According to the FAQ, Christianity.StackExchange is for

"any group that identifies themselves as Christian are to be considered on-topic"

Additionally, it seems to pretty well established that we care about theology, and that:

  1. Theological claims must be backed by an external corpus that is accessible to critics and adherents alike.
  2. That new theology is off-topic here, and may not be introduced here first.

Given these criteria, what is the minimum bar for establishing the theology of a group?

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4 Answers

up vote 5 down vote accepted

Numerous times when this issue has come up, we have bounced around the suggestion that an absolute minimum bar would be at least one personal blog describing the theology in question. Frankly, I think this is an absurdly low bar. While it may be what we practically enforce (by down/delete votes as non-answers), the bar we aim for should be much higher.

The personal blog idea is really only useful for theological points. I think the absolute minimum bar for defining a "group" (sect/denominatin/tradition, etc) would be two references to their existece, at least one of which has to be third party. If you can't collect enough references to launch a Wikipedia article describing the existence of a group, then that group (whether or not it in fact exists) has no place on this site.

These references could be one article, page, site or other resource published by the group in question and one other site even just mentioning that they exist. Obviously the quality of something that only this minimum bar would be doubious, but it seems like a reasonable safeguard against people using this as a personal soapbox by claiming to speak for a body that doesn't exist or have any reasonable boundaries.

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I especially like your definition of "two references to their existence" and "enough references to launch a wikipedia article" –  Affable Geek Nov 2 '12 at 14:03
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In chat, a very generous minimum bar was proposed - that claims must be sourced on a blog. Unfortunately, we have found that at least one user has attempted to game the system by merely copying and pasting the same words to pastebin. Clearly, this violates the spirit of that law.

Minimum Standards for being "established" theology or an established group

I would propose that at least two of the following minimum bars must be met for theological claims:

  1. Because this site focuses on groups and not individuals, I would argue that some demonstrably evidence of "group" must be in place.

    This means that the theology being produced is first and foremost for the consumption of a target group of willing individuals. This could be evidenced either by a position as the leader of a congregation of some form (e.g. every pastor or priest who has or had a functioning congregation, by definition, is creating theology in that context during services) or by virtue of published work that is used by third parties to address issues (e.g. any theological author, from Iraneaus to Lewis to McLaren.)

    If there is sufficient evidence to prove to wikipedia that a group exists, then it is "representative of Christian groups' beliefs".

    Note: From here on out, the phrase "representative of Christian groups' beliefs" means it is representative of the belief of a Christian groups belief. This is not to imply it is widely held or representative of the "mainstream," but as long as it is properly identified, the answer would considered to be representative of a type of Christian that is on-topic for this site.

  2. Theology being referenced needs to be primarily from an external source. Ideally this should be from a printed work, such as a book, a sermon series, or at minimum a blog that addresses the full spectrum of a systematic theology. Note that books, sermons series, or single-issue advocacy positions do not require a full systematic theology, but in order to be considered "widely held," one should be available. If no systematic theology is available, any reference to the claimant group should be identified as "not widely-held". Absent this or other factors, it is not "representative of Christian groups' beliefs."

    Note: Some theology - in particular groups that coalesce around single issues may not have fully developed systematic theologies. Sojourners, for example, a liberal advocacy group that is theological in nature, or "the emerging church" may not have a single systematic theology. Their existence, however, is attested to by statements of principle that frame the issues on which they speak. Jim Wallis (Sojourners) views on caring for the poor would thus be completely "representative of a Christian group's beliefs". His views on eschatalogy would not be considered representative of a "group" unless if it were demonstrated that his views conformed to that of another sect that had a defined statement on the subject.

    If a manifesto describing the common core values around which a group exists, or if there are academics (note the plural) with doctoral degrees in relevant fields who can attest to their existence in a third party manner, then the group still exists.

  3. Anybody with a demonstrably available systematic is inarguably on-topic

    Ideally, the following topics should be addressed:

    • The Nature of God
    • The Nature of Man
    • The Nature of Salvation
    • The Nature of Revelation (i.e. the status of the Bible)
    • The Eschatalogical implications of the above.

    Of the bars, this is the highest - but if this can be shown, then the group / sect / whatever is "representative of Christian groups' beliefs."

