By / Sep 5

In today’s digital world, how can we help children find their identity in Christ? Every child is looking for a place to anchor his or her identity, whether that be in the search for a best friend on the preschool playground, trying to make the team, or joining the right club in their teen years. It is essential that Christian parents guide their children toward their identity in Christ while protecting against spiritual identity theft in today’s digital age.

Internally, all people are asking three questions: 

  • Who am I?
  • Where can I have meaningful human relationships? 
  • And what should I do with my life? 

In Deuteronomy 6, God gave parents the task of forming their children’s spiritual identity. In that day, they spent time raising crops and herding flocks (Deut. 6:7-9). In our day, we spend time on social platforms and streaming platforms. In the middle of this digital age, we cannot replace the essential need for our children to find their identity in Christ, their calling in God’s mission, and deep community in God’s family If we can turn down some of the noise, they will hear the beauty of God’s design for their identity.

In order to nurture our children’s spiritual vitality, we must find ways to lessen the noise that is drowning out the beautiful symphony of God’s design for them. We need to protect our children’s spiritual identity from being hijacked by a digital identity. We have to challenge and propel kids toward real-life impact instead of virtual experiences. In a world in which many children have a myriad of superficial connections, we have to encourage them to cultivate real-life, meaningful connections.

Digital identity theft 

We live in a digital age where most of our day is a dance between screens. We are curators of our own content and sometimes pawns of algorithms that plunge us down rabbit holes of digital content. For many children, their dance between screens has begun to define them. 

Nearly 2/3 of teenagers are on screens for more than four hours a day. Research has shown that dopamine levels produced in the brain in response to social media interaction are comparable to that of drug or gambling addiction. It is not a stretch to say that children are addicted. Perhaps like me, you have witnessed a child melt down and exhibit withdrawal symptoms when a device is taken away. The child’s identity is so wrapped up in their digital identity that it is actually painful to be away from it. 

Pursuing a digital identity leads to addiction, but it is also leading to increased levels of anxiety and depression. Between 2006 and 2016, the suicide rate for those between ages 10 and 17 rose by 70%, and clinical depression rates rose by 40%.

Our children are swimming in a sea of digital content that misinforms them about their identity. As parents, we have the opportunity to anchor our children’s identity in what God says about them. My wife and I often remind our son to listen to the people who love him when he is trying to decide what he will believe about himself. Often, our children are listening to people who do not love them as we do or as God does.

Our job as parents is not to instill self-esteem in our children, but to guide them to the foundational truths about who God says they are. The God who breathed everything into existence says that they have inherent dignity and worth and that they are irreplaceable (Luke 12:7, Jer. 1:5). Once your child trusts in Christ, you can take them to even greater depth of identity through their adoption into God’s family, the indwelling in the Holy Spirit, the shepherding care of Jesus, and so much more. These realities will not shake with the wins and losses of the digital world, because they are rooted in the character, nature, and activity of God.

Differentiating between digital wins and real-life impact 

For many children, the rise and fall of their lives depends upon what happens in the digital world. We must separate digital identity from spiritual identity as we lead and empower our children to embrace their calling in the real world, not by living vicariously through YouTube or video games.  

A few weeks ago, I was talking with one of our children’s ministry leaders. He asked our church’s elementary-aged kids to name a challenge they faced recently. Almost every tough scenario named was faced in a video game. We have an opportunity to help call our kids to join God’s mission and gain a sense of accomplishment outside of their digital world.

We often undervalue the influence that our children can have, but preteens and teenagers have made a big impact throughout history. Think about young men and women like David, Daniel, Joseph, Samuel, and Esther. Perhaps part of the problem is that we are not giving our teenagers any challenges to face in the real world, so they are fleeing to a digital world.

Helping your children cultivate an awareness of God and desire submission and obedience to him is the biggest gift you can ever give them. Calling them to see his glory and purpose while inviting them to embrace their unique personality, gifting, and calling is the greatest privilege and joy of parenthood. The Bible says our children are like arrows, so let us aim them so that they hit the bullseye of eternity (Ps. 127:3).

