Christians, social media, and (in)civility

January 23, 2019

We live in a world saturated with information and news. We have more information at our fingertips at this very moment—with our smartphones, email inboxes, and 24-hour cable news—than entire generations in the past could access in a lifetime. There are many God-glorifying benefits to this access, but in this age of social media, we often prize immediacy over accuracy, and tribes over truthfulness, to the detriment of our society and culture.

James 1:19 reminds us that, even in our technologically-rich world, Christians have the responsibility and mandate from the Lord to “be quick to hear, slow to speak, and slow to anger.” The wisdom found in this text reminds us that we, as creatures, do not know everything and that our desire to speak quickly to public issues can lead us in ways that dishonor the Lord and betray the humanity of our neighbor (Matt. 22:37-39).

This especially rings true in light of the controversy last Friday afternoon between a group of Covington Catholic High School young men, a Native American elder, and Black Hebrew Israelites, all in the shadow of the Lincoln Memorial. The reaction and retractions since the viral footages went live have been astounding and are a vivid reminder of why Christians, of all people, must pursue wisdom in how we communicate, the news we share, and the opinions we give in a world infatuated with social media.

Quick to hear and slow to speak

Our current culture has produced a mentality that we must respond to and comment on everything that takes place in the world, immediately. Social media isn’t the specific problem; we know that what we see online is just a symptom of a deeper, older issue that has been ravishing our world since the Fall. Technology itself is neither good nor evil. Instead, it provides an avenue for us to pursue and play out our age-old sins of pride, arrogance, and the pursuit of self-righteousness. Our ancient ancestors, Adam and Eve, were deceived by the devil in the garden as they sought to trust themselves rather than what God said (Gen. 3). But the Fall doesn’t just show us how broken we are and how our sin has produced unholy desires in our life. It also reminds us that we are not God even though we so desperately long to take his place.

The temptation of social media is that we feel more informed and connected than ever before as a society, even though we still do not have full knowledge of any given situation. James’ exhortation to us in his letter is to “be quick to hear” because we are not gods and never will be, regardless of what our devices try to tell us. Our lack of information should humble us and give us pause. We are all fallible creatures who serve an infallible and perfect God. He alone has all of the information and context. We fool ourselves into thinking that we know everything the moment a controversy ignites online.

The way to combat this temptation is to remind ourselves of who we are as God’s image-bearers. We can be “quick to hear” and “slow to speak” because we recognize our limits. Furthermore, we are called to these things because of how they affect our neighbors.

Pursuing civility

Being civil with others is not a new concept, but it’s being discussed more frequently due to the breakdown of tasteful discourse in our society. Often, it seems that passionate people on both side of the political aisle are unable to engage in debate with the concept of another’s dignity in mind. We categorize those who differ from our positions as “monsters,” “bigots,” and a host of other derogatory names that betray the humanity of God’s image-bearers.

Every generation believes that the time they live in is of utmost importance and that the debates they have will forever alter the history of our world. Reading historical accounts, however, is a helpful way for us to be reminded that the days in which we live are often not the most consequential in the arc of history. While significant events and debates are certainly taking place, we should avoid the posture that everything we face is superior and worth demonizing our neighbors over in order to “win” the debate.

We can both treat those with whom we disagree as people made in God’s image and have rigorous debates about our beliefs and various positions. We must pursue truth and love at the same time, a balance that Christ himself modeled perfectly for his people throughout his life. This balance of truth and love is the model for civility we should follow and will be a natural byproduct of those of us who seek to be quick to hear, and slow to speak.

We pursue civility in public discourse because all people, even the ones we might vehemently disagree with or be offended by, are made in God’s image and must not be treated as enemies. Christians know that we only have one Enemy (1 John 3:8; 1 Pet. 1:8-9; Eph. 6:12) One of the ways that we can fight against the powers of darkness in our world is to treat every human being, regardless of political position, party affiliation, or supposed worth to society with the value bestowed on them by God (Acts 26:18).

Taking time to listen and process the things that we hear, read, and experience will lead us to better conclusions and more God-glorifying discourse. James’s call for the church in the social media age is to pursue and proclaim truth as we love our neighbors. That often looks like God’s people taking time to slow down, listen to our neighbors, and demonstrate love as representatives of the King to a world that desperately needs to hear the message of salvation more than the latest hot-take.

Jason Thacker

Jason Thacker serves as senior fellow focusing on Christian ethics, human dignity, public theology, and technology. He also leads the ERLC Research Institute. In addition to his work at the ERLC, he serves as assistant professor of philosophy and ethics at Boyce College in Louisville Kentucky. He is the author … 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