of “confessing Reformed” (Read:Neo Calvinist) Christianity to Christian Bloggers Network.
Before being blocked from the group, I entered into a comment thread on a post by moderator Laura Prater. In this post, Prater sought to remind the group what topics were considered off-limits. This post was met with protest by several members, including myself. As I entered this comment thread, I decided to test precisely how the conversation ban would be applied.
As such, I submitted the following three posts for consideration for the Christian Bloggers Network Facebook page. All three were denied – again, I am forced to wonder if Dickens ties to CBMW played any role in the denials.
At the same time I was submitting these posts, I had the following conversation with Laura Prater.
Prater refused to answer any questions regarding application of the “rule” forbidding LGBTQ related posts. When I continued to press her she deleted the entire comment thread.
However, as she had not removed me from the group, I chose to press forward. This time I questioned the removal of the thread, and was met by Dickens himself. At which point the following conversation occurred.
Notice here that Dickens juxtaposes “pro-Marriage” with “pro-homosexuality.” This juxtaposition again indicates his blatant antagonism toward the LGBTQ+ community. After I called him on his supposed “defense” of the rule, I noticed that all three of the above mentioned posts had been denied approval. I then posted the following comment:
I received no reply to this comment, and was instead blocked and, according to sources, all of my comments were removed.
This is not the behavior of persons looking to give anyone time to “cool-off.” This is blatant censorship of any person unwilling to fall in line with Dickens rather authoritarian view of his own “pastoral” role over Christian Bloggers Network. Dickens has proven himself to cut from the same cloth as men like Mark Driscoll, CJ Mahaney, and Darrin Patrick – all men well-known for their abusive “leadership” tactics.
Sadly, Dickens actions here represent nothing more than the system of oppressive ideology which is currently driving the ship of conservative Christian culture. The question is, when will we stop allowing men like this to bully us into silence and complacency. Like so many leaders before him, Derick Dickens has demonstrated his leadership is driven by prejudice and a desire to exercise his own privilege in an abusive and authoritarian fashion.
I am reminded of Jesus’ words in Matthew 20, when he tells his disciples that they should eschew tyrannical forms of leadership which seek to Lord authority over others and disenfranchise them. He directly juxtaposes this type of leadership with his own ministry, and with his impending actions in the cross. As such I feel confident in saying that to seek authoritarian rule over other human beings, as Dickens has done, is an action in competition with the command to imitate Christ in his crucified kenosis (Phil 2:1-11). One cannot be a “Gospel Minister” while using privilege and prejudice to disenfranchise other persons.
**Cover Image from http://www.adweek.com/socialtimes/files/2013/12/twitter-blocked-policy.jpg**
*We were later reinstated.