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I noticed this comment:

This is not something that can be authoritatively answered by strangers on the Internet. The only people that can speak for your church is it's local leadership. You should ask this of your churches pastor or elders and get their advice on how you should proceed.

The quote goes on to say:

Different churches will have different approaches to how do deal with diversity of theological positions inside their fellowship.

I'll lay my cards on the table. I agree with the second passage. I disagree with the first.

If I told you that any MIT, Harvard, Oxford, or Pune graduate is ipso facto "smarter" than you, would you accept it? Of course you wouldn't! While those schools produce many smart people, the majority of the world's "smart" people didn't attend any of these schools!

Likewise, if I told you that only ordained ministers may counsel you on how to live a virtuous life, would you accept it? Conversely, if I told you that you may, without qualification, trust the wisdom of every ordained minister, because, ipso facto, they are men and women of God, would you trust me?

Accordingly, I can't understand what uniquely disqualifies "strangers on the Internet" from providing sound advice backed by reputable sources (like the Bible and the saints).

So my question is:

How are "Strangers on the Internet" less legitmate than people you meet in real life?

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    I think it's the strangers part, not the internet part, that disqualifies us from answering pastoral advice questions. – 3961 Dec 10 '14 at 1:34
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    This community has clearly expressed their disagreement with your sentiment here. Please stop posting links to this on newcommer's pastoral advice questions. We have a very clear cut guideline about how to comment on those posts and repeatedly arguing this on newbie questions is contrary to how the community wants to see those questions handled. If you can't convince the folks active here on meta, antagonizing the main site every time the subject comes up is not an option. Please desist. – Caleb Feb 10 '15 at 6:07
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I think the issue is that for pastoral advice problems, the authority that is needed is a relational one. When you're having a life crisis you need someone who knows you and your situation, who knows your history, who knows your past failures and successes in the fight against sin, who will be there in the future to help and check up on you. People on this site can't do that.

Note that this close reason is generally applied to new users. Regulars may feel that they have developed such relationships with others on the site, and sometimes use chat to get advice.

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    +1: That's very fair. – Jim G. Dec 10 '14 at 1:15
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    Also, @JimG. too, I'd like to point out that sometimes people "looking for advice" prefer strangers so that they can get the answer they want instead of the answer they need. – 3961 Dec 10 '14 at 1:35
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    @fredsbend: Sometimes that's true, but sometimes strangers are better because strangers can be frank without fear of harming a relationship. – Jim G. Dec 10 '14 at 2:55
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    @JimG. Strangers don't have all the facts, merely because they are strangers. – 3961 Dec 10 '14 at 8:16
  • @fredsbend: en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Straw_man – Jim G. Dec 10 '14 at 12:36
  • @JimG. You can't just ominously link to an article about a logical fallacy. You need to show one exists. – 3961 Dec 10 '14 at 14:18
  • @fredsbend:When did I say that strangers "have all the facts" simply because they are strangers? ;-) – Jim G. Dec 11 '14 at 0:01
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    @JimG. True, you did not say that. But you also did not concede that they don't have all the facts. Do you deny that strangers not having all the facts is a problem? If you do then our debate continues. If you don't then we agree that strangers are not as well equipped as friends to assist with pastoral advice. All that remains is to debate the degree to which they are not as well equipped. – 3961 Dec 11 '14 at 0:05
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It's not a matter of whether or not they're qualified, it's whether or not it's wise to trust strangers on the Internet.

In addition to curiousdannii's good answer, there are some general reasons for being skeptical of being able to trust the advice of people in a discussion forum, or a site like this:

  • The web as a means of communication is far lacking compared to personal interaction. The ability to evaluate the sincerity and trustworthiness of an individual is hindered when non-verbal communication, such as eye contact, body language, voice inflection, and others are removed. It becomes harder to tell if someone is putting you on simply because those cues are missing.
  • In addition to honesty, it's easier to evaluate someone's knowledge in person or on the phone. On this site, you ask one question, get an answer to it, and that's it. In person, you can ask follow-up questions. Admittedly, that's an option for a discussion forum, so the argument isn't as strong there, but it still holds water. Even in a discussion forum, conversation is different than in person or on the phone. Again, the nonverbal clues that help us to evaluate sincerity also help us to evaluate competency to a better degree than is possible online.
  • I can't find any right now, but I know there have been studies to show that people are more likely to lie online, where they are semi-anonymous. Not everyone is fool enough to use their real name in sites like this.

The bottom line is that with a legitimate understanding that there are inherent flaws in online communication compared to face-to-face interaction, it comes down to a simple "you really don't know who you're dealing with". That's fine if you want reviews of cameras, or even sports cars. Probably OK for ideas for recipes, crafts, etc. I mean, you make a dessert that tastes nasty, so what? Lesson learned.

However, this site deals with Christianity, issues that we Christians believe have eternal consequences. We're not talking a junker car that has the transmission go out after 1000 miles, we're talking an eternity of unimaginable torture. (At least that's what many of us believe.)

The amount of risk you're willing to take is directly affected by the consequences of making the wrong choice.

  • If you told me to flip a coin and if it lands on tails, I have to suck on a lemon, but if it lands on heads, I get a nice juicy steak, I'll take that risk.
  • Tell me that if I win the coin toss and I get a million dollars, but if I lose, my child dies, and I'm going to tell you to buzz off, no way.

So the risk here in getting bad advice is high. From my perspective, an eternity in Hell means that I'm going to be darned careful on who I seek advice from. Why would I trust someone who has no personal connection to me, who has never met me, may be an idiot or a liar, and I can't even tell if they can look me in the eye when they give the advice? No thanks.

Granted, not all personal advice here is a matter of doctrine to the level of eternal security, but some of them are pretty steep in the earthly potential risks. I've seen people asking for marriage advice, suicidal posts, and others that are just too important to trust to faceless strangers. Those people need to be sure they can trust the person they're talking to.

Also, specific to OUR site, there are a lot of people with differing opinions. How are they supposed to know which is right? It's a dilemma discussed in Another reason this is not a Christian site When you go seeking advice on the internet, it's really easy for smart people and bozos alike to pipe up and give advice at varying levels of value, and again, there's that whole lack of visual cues to help you know which advice or at least which person to trust.

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In addition to the spot-on points made in David's and curiousdannii's answers, I'd like to note one more issue that is in play here.

Part of the question scope is the particular local church being attended. As such only the people responsible for that local church are in a position to make judgment calls about their beliefs and practices.

There used to be a stock close reason on the SE network called "too localized" that was great for these, but the pastoral advice reason we use includes an element of this. Only the specific local church in question is in a position to make the necessary judgment calls. Even in an elder from the church being attended were to come on here, the resulting answer would not be useful to other visitors around the world as their authoritative answer would only be binding inside their local congregations.

Besides not being in a position to know the specific rules of that church and how they deal with communion, strangers on the Internet (no matter how smart they may be) are also not in a position to know—really know—the personal issues involved. Effective counseling must take into consideration more factors that a single question in the words of the one being counseled. That's certainly part of it, but the rest of everything is not there. That's part of what churches are (or should be) equipped to do that a Q&A site like this one makes no pretenses at replacing.

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