  4. In the same way that "general knowledge" need not be footnoted, not every theologian referenced need to have this actually shown, but rather it should be assumed that it could be shown. In other words, to claim that Martin Luther (or even Martin Luther King, Jr.!) is "representative of Christian groups' beliefs", one need not actually answer each part of a full systematic theology - one merely need demonstrate that it is possible to do so. Resources are available, for example, to prove that a complete theology exists for every theologian mentioned in this article.

    • If we need to establish a rule, I would argue that if 5 users with more 1000 reputation are familiar with the broad outline of a theologian's work, it is "representative of Christian groups' beliefs". Alternatively, if there is a wikipedia entry edited by at least two users, it is "representative of Christian groups' beliefs".
    • Any less, and a request can be made to prove notability. Such a request should be done in a meta post, asking the question, "Is there an examinable systemmatic theology for [INSERT GROUP HERE]?" By default, there would be an answer of "No." If the "No" answer receives five more votes than the "Yes" answer, the candidate "group" shall be definitively not "representative of Christian groups' beliefs".

Absent at least two of these minimums bars, I would argue that a theology is "too localized," is "personal" (not group), and is most likely subject to being "novel," "peculiar," or "innovative." The criteria above should exhaustively apply to all groups "representative of Christian groups' beliefs." Absent these factors, answers should be remediated in some fashion.

Proposed Remediation

Being off-topic does not mean that members of the group may not participate - it only means that material may be subject to remediation as described here: What should we do with answers that don't meet the minimum threshhold of Christian *group*?

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I agree this is how it SHOULD work, but I think #1 is a little too strong for a minimum bar. I say that specifically because a few very well definined and popularly held theological systems put so much energy into focusing on one issue that they have almost nothing to say about other relevant areas that theology SHOULD speak to. Quite often specific heterodox teachings (on topic here) are single-issue affairs and part of how we know them to be false is seeing how they cannot reasonably be fit into a systematic theology. –  Caleb Nov 2 '12 at 13:55
    
You are right, let me think if I can formulate a way of dealing with single-issue groups. –  Affable Geek Nov 2 '12 at 13:58
    
Much improved. The only nit-pick I can see now is that the wording "on-topic" is confusing because that tends to make the most sense in regard to questions. Obviously we use that line to nix answers from other non Christian religious standpoints. The sticky one we are trying to address here is the case of oddball questions that ask things like "do any denominations believe X" where the only possible answers are heterodox minorities. –  Caleb Nov 2 '12 at 20:48
    
The line we are trying to draw is when we can say that a minority doesn't even count as a valid answer to a "Does anybody?" question, so it's less an issue of "topic" and more an issue of ... not sure what wording we should use but do you catch my drift? Validity perhaps? –  Caleb Nov 2 '12 at 20:48
    
I think maybe the term we are going for is "representative of Christian groups." I think it is fair to say answers must be "representative of Christian groups" but are invalid (and subject to remediation) if they are only "representative of individual opinion." What do you think about htat language? –  Affable Geek Nov 2 '12 at 20:54
    
I wonder if it there is a mechanism by which moderators / high rep users can mark answers as "Not representative of an established Christian group" and just leave that in the answer. –  Affable Geek Nov 2 '12 at 20:57
    
I'd be afraid of reversion war, but if it stood, it would really go a long way towards being both "not censoring" and still not deceptive (which all along has been my problem with individual opinions. –  Affable Geek Nov 2 '12 at 20:58
    
I think that's the language we're looking for here. I don't think we can get custom post-notices added (although we can ask), but we can always have it as a template to edit into the top of posts that have that issue. Howerver I think consistent downvoting and community delete votes are appropriate tools to make it clear those sort of things aren't what we're after here. I'm not sure editing wrong answers to note the fact that they are wrong because of mis-representation will get us very far. Not sure on that though, there could be something to it. –  Caleb Nov 2 '12 at 21:03
    
Calling for "separation of the question!" I agree, "What do we do about it" is separate from "What's wrong". I've raised this: meta.christianity.stackexchange.com/questions/1414/… to get there. –  Affable Geek Nov 2 '12 at 21:25
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I think the criterion as it stands is pretty clear. ANY group considering itself Christian is on topic. There don't have to be third-party references - we're not trying to write an encyclopaedia here. If the group exists (possibly, but not necessarily, evidenced by a church website or similar) then that's sufficient to make a question about that group on-topic here.