From superficial digital connections to biblical community 

Finally, we need to model and prioritize biblical community for our children. When we do so, they will be able to distinguish deep connections from superficial digital interactions. We set the example for our children when we spend more time engaging in deep relationships at our church and in our neighborhoods than in our online communities or on social media. Orienting our lives around spending time with God and people will become the true source of our identity—for parents and for children.

The digital world is an extension of the real world, not a replacement for it. Although disconnection is not caused by devices, our devices can multiply our disconnection. Children need to understand that relationships are messy, but they are a mess worth making. In a digital confrontation, you do not have to look a real, living person in the eye. In the digital world, personality is often removed from intimacy and people can hide their flaws while magnifying their strengths. We need to figure out ways to get our children involved in deep relationships and invest in people rather than digital experiences. 

When Jesus was asked to summarize the Old Testament, he responded, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself” (Luke 10:25-28). Jesus took the same identity that God gave his people in Deuteronomy 6 and paired it with a missional imperative. When we listen to these passages, we hear God beckoning our kids to find their identity in Christ, their relationships in biblical community, and their purpose in their God-given calling. There are no perfect parents that handle this dance with screens perfectly, but all of us can help point our kids toward God’s glory and their good.

By / May 12

Over the past year, there’s been increasing debate about the nature and classification of Large Language Models (LLMs) like ChatGPT, an artificial intelligence chatbot developed by OpenAI and released in November 2022. Are these systems truly representative of artificial intelligence (AI)? Do they propose a threat to humans? The answers, as with many things in the complex world of technology, are not as straightforward as they might seem.

What is a Large Language Model?

A LLM is a type of computer program that’s been trained to understand and generate human-like text. It’s a product of a field in computer science called AI, specifically a subfield known as natural language processing (NLP). Chat-GPT (which includes a couple of variations, such as GPT-3, GPT-3.5, and GPT-4) is currently the most popular and widely used LLM.

If you’ve ever started typing a text message on your smartphone, and it suggests the next word you might want to use (predictive text) or suggests a spelling (autocorrect), you’ve used a basic form of a language model. LLMs apply that concept on a larger and more complex scale.

An LLM has been trained on a broad and diverse range of internet text. It then uses a machine learning process, including advanced statistical analysis, to identify patterns in the data and uses that information to generate responses for a human user. The training sets are also incredibly massive. The older, free version of Chat-GPT (GPT-3.5) was trained on the equivalent of over 292 million pages of documents, or 499 billion words. It uses 175 billion parameters (points of connection between input and output layers in neural networks).

When you interact with a large language model, you can input a piece of text, like a question or a statement (known as a “prompt”), and the model will generate a relevant response based on what it has learned during its training. For example, you can ask it to write essays, summarize long documents, translate languages, or even write poetry.

The output produced by such models can often be astoundingly impressive. But LLMs can also produce “hallucinations,” a term for generated content that is nonsensical or unfaithful to the provided source content. LLMs do not have an understanding of text like humans do and can sometimes make mistakes or produce outputs that range from erroneous to downright bizarre. LLMs also don’t have beliefs, opinions, or consciousness—they merely generate responses based on patterns they’ve learned from the data they were trained on.

In short, an LLM is a sophisticated tool that can help with tasks involving text, from answering questions to generating written content.

Are LLMs truly AI?

Before considering whether LLMs qualify as AI, we need to define how the term AI is being used. In broad terms, AI refers to the simulation of human intelligence processes by machines, especially computer systems. These processes include learning, reasoning, problem-solving, perception, and the ability to use human languages. The key term is simulation. AI’s do not have consciousness, so they cannot perform such rational functions as thinking or understanding, or possess such attributes as emotions and empathy.

In the strictest sense, LLMs like GPT-3 fall under the umbrella of AI, specifically the subgroup known as generative AI. LLMs learn from large datasets, recognize patterns in human language, and generate text that mirrors human-like understanding. However, there’s a distinction to be made between what is often referred to as “narrow AI” and “general AI.”

