4 ways we can apply Scripture to online engagement

July 13, 2020

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.

Daniel Darling

Daniel Darling is the Director of the Land Center for Cultural Engagement at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is a columnist for World Magazine and a contributor to USA Today. Dan is a bestselling author of several books including, The Dignity Revolution, A Way With Words, and The Characters of … Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24