You’re sitting at your keyboard, excitement building as an excellent post comes together. You scan what you’ve typed out, chuckling to yourself at your own wittiness and the inescapably of your logic. This may be the best thing you’ve ever written. Others have tried to confront the foolishness you’re going after, but never like this. Honestly, how could anyone continue to diverge from orthodoxy after reading this masterpiece? There is dangerous error out there, and it’s up to you to confront it. You’ve got your sights drawn on __________ (insert your least favorite ministry, preacher, author, denomination, theological fad, and/or recent internet controversy in the preceding space). Today, you will set them all straight.
Tragically, some of the most vitriolic language between Christians can be readily seen in our social media interactions. Why is it that we who are commanded to love one another so often turn the use of social media into an anti-social experience? I want to give six guidelines for thinking twice before we hit send, but let’s start first with some general introductory ideas.
Social Media Coram Deo
As any four year old who has been raised on the Children’s Catechism can tell you, we cannot see God but He always sees us. From this truth it follows that there are not some places which are lived more coram Deo and others less (in fact, I think I heard a Psalm about that once). If I put on a facade of holiness on Sunday morning that makes my wife and kids wonder what this nice man has done with Daddy, I have an issue. All of life is lived coram Deo, and as someone wise once said- we are what we are when we are alone before God, nothing more.
Yet while both Biblical precedent and simple common sense dictate that all of life is lived under the gaze of our Lord, there are certain contexts which require special prudence. Our use of social media needs a healthy dose of coram Deo perspective. The internet is the most public and permanent medium at our disposal, so it behooves us to give our conduct there greater scrutiny. Yet as the title of this post has already made clear, the exact opposite effect can too often occur. Why do we say things on social media we would never say in other contexts? Why do we find this medium so liberating? Why would we publish things on the internet we would never say to someone’s face, or in a dismissive tone we would never adopt when speaking to a loved one who held the very views we are attacking? I’m sure their are many reasons, but I’m less interested in the psychology than with confronting the phenomena. But first, the obligatory caveats!
The Obligatory Caveats
Let’s get these over with.
1. No one camp has a corner on this problem. You see it in conservatives. You also see it in progressives. It can happen when more traditional camps arrogantly dismiss the new school. It can also happen when the latest evangelical rock star depreciates thousands of men whose backs he is standing on in a 140 character tweet. It can happen when Reformed people criticize elements of contemporary Evangelicalism. It can happen when contemporary Worship Leaders with soul patches criticize those who sing Psalms a cappella. The issue isn’t necessarily what is being said or who is saying it, it’s more of a how and and why thing.
2. This post is not an argument for surrendering the ministry of warning or turning a blind eye to contemporary concerns and/or controversies. I don’t think that a blog has to be a constant mutual-affirmation snuggle party. Furthermore, we have mountains of Biblical examples of saying hard truths publicly even when feelings get hurt. We can be grownups and both give and receive criticism (although it is notable that those who dish out the heaviest invective are often the most sensitive themselves to anything critical). I’ve not shied away from occasional polemics on this blog, nor do I plan to change course. But I do plan to apply the guidelines I’m going to present below with care to what I write.
3. Please don’t assume that I think the issues at play in contemporary Christian debates are unimportant, or that I often don’t strongly think one side is right and the other side wrong. In fact, one of my chief concerns is that good arguments about important issues get lost in the fog of verbal rancor and haughty dismissal when we don’t take care with our words.
Thus ends the obligatory caveats.
The pointer of your mouse is hovering over the publish button. You are going to be criticizing and correcting brothers and sisters who you are convinced are in error. Wait! Read these first and give it some thought…
1. Is what I am about to post consistent with biblical guidelines of love, charity, grace, and deference?
See Pastor Kennicott’s excellent post on Telling It Like It Is Without Telling It Like It Is.
It’s interesting how the internet multiplies our propensity to sin in this area exponentially. Anonymity and universal access mean that anyone can “speak the truth” to anyone else at any time totally divorced from the moderating influence of personal relationships and accountability for one’s speech. Interestingly, even when we use our real names the mediating presence of an LCD screen seems to make us more bold and less tactful- strange characteristics indeed for a medium which is both public and permanent.
2. Am I posting this to exalt myself or to exalt my God?
This one needs no explanation, just do honest business with your own soul and Proverbs 16:18.
3. What is the purpose of my post and is its tone consistent with that purpose?
Am I writing to persuade those who disagree with me? Calling them names and adopting an air of condescension rarely works. It’s not at all what Paul did in Athens, and they weren’t even fellow brothers and sisters in Christ.
Am I writing to warn those who may be tempted by error to hold fast to the truth? Be careful not to subtly build up self-righteousness or undercut your own cause by overstating your case.
4. Would I be comfortable saying this to my audience if we were not separated by an LCD screen?
Keyboards can turn cowards into crusaders. It is incredible how social media can free normally warm and reasonable Christians to be dismissive, glib, and downright rude. The chasm between some men’s warmth in person and their online persona is staggering. If you become something you are not normally when you are typing at your screen, ask yourself which one God would call you to be and put the other one to death.
5. Is it more appropriate to say this face to face in private, rather than publicly by publishing it on the internet?
I’m not talking about the interpretation of Matthew 18 which would effectively silence all public criticism. That text is misapplied rampantly. But it is certainly true that there are some things which must be said face to face.
I have come to the conclusion that the internet (in its various forms of social media) is a generally awful venue for personal correction. We don’t realize how much of our communication involves body language and tone of voice, elements lost completely when typing at each other. And no, emoticons and capitalization don’t bridge the gap 😦
6. Am I ready to give an account for every word I am about to post?
When you post something online it’s not just for those who also comment publicly (a tiny sliver of online readership, by the way). It’s not just for the like-minded club. If it IS only for the club, then call or e-mail them or start a private facebook group, don’t put it publicly online for all to see.
If you do put it publicly online, assume that EVERYONE reads it. Assume that those you disagree with read it. Assume that your own dear Mother who happens to disagree with you on this issue reads it. Assume that if you are giving the impression that anyone on the other side from you is a biblically illiterate heretic, you are calling your own Mother a biblically illiterate heretic. Do not call your Mother a biblically illiterate heretic.
But much more weighty, is the fact that all our words will be brought back before us (Matthew 12:36). Get a sense of the reality of that verse and keep it before you as you type and as you speak.
After much introspection, repentance, and observation of this phenomena I am convinced of at least two things:
I am convinced that a conservative traditionalist who uses social media to rip apart his brothers in Christ is usually far more irreverent that the preacher with the casual clothing, inappropriate language, or even wrong-headed theology he is seeking to chastise.
And I am convinced that a progressive hipster who uses social media to tear down his brothers in Christ is usually far more like a Pharisee than the preacher with the Elizabethan language, cold demeanor, or even legalistic tendencies he is seeking to chastise.
Take that paradigm and apply it to any other “hot-button” issue you want. The shoe probably fits. And I’m sad to say there have been times I’ve laced up those shoes with gusto.
I do pray that the Lord would help us all in this issue, myself no less than others, and that legitimate concerns would not be eclipsed by the irresponsible words we use to confront them. Let’s try and make our Christian use of social media a little less anti-social and a little more Christian.
(By: Nicolas Alford)