Obviously spoof questions are not on-topic. A question about the (made up) Christian Church of the Giant Pink Yeti would not be welcome here. But there are many newish church groups around whose existence and theology is not well documented - it would be absolutely wrong to exclude them from this site just because nobody has written a book or a blog post about them.

The exception is when we get into the theological differences between different local churches. Even in the big denominations there are many factions and interpretations, and every local church will have its own customs. We don't want to flood the site with questions about tiny congregations in the back of beyond - so I would say the bar we set shouldn't be about verifiability, but more about relevance. Essentially when we talk about "groups" we don't mean groups of people, we mean groups of groups of people.

Whether or not the question can be answered is a different matter - if nobody in our community knows about that group, then it's unlikely an answer will be quickly forthcoming. But highlighting gaps in our collective knowledge is no bad thing - it actually demonstrates a need that newer users might want to step up to the plate and try to meet.

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How do you deal with the "Church of One?" We have at least one user who "do[es] not believe in any recognized theology" but wants to call himself a "group." In my mind, that is a made up church too. The focus is not on the "any" but on the "group" –  Affable Geek Nov 9 '12 at 12:01
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There's absolutely nothing wrong with it. It's nice to see that you people are at least being honest now--you're not actually interested in creating a resource where people can learn about Christianity; you're interested in silencing forms of Christianity that make you uncomfortable. It's pretty clear who this "question" is directed towards. –  Steely Dan Nov 9 '12 at 14:51
    
Waggers the question we're trying to wrestle with here is not nearly so much whether or not real Christian groups qualify but what to do about one member groups that are basically no more established than The Christian Church of the Giant Pink Yeti. what would you propose doing with THOSE answers? "Obviously not welcome here" is a hint, but how do we go about challenging answers that in fact represent that "group"? –  Caleb Nov 12 '12 at 13:18
    
In mathematical terms it's possible to have a group of one, but that's not what most people understand by "group". A definition I found is "A number of people or things that are located close together or are considered or classed together." - not that it's "people" and "things" - ie, plural. I think we can safely discount "groups of one". –  Waggers Nov 13 '12 at 13:40
    
Then my group should be fine since there are now three of us, right? –  Steely Dan Nov 15 '12 at 0:29
    
Though, Caleb, I've noticed that you've now even abandoned the pretense of "Christian for the purposes of this site is whatever self-identifies as Christian" (I refer, of course, to your little "The content of this answer in no way represents the doctrinal position of any form of "Christianity" bit--didn't think I'd pick up on its nefarious implications, did you?) Nice to know that you're being even more and more open about your desire not to create a resource for learning and understanding but rather a tool to suppress forms of Christianity that make you uncomfortable. –  Steely Dan Nov 15 '12 at 0:30
    
@SteelyDan: See also comments starting here. The definition of Christianity itself has nothing to do with this problem, the question was about denominations/sects and one person without a name with no published work does not a denomination make. You and your two friends doesn't really make a denomination either. We're not in the business of suppressing ideas, but we are in the business of keeping things focused on an track. Answers must stick within the scope defined by the question. –  Caleb Nov 16 '12 at 9:39
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My personal preference would be to be liberal in what is accepted. The process of accepting answers and voting on questions and answers will inevitably consign what is obscure and uninteresting to a low rank; having a formal policy against such things seems to me to be more than what is needed. If an answer is based on the distinctive theology of the The Western Branch of American Reform Presbylutheranism, then that answer is unlikely to be accepted or upvoted. And a question based on such a distinctive theology is less likely to receive an answer than a question based in a theology of more significance. So why create a policy, when the nature of the site itself should be enough to deal with this problem already?