Narrow AI systems, also known as weak AI, are designed to perform a specific task, like language translation or image recognition. Although they may seem intelligent, their functionality is limited to the tasks they’ve been programmed to do. Chat-GPT and similar LLMs fall into this category.

In contrast, general AI, also referred to as strong AI, represents systems that possess the ability to understand, learn, adapt, and implement knowledge across a broad range of tasks, much like a human being. This level of AI, which would essentially mirror human cognitive abilities, has not yet been achieved. Some Christians believe that AI will never reach ​that level because God has not given man the power to replicate human consciousness or reasoning abilities in machines.

While LLMs are a form of AI, they don’t possess a human-like understanding or consciousness. They don’t form beliefs, have desires, or understand the text they generate. They analyze input and predict an appropriate output based on patterns they’ve learned during training.

Are LLMs a threat?

LLMs are a category of tools (i.e., devices used to perform a task or carry out a particular function). Like almost all tools, they can and will be used by humans in ways that are both positive and negative. 

Many of the concerns about AI are misdirected, since they are fears based on “general AI.”  This type of concern is reflected in science fiction depictions of AI, where machines gain sentience and turn against humanity. However, current AI technology is nowhere near achieving anything remotely reflecting sentience or true consciousness. LLMs are also not likely to be a threat in the way that autonomous weapons systems can be. 

This is not to say that LLMs do not pose a danger; they do in ways that are similar to social media and other ​​internet ​​related functions. Some examples are:

Deepfakes: Generative AI can create very realistic fake images or videos, known as deepfakes. These could be used to spread misinformation, defame individuals, or impersonate public figures for malicious intent.

Phishing attacks: Phishing is the fraudulent practice of sending emails or other messages purporting to be from reputable companies in order to induce individuals to reveal personal information such as passwords and credit card numbers. AI can generate highly personalized phishing emails that are much more convincing than traditional ones, potentially leading to an increase in successful cyber attacks.

Disinformation campaigns: AI could be used to generate and spread false news stories or misleading information on social media to manipulate public opinion.

Identity theft: In 2021 alone, 1,434,698 Americans reported identity theft, with 21% of the victims reporting they have lost more than $20,000 to such fraud .AI could be used to generate convincing fake identities for fraudulent purposes.

While there are also many positive uses for generative AI, ongoing work in AI ethics and policy is needed to limit and prevent such malicious uses.

As the ERLC’s Jason Thacker says, a Christian philosophy of technology is wholly unique in that it recognizes 1) that God has given humanity certain creative gifts and the ability to use tools, and 2) and that how we use these tools forms and shapes us. “Technology then is not good or bad, nor is it neutral,” says Thacker. “Technology, specifically AI, is shaping how we view God, ourselves, and the world around us in profound and distinct ways.”

 See also: Why we (still) need a statement of principles for AI

By / Jan 13

In this episode, Lindsay and Brent discuss the South Carolina Supreme Court striking down the state’s 6-week abortion ban. They also talk about the pro-life organization and the March for Life happening next week.

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  • Dobbs Resource Page | The release of the Dobbs decision marks a true turning point in the pro-life movement, a moment that Christians, advocates and many others have worked toward tirelessly for 50 years. Let us rejoice that we live in a nation where past injustices can still be corrected, as we also roll our sleeves up to save preborn lives, serve vulnerable mothers, and support families in our communities. To get more resources on this case, visit ERLC.com/Dobbs.
  • Sexual Ethics Resource Page | Do you ever feel overwhelmed by the constant stream of entertainment and messages that challenge the Bible’s teachings on sexual ethics? It often feels like we’re walking through uncharted territory. But no matter what we face in our ever-shifting culture, God’s design for human sexuality has never changed. The ERLC’s new sexual ethics resource page is full of helpful articles, videos, and explainers that will equip you to navigate these important issues with truth and grace. Get these free resources at ERLC.com/sexualethics.
By / Sep 9

In this episode, Lindsay talks with Jason Thacker about his new book, Following Jesus in a Digital Age, and how Christians can approach technology. They also discuss the biblical definition of marriage and how that is being undermined by the Respect for Marriage Act. 

