Is Facebook discipling your church members?

How technology is shaping the church and altering our worldview

September 27, 2021

Over the last few weeks, there have been a number of concerning reports about how social media — Facebook, in particular — is having extremely negative effects on our society, especially among teenagers. It is even shaping the content that Christians are exposed to on the platform as well. According to a Wall Street Journal investigation, the issues range from certain high-profile accounts being shielded from standard content guidelines to how the company has known that Instagram is toxic for many teenage girls. The Wall Street Journal also reported that in 2018 the company tweaked its content algorithms, which drive our news feeds, in hopes of fostering greater community and user engagement, but the effects were more dangerous than initially thought. The report shows that these changes actually exacerbated tensions and divisions with more inflammatory and objectionable content being highlighted for users, yet leadership failed to act.

On top of these reports from the Wall Street Journal, which were gleaned from various internal research reports, online employee discussions, and draft presentations to senior management, MIT Technology Review recently showed that troll farms had reached over 140 million users on Facebook before the 2020 election. A troll farm is an organized group of users (or even bots) who intentionally craft content to exploit division and sow discord in society. Of particular interest to Christians is that these troll farms — often based in Eastern Europe — operated all 15 of the top Christian American pages on Facebook in October 2019. The largest of the Christian pages on the platform reached 75 million U.S. users monthly. Ninety-five percent of that engagement came from users who never chose to follow the pages but were still exposed to the content crafted by these non-Christian groups.

Jeff Allen, a former senior-level data scientist at Facebook who authored the 2019 report in the MIT story, stated, “Our platform has given the largest voice in the Christian American community to a handful of bad actors, who, based on their media production practices, have never been to church.” This means that millions of Christians throughout our society are likely being exposed daily to messages from troll farms, which often design messages for higher engagement, financial gain, and to negatively alter one’s outlook on the world rather than point people back to Christ and the gospel.

It is obvious from these reports that Facebook needs to immediately address these concerning ethical issues for the sake of public safety, health, and our public discourse. But another big takeaway is that these issues are not limited to Facebook; rather, they are symptomatic of the larger issues with technology in our society today. In reality, we are often being discipled more by our technologies than we are the Word of God.

More than a tool

One of the most common understandings of technology, especially in Christianity, is that it is simply a tool that we choose to use for good or evil purposes. But others insist that technology is a larger social force that is basically unstoppable in altering society for ill. In his book The Technological Society, French sociologist Jacques Ellul says technology is much more than a simple tool or machine because its purpose is to shape every aspect of our society and culture toward greater efficiency — at any cost. While Ellul didn’t exactly have a hopeful outlook for our technological society, one aspect of his philosophy is prescient in that it pushes us to consider the larger ways that technology shapes our culture and alters our perception of reality. 

As technologist and theologian John Dyer puts it in his book From the Garden to the City, “Both [views] have elements of truth to them, but we cannot reduce all discussions about technology in either direction.” He goes on to say, “People are culpable for their choices, but technology still plays a role in influencing the decisions they make.” A Christian philosophy of technology seeks to balance the two prevailing views of technology by providing an active framework of agency and accountability, alongside an expanded view of technology that sees the larger societal effects of these tools.

The Church has long promoted the idea that technology is a tool that can be used for good by God’s people to connect with others, build communities, shape the worldview of our churches, and influence the wider culture as we harness it to proclaim the gospel. At the same time, we must heed the words of theologian and ethicist Jacob Shatzer, who warns in his book Transhumanism and the Image of God that “each tool pushes us toward the goal that the tool is best made for” and that we must be “aware of this, unless we think that our goals in life will always align with the goals that tools were made for.” Amid the good, Christians need to recognize the ways that technology expands our moral horizons by opening up options we never thought possible and allowing our sinful hearts to use these technologies to exploit others, manipulate truth, and stoke division.

Christian ethics in a digital age

If you survey much of today’s literature on ethics, a main critique of the Christian ethic is that it is simply unable to deal with new challenges we face today, especially in the digital age. But it shouldn’t surprise us that Jesus didn’t speak to these issues directly or that Paul and the other apostles didn’t write about how to navigate artificial intelligence, smartphones, social media, or other technologies.

While some will write off a Christian philosophy and ethic of technology as outdated or simply unusable, a biblical vision of technology ethics is more than robust enough to help us think through the challenging questions of social media platforms, how to advocate for free expression and religious freedom, and how to uphold the dignity of all human beings in the face of technologies that exploit our weaknesses. Christ summed up the foundation and goal of Christian ethics in Matthew 22:37-39: we are to love God and love our neighbor as ourselves. This means prioritizing our neighbors over profit and recognizing how the tools we use — even if designed with the best intentions — can and will be exploited in sinful and dehumanizing ways as they alter our perception of reality.

One of the ways we can do this in the digital age is by learning about how technology, as more than just a tool, is shaping our lives and society. This should drive us to an active engagement rather than a passive use of these powerful tools. We should also seek to understand that tools like Facebook are being used to influence and shape the worldviews of the church and wider society, often in perverse ways. They do this by exposing us to perfectly crafted and curated messages used to sway our social engagement, exploit our natural desires to be known, and give us a false sense of control in chaotic times. 

Pastors and ministry leaders need to understand that technology is one of the primary disciplers of those in our churches. This is due to the fact that our technological devices are at our side nearly every minute of the day, ready to envelope us in the personally-curated online worlds that are designed to shape our view of society. Given the ubiquity of technology today, we have to ask ourselves how we are being formed by these creations, and to what end. Most importantly, Christians must ask if we are being transformed to be more like Christ through our use of technology, or if we are ultimately being conformed to the likeness of this world instead (Romans 12:2).

Learn more about ERLC’s work in the digital public square and sign up to receive articles like this at ERLC.com/digital

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