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4 ways we can apply Scripture to online engagement

Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Gerald Seib writes that America, in one of the most tumultuous years in its history, is suffering from a “goodwill deficit.” This is, he says, “a growing tendency to see those with whom you disagree as not merely wrong, but evil. There is a diminishing willingness to believe that the person on the other side of the debate—any debate—is well intentioned.”

You’ve probably experienced this as you scroll your social media timeline or even in conversations (probably text or Zoom these days) with friends. There is a temptation for us to think that the “other side” is not just crazy, but dangerous. And every day there is ample evidence to suggest that perhaps this thesis is right. Daily, our news intake is curated in such a way that we get fresh reminders of the extremes from either the left or the right. 

I happen to be conservative, so my bent leads me to view liberals with suspicion and my own “side” as perfectly reasonable. It’s harder to see the darker impulses when it is wrapped in political philosophy I tend to affirm. But this kind of bias—this wanting to believe the best about my team and believe the worst about the other team—doesn’t just affect our politics. It seems to be affecting the way we see others who disagree with us theologically, or perhaps those who belong to other tribes. 

What’s more, our sources of information and the communications platforms we use often incentivize this kind of zero-sum outlook. Social media companies prize attention and engagement, which requires conflict. Media organizations need sensationalism and clickbait in order to get eyeballs and advertising and subscriptions. And the way to get ahead, to build an audience, is to be provocative. 

A Christian way to speak

But should Christians engage this way? Scripture gives us quite a bit of guidance on the way we should conduct ourselves, the way we use words, and how we treat those with whom we disagree. On the one hand, public polemics and courageous speech is encouraged, almost required, of a follower of Jesus. Paul urges Timothy, over and over again, to stand fast, stand up, to courageously defend the truth. Peter, writing to the first-century church, exhorts them to stand fast in the face of opposition. And in the Upper Room, Jesus warned his disciples that to follow him would lead to persecution and death. 

There should be a distinctly Christian way of standing up for what we believe.

And yet the disciple of Jesus is called to a certain kind of otherworldly gentleness. In every single list of qualifications for Christian leadership, Paul lists gentleness. Sometimes he even warns against brawling and being quarrelsome (2 Tim. 2:24). Peter urged God’s people to clothe their polemics in gentleness and kindness (1 Pet. 3:15). Neither of these men were known for their cowardice; both died martyrs’ deaths. 

So we should speak the truth in love. There should be a distinctly Christian way of standing up for what we believe. But what does that look like in a digital age, when the means of publishing our opinions are so quick and easy, with a few taps of the thumb? Some advocate leaving social media platforms all together, and perhaps that’s wise for some. But the Internet is here to stay. We are not going back to 1950. 

So, how can we can apply Scripture to the way we engage online? 

1. Be slow to speak: First, we should follow James 1:19 and be “quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger.” Before we retweet or post that story that confirms our worst ideas about those with whom we disagree, we might get the whole story, wait a day, or not say anything at all. Regardless of what anyone says, we are not required to speak on every topic all the time on every platform. 

2. Be measured: Second, we might consider how we want to speak and ask ourselves how our words might be misunderstood. 

3. Be accountable: Third, we might ask a friend or two before we post. I have found it helpful to have a text thread of close friends where I can try out my hottest takes. Thankfully most of that never sees the public. Community and accountability are helpful. 

4. Be reasonable: Perhaps, most importantly, we should consider Philippians 4 which urges us to “let [our] graciousness be known to everyone. The Lord is near.” Some translations render this, “let your reasonableness be known to everyone.” The idea of being reasonable seems so out of fashion. Love, however, requires us to strive to be reasonable. 

Writing to a warring congregation of Corinthians, Paul says that love “believes all things.” Love requires the benefit of the doubt. It demands that we not see the worst in that person we disagree with. This is not a natural impulse for sinners. It’s a supernatural impulse and something God has to do in us. But it’s sorely needed in our world. 

Sadly there is very little of this even in the church. When controversies arise or when someone misspeaks, there seems to be a digital mob waiting to proclaim their own self-righteousness and heap public scorn. It seems we get up every day ready to cancel someone, to remind the world of how much better and more righteous we are then them. Before we know it, with a few keystrokes, we’ve joined a digital mob. 

There is a better way. The way of love. This doesn’t mean we never engage in meaningful public debates. This doesn’t mean we don’t write public polemics. This doesn’t mean we don’t hold the powerful accountable. But we should resist the urge to cancel, to hurt, and to crush. The people on the other side of our screens are not avatars, but human beings. They are not the sum total of their one bad tweet. They have families who might one day Google their names. 

There is a lot we cannot control about our troubled world and the polarization that grips the nation. But what we can do is show a bit of love and reasonableness when we engage online. We can pause before we post. And we might consider that we are not always as right as we think we are.  

Check out Daniel’s new book, A Way with Words: Using Our Online Conversations for Good.

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