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Culture

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  • Dobbs Resource Page | The release of the Dobbs decision marks a true turning point in the pro-life movement, a moment that Christians, advocates and many others have worked toward tirelessly for 50 years. Let us rejoice that we live in a nation where past injustices can still be corrected, as we also roll our sleeves up to save preborn lives, serve vulnerable mothers, and support families in our communities. To get more resources on this case, visit ERLC.com/Dobbs.
  • Sexual Ethics Resource Page | Do you ever feel overwhelmed by the constant stream of entertainment and messages that challenge the Bible’s teachings on sexual ethics? It often feels like we’re walking through uncharted terrority. But no matter what we face in our ever-shifting culture, God’s design for human sexuality has never changed. The ERLC’s new sexual ethics resource page is full of helpful articles, videos, and explainers that will equip you to navigate these important issues with truth and grace. Get these free resources at ERLC.com/sexualethics.
By / Aug 31

We live in an unprecedented age of information, more than we can even begin to comprehend, right at our fingertips. The internet was once seen as an instrument that allowed the average person access to near limitless information, instead of limiting these things to certain elite groups, as was the practice in past generations. But as we know all too well today, one of the unintended downsides of this widespread availability of information is the breakdown of trust throughout society in what we hear or read. This shift is especially prevalent in our growing inability to discern what is true in a world that seems to be given over to misinformation and reinterpretations of reality often to gain status or prestige.  

Technology has a profound effect on us as human beings and shapes not only how we view ourselves but also the world around us. One of the most devastating effects of technology on society has been the breakdown, if not a full-on crisis, of what is considered true.1For more on the rise of cancel culture from a non-Christian perspective, see chapter 7 of Jonathan Rauch, The Constitution of Knowledge: A Defense of Truth (Washington, DC: The Brookings Institution, 2021). This is especially widespread on social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook, where terms like fake news, misinformation, conspiracy theories, and post-truth have become part of our everyday vocabulary.2For a more in-depth look at the the technical and political factors involved in this debate, see my expanded chapter on misinformation and conspiracy theories in Jason Thacker, ed., The Digital Public Square: Christian Ethics in a Technological Society (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2023). On this side of the often-utopian promises of technology, we now see how universal access to information and power actually helped to usher in a host of unexpected complex ethical questions—questions that many are unprepared to answer. Parents, philosophers, and tech-company founders alike seem to respond the same way as they wrestle with the ethical aftermath—if only we could have seen these things coming

French sociologist and theologian, Jacques Ellul, captures our blindness well when he wrote that “man can never foresee the totality of consequences of a given technical action.”3Jacques Ellul, The Technological Society (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1964), 105. Even our best intentions for these innovations can overlook the devastating unintended effects, especially when deployed at a massive scale throughout our society—especially a society that has sought to rid itself of a transcendent (or supernatural) understanding of truth and reality. We often pursue individuality at the expense of truth, and nowhere is that clearer than on social media.  

Post-truth problems

Filling the headlines of major media outlets and saturating our social media timelines, the influence of fake news, misinformation, propaganda, disinformation, and conspiracy theories grows each day. Where do we hear about these things most, though? In what context do you hear the term “fake news” thrown around? If your social feeds are anything like mine, your answer is probably, “When my political party takes issue with the opposing political party on a certain issue.” And that should upset us, shouldn’t it? That “fake news” or “fake facts” would be wielded as a weapon against our political opponents simply because they take a different position than us on a particular matter? Simply because they said something we don’t like or agree with? Simply because the information presented—even if it’s actually true—feels inconvenient or challenging? Shouldn’t it sadden believers that throughout our culture and even in our churches, it seems truth has become simply what we want it to be rather than some objective and knowable reality outside of us?  