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We're not talking about policy here so much as guidelines. And the why is simple: Being too liberal with the noise reduces the apparent amount of signal. We're trying to attract and keep experts in the field, and when all they see when coming to the site is a bunch of blather about non-existent groups as if those groups were representative of Christianity, experts are just going to walk away. –  Caleb Nov 12 '12 at 13:20
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@Caleb, has this problem actually happened on the site yet? Or is it just a theoretical concern? If you feel it has actually happened more than just occasionally, can you link to specific examples of what you are concerned about? –  Zack Martin Nov 13 '12 at 8:47
    
It's a very real problem that's happened several times (both the steady stream of noise content from groups less identifiable than your TWBOARP, and the experts walking away because there wasn't enough serious content or because they just couldn't be bothered to contend with trolls or personal opinions.) This post happened in repsonse to conflict over how to deal with the latest instance of the former. –  Caleb Nov 13 '12 at 9:06
    
@Caleb: "the steady stream of noise content from groups less identifiable than your TWBOARP" - can you link to any specific examples? –  Zack Martin Nov 13 '12 at 9:27
    
Most of the relevant examples are currently deleted, and you need at least 2000 rep to view them. The case that sparked this and the follow up meta post is Steely Dan who has 15 deleted answers, pretty much all over the same issue: identifying as an unnamed denomination with no proof that such a denomination has any constituents other than himself. –  Caleb Nov 13 '12 at 9:38
    
Granted I can't read deleted stuff, but from what I can read, it seems to me that at least some of Steely Dan's posts could easily be linked to extant groups, but he doesn't make that link. For example, this post is basically expressing a New Age / New Thought concept of "Christ Consciousness" - his biggest problem seems to be he doesn't express himself very clearly –  Zack Martin Nov 13 '12 at 10:04
    
The posts that haven't gotten deleted aren't the problem. The post you link at least sort of matches the question, although I don't think clarity of expression is the issue so much as the tenuous nature of the link. If such a link were to be shown directly, the issue would be raised about whether those groups even claim to be Christian in a way that would make their theology relevant to this site. The problem we were trying to clarify is why the stuff we've been deleting doesn't belong. –  Caleb Nov 13 '12 at 10:10
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I think this answer is spot on - the inbuilt mechanics of the site are sufficient to deal with this problem without having to resort to reams of TLDR guidelines. That's not the way Stack Exchange is designed to roll. –  Waggers Nov 15 '12 at 8:09
    
@Caleb "the issue would be raised about whether those groups even claim to be Christian in a way that would make their theology relevant to this site" Hardly. I, and those who agree with me, certainly self-identify as Christian; therefore, for the purposes of this SE we are Christian. Why do you reject such a fundamental principle of this SE site? –  Steely Dan Nov 15 '12 at 14:46
    
@SteelyDan: For the umpteenth time, I am not rejecting any fundamental principles of this site. What you need to understand (and other people have been over this with you in chat extensively) is that this site is not a publishing medium for you to soap-box you or your friends ideas. That isn't a judgement call on whether you are Christian, only a judgement that what we're really interested in scholarly examination of EXISTENT Christianity. –  Caleb Nov 16 '12 at 9:48
    
@SteelyDan: If you want your club to listed as a denomination matching certain criteria, the impetus is on you to establish yourself as a denomination and publish your beliefs so that others could examine them, then answer about them. "I am the only possible source" is simply not something we can validate and we aren't in the business of providing grass roots movements a platform to exist. Make your move somewhere else so that any content that is relevant here can be checked and shown to be a true or false representation of your currently nameless "denomination". –  Caleb Nov 16 '12 at 9:49
    
@Caleb "only a judgement that what we're really interested in scholarly examination of EXISTENT Christianity." Indeed, and my Christianity clearly exists, as evidenced by the fact that I'm talking about it here. The ONLY way you could claim otherwise is to claim it's not Christianity at all, which would of course entail rejecting the principle of "It's Christian if it self-identifies as Christian." –  Steely Dan Nov 16 '12 at 14:41
    
@Caleb If you want to claim there are insufficient sources, well, that's a different argument (though one that I have shown is completely nonsense and completely counter to the purpose of this site as well). But it is certainly a form of "existent Christianity," as evidenced by the fact that (1) it exists and (2) it's a form of Christianity. –  Steely Dan Nov 16 '12 at 14:43
    
@SteelyDan "as evidenced by the fact that I'm talking about it here" is not good enough. Get some folks talking about it somewhere else so that third parties can listen in and then we can judge your answers when you talk about it here. –  Caleb Nov 16 '12 at 14:50
    
@SteelyDan: "I have shown is completely [...] counter to the purpose of this site". No actually you haven't shown that at all. You've been claiming that since your first day here before you even figured out how the basic system worked, but you claiming that doesn't make it true. Your opinion does not represent either SE or this communities views. –  Caleb Nov 16 '12 at 14:52
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