I’ve noticed that trying to have a civil conversation online is getting harder and harder these days, even about the smallest of issues. Have you noticed this too? One idea or opinion expressed, and it’s like a fire erupts out of nowhere. We can blame our modern pursuit of defining truth on our own terms for this, as doing so creates an online atmosphere where “communication [with one another] is thwarted, and the possibility of rational discourse disappears,” as one ethicist put it.4D. Stephen Long, Truth Telling in a Post-Truth World (Nashville: General Board of Higher Education and Ministry, UMC, 2019), 8. It becomes increasingly difficult to navigate the pressing ethical issues of technology—like the rise of misinformation and conspiracy theories—since we no longer have a common starting point for these debates in society or even a similar grasp on reality. Without agreeing on the foundational level about what’s morally good and bad, truth naturally becomes a political weapon, used to denigrate or “cancel” those who might hold to a different worldview or belief about how the world works.5For more on the rise of cancel culture from a non-Christian perspective, see chapter 7 of Jonathan Rauch, The Constitution of Knowledge: A Defense of Truth (Washington, DC: The Brookings Institution, 2021). Though if you survey the top resources on the rise of conspiracy theories, misinformation, and fake news, you will quickly find many are extremely partisan in nature, intentionally blaming one side of the political spectrum for rejecting reality or believing in fairy-tale fantasies in order to maintain some semblance of cultural power or influence.  

While the problems we face today in our post-truth society are exacerbated by technologies like the internet, social media, and even the rise of deepfakes—altered videos through artificial intelligence—the root of the problem is not the technology itself. Many of these pressing issues find their root cause in the philosophical and scientific movements of the last few hundred years, where there was a near total rejection of a transcendent reality, especially when it comes to moral norms. While many who write on these issues seek to blame “them” for the rise of our post-truth society and the chaos that naturally flows out of such a society, this kind of blame-shifting only makes the problem worse, driving the wedge deeper between opposing conversation partners. The result? Both sides increasingly fuel the breakdown not only of civil discourse but also of our shared pursuit of truth as a society.

Excerpted with permission from Following Jesus in a Digital Age by Jason Thacker. Copyright 2022, B&H Publishing. 

  • 1
    For more on the rise of cancel culture from a non-Christian perspective, see chapter 7 of Jonathan Rauch, The Constitution of Knowledge: A Defense of Truth (Washington, DC: The Brookings Institution, 2021)
  • 2
    For a more in-depth look at the the technical and political factors involved in this debate, see my expanded chapter on misinformation and conspiracy theories in Jason Thacker, ed., The Digital Public Square: Christian Ethics in a Technological Society (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2023).
  • 3
    Jacques Ellul, The Technological Society (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1964), 105.
  • 4
    D. Stephen Long, Truth Telling in a Post-Truth World (Nashville: General Board of Higher Education and Ministry, UMC, 2019), 8.
  • 5
    For more on the rise of cancel culture from a non-Christian perspective, see chapter 7 of Jonathan Rauch, The Constitution of Knowledge: A Defense of Truth (Washington, DC: The Brookings Institution, 2021). 
By / Aug 23

 NASHVILLE, Tenn., Aug. 23, 2022— What does faith have to do with pressing issues of life in a digital world? Jason Thacker addresses this question in his latest book, Following Jesus in a Digital Age releasing Aug. 30 from B&H Publishing Group.          

Thacker, who serves as the director of the Research Institute at The Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention and as chair of research in technology ethics, wrote Following Jesus in a Digital Age to challenge Christians to consider how technology shapes their faith and how to navigate the most difficult aspects of digital culture—including the rise of misinformation, conspiracy theories, social media, digital privacy and social polarization.             

“The ERLC has for the last several years been at the forefront of thinking critically and biblically about emerging technologies and the influence they are having on our culture,” said Brent Leatherwood, acting president of the ERLC. “This is due, in no small part, to the work of Jason Thacker, one of the leading thinkers focusing on the crossroads of ethics and technology. In fact, this very book springs forth from the very research Jason is spearheading on issues of the digital public square. It is a helpful resource that promises wisdom and insight for any individual, small group, or church that seeks to honor God as they navigate the digital age.” 

According to Hootsuite’s Global State of Digital 2022 report, the average person spends about two and a half hours a day on social media and nearly seven hours a day using the internet.  

Following Jesus in a Digital Age is designed to help readers understand the deeply formative nature of technology.  

“This book reminds all of us that technology is subtly, yet drastically altering how we perceive the world around us, including issues of the nature of truth, responsibility and identity in our digital age,” Thacker said. “Amid the confusion and seeming cultural chaos of our day, Christians can engage these pressing issues of technology and ethics from a place of hope rooted in God’s unfailing Word and how He calls us to live with wisdom in our increasingly digital culture.” 

In September 2021, the ERLC launched the Digital Public Square, a long-term research project convening top Christian thinkers to explore the intersection of Christian ethics, technology and today’s digital public square. 

In addition to Thacker’s Following Jesus in Digital Age book, leaders of the Digital Public Square project plan to release assets over a two-year period to equip Christians on why ethics of technology matter to human flourishing and our public discourse.  

Upcoming Digital Public Square project assets include:

  • Weekly podcast with top leaders across society called, The Digital Public Square focused on theology, ethics and philosophy in the public square;
  • Corresponding Bible study with Lifeway Adults on similar topics to Following Jesus in a Digital Age;
  • Edited collection of academic essays with B&H Academic entitled, The Digital Public Square: Christian Ethics in a Technological Society;
  • Guidebook for students and teenagers about social media set for release in January 2023 by Christian Focus.

The project will culminate with an in-depth report on the state of the digital public square and a set of guiding ethical principles for digital governance and the public square in the coming year. To learn more about the Digital Public Square project, visit ERLC.com/digital

By / May 29

One of the blessings of the digital age is that we can connect with and find information regarding places all around the world, almost instantaneously. We can learn about cultures, customs, and the beauty of God’s created order with a few short swipes on our phones or devices. Alongside these wonders, we can also learn about natural disasters, wars, crimes, and a host of other things as they happen. While there are many dangerous and deleterious effects to this level of information overload, Christians can also embrace certain aspects of our information age and leverage it for good, especially on the international stage. 

One danger of this digital age is social media’s ability to redirect our attention in unhelpful ways. Because of the endless amount of knowledge and the overall tone online, we sometimes become desensitized to world events, with one tragedy supplanting the previous one at breakneck speed, or enraged by what’s going on nationally, all while forgetting the circumstances in our own backyard. Working for the good of our local communities is imperative—it is likely where we are able to make the most difference. 

However, the necessity of working for our local good does not dismiss our responsibility to our international neighbors. Like the rich young ruler of the gospels, we must not seek to minimize who our neighbors are and congratulate ourselves for the attention paid only to what is most immediate to us. Rather, in a global and interconnected world, we must ask what is required of us as we seek to fulfill the two great commands of Scripture: love God and love neighbor.

God’s Word and Global Responsibility

Frequently, discussions of the breadth of the Christian’s ethical responsibility devolve into unhelpful dichotomies. We either assume one must forsake our local communities in support of global issues or embrace a hyper-focus on local issues to the neglect or near abandonment of international affairs. These contrasts assume that Christians are unable to advocate for ethical behavior and a morally upright society on both fronts at the same time.

Some may criticize the simplicity of this point by saying that the debate is over which has priority for the believer. While this can be a helpful distinction at times, this does not mean that the Church should neglect one or the other, but prioritize when we have limited time, resources, and energies. For Christians, this must not be seen through a partisan lens or as competing concerns. The scriptures make clear that the priority of the Christian life is to first honor God as the Creator of all and to also love our neighbors—no matter their situation, perceived usefulness to society, or distance between us (Lev. 19:18b; Deut. 6:5; Luke 12:29-31). 

A main theme throughout the biblical narrative is the centrality of the imago Dei, or image of God, as the very root of what it means to be human. This is the foundation of the Christian ethic—both personal and social. The structure of a God-honoring society will stand for the dignity and worth of all people, regardless of how politically expedient it may be at the time to trample upon or neglect those made in God’s image.

The command to love God and love neighbor by speaking truth in grace is at the very core of the Christian ethic and has ramifications not only in our local communities, but also for those made in God’s image around the world who experience the dehumanizing play for social control or who live under unjust conditions for which we may have the power and opportunity to intervene on their behalf. 

This does not mean that Christians will agree on all the foreign policy particulars or the exact role of the state, but it does mean that we cannot limit our moral responsibility to love our neighbors simply to where and when it is convenient for us. We advocate and care for the most vulnerable among us, not out of a sense of power or duty but solely based on the fact that all people are made in the image of God and have an inherent right to be treated as such. The moral call on Christians in societies around the world must not be seen as an either/or but a both/and in terms of how we live out our calling both locally and globally. 

Natural Law and the Pursuit of Justice

In a globalized world, discussions of human rights—right to life, freedom of speech, religious freedom—can become complicated as various cultures and customs overlap and compete with one another. While the West has often placed human rights at the center of the democratic order, this is not true of other states and rogue actors. However, Christians believe that the natural order of creation, and the intrinsic worth of each person, speak to the pressing issues of our day and inform our approach to advocacy on the international stage. 

Central to Christian advocacy is the awareness that each person, by virtue of their humanity, has an internal sense of justice and dignity. As the apostle Paul relates in Romans 1-2, though we may suppress the truth, that does not negate the fact that we intrinsically know particular actions to be right and wrong. Abuses of human rights are one such area where we can make appeals across divergent cultures. This approach, drawing on natural law principles and scriptural revelation, recognizes that each person’s sense of justice is shaped and informed by their God-given conscience. 

Even though authoritarian governments may desire to erase the moral guidelines and declare that the state’s might makes actions right, Christians can declare that there is a God who sees and will bring justice on all wrong doing. As we advocate on the international stage, we bear witness to this truth, and to the ability of all peoples to recognize that abuses of rights are attacks on the dignity of fellow image-bearers.

A Voice for the Persecuted

As Christians look to international affairs and standing with the vulnerable around the world, we appeal to the Word of God and the God-given conscience that transcends fluctuating moral attitudes in order to call others to action. Just over this recent year, the international community has witnessed an unjust war in Ukraine, revelations of the true extent of the genocide of the Rohingya minority by the Myanmar military, and massive refugee crises around the world. These clear examples of the utter depravity of human nature become undeniable as we see so many of them unfold on our phones via social media and viral videos. 

The ERLC has responded emphatically to the ongoing brutal genocide in Xingjang of the Uyghur people under the Chinese Communist Party. We hosted an online event prior to the 2021 Beijing Olympics that featured Nury Turkel, Vice Chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, and other panelists. We also sent a letter to NBC, urging them to be honest in the coverage of China. In addition, we advocated for the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act and even sent a letter to Secretary of State Blinken urging its passage. Our advocacy against the Uyghur genocide will continue as we remain a voice for persecuted people.

Standing for human dignity and participating in global affairs need not, and truly must not, take away from our work in our local and national contexts. The Church advocates for justice and dignity throughout our societies, not because this will usher in some type of utopian social order but because this pursuit is in accordance with God himself. Dignity is not ours to assign, debate, or remove based on our political preferences or desires. Instead, in obedience to our Creator, it is ours to uphold, champion, proclaim—near and afar. 

By / Oct 18

Nearly every area of our lives has been technicized or digitized in one way or another during the past century. Technology has ushered in innumerable benefits for humanity, which often overshadow some of the damaging effects of these massive shifts in our daily lives. Smartphones have led to a growing culture of digital addictions and isolation, especially among young people. We see this fact clearly in the recent reports of how Facebook — and by extension, all of social media — has become toxic for teenage girls and for the rest of us as well.

Social and mass media have connected societies across the world, opening up new opportunities for everyone’s voices to be heard, stories to be shared, and economic opportunities to be spread like never before. But they have come with a price, exacerbating an exponential breakdown of civil discourse and leading to a weakening of various control mechanisms that helped govern our common pursuit of truth. Modern medical technologies have allowed for longer and healthier lives for millions of people, but have also led to a devaluing of humanity.  For all of the real benefits of technology, there are countless dangers that have often fallen outside of the public eye. In truth, technology has ushered in a breakdown of our social fabric and led to the commodification of everything. 

One of the most prescient figures and astute observers of the cultural and moral shifts taking place in the 20th century with the rise of modern technology, Jacques Ellul, opened his influential work The Technological Society by saying, “No social, human, or spiritual fact is so important as the fact of technique in the modern world. And yet no subject is so little understood” (3). As a trained sociologist and a Protestant theologian, Ellul rightly saw that there are not only political or social components to technology, but also theological and ethical components as well. Southern Baptist theologian R. Albert Mohler Jr. echoed these truths by recently stating, “Christians must think seriously about technology and understand that technology is a theological issue.” 

Yet, in light of these realities, there is still only a small — though growing — library of theological and ethical resources on these crucial issues. So where might the church turn for wisdom in this technological age?

Equipping the Church

Over the last few years, the ERLC has sought to lead the way in preparing the church for this digital age and warn of the impending issues of technology in the public square and in our local contexts. In April 2019, the ERLC launched a groundbreaking statement of principles on artificial intelligence (AI) declaring that the imago Dei is not only the central element of Christian ethics but also a key aspect of how we navigate the pressing ethical issues of technology. In a world seemingly set on the immanent and material, this Christian teaching reminds us that we are uniquely created by God given dignity, value, and moral responsibility for the things we create and their shaping power over all of society and culture.

In September, the ERLC board of trustees approved an ambitious and large-scale research project called the Digital Public Square which will serve as a hub for Southern Baptists and evangelical engagement on these pressing issues of technology and digital governance over the next couple of years. The main goal of this project is to provide research and resources to help you navigate this digital age as we collectively think through complex and crucial ethical challenges with biblical wisdom and insight. It will include a state of digital governance report, statement of principles on digital technologies, two major book projects, and various resources — including the recently launched Digital Public Square podcast with conversations on theology, ethics, and philosophy in the public square.

The challenges ahead

As we look ahead to the ethical challenges of technology and the public square, we see three main areas of needed research and ethical reflection. 

First, the Church must be able to proclaim the inherent dignity of all people and their God-given, pre-political rights of free expression and religious freedom in an age that is increasingly hostile or apathetic to the truth of Christianity. The public nature of faith is a key aspect of the Christian worldview, even in a secularized culture that seeks to simply relegate religious belief to a private matter of individuals. Christianity is not a privatized faith, rooted in individualism, but a faith that radically transforms every aspect of our lives including how we love God and our neighbor in the digital age. These two issues are especially prevalent as society faces yet another epistemic crisis over the reality of truth and how we navigate the complexities of an increasingly diverse society.

Second an underdeveloped, yet key area of ethical research is defining the competing concepts of hate speech in a digital age and the key distinctions of physical threats of violence or immanent harm versus the dramatic growth of emotional safeism. In recent years, ideas — especially those of biological realities and historic Christian teaching — have been deemed as inherantly bigoted and harmful. But, as Brookings scholar Jonathan Rauch eloquently states in his recent work The Constitution of Knowledge, “words are not bullets . . . stopping words does not stop bullets, and . . . confusing words with bullets is a tragic error” (203).

Lastly, in light of the dangerous abuses of technology and data happening all across the world today, the Church needs serious reflection on the ethical aspects of digital privacy, data collection, and the growing authoritarian abuses of technology. Examples of this are the desperate longing for complete and unfettered control of the Chinese Communist Party over the Chinese people — and, by extension, the growing influence of the CCP abroad — and the concerning trends of data collection being used to alter the behaviors of countless people through digital technologies. The combination of the power of these tools and the sinful nature of humanity does not allow for the Church to passively engage these issues.

Through the Digital Public Square project, the ERLC hopes to chart a new path for Southern Baptist and evangelical engagement on these pressing issues of technology. We will do this based on the unchanging Word of God and the kingship of Christ, alongside a rich heritage of public and social engagement built upon the dignity of every human being. Technology is not a tertiary issue in the public square. It is a deeply theological and ethical issue that the Church must engage, compelled by the love of God and neighbor (Mark 12:30-31).

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

By / Oct 6

The digital age promised deep connections, rich communication, and more access to information than we could ever imagine. But while technology has brought incredible benefits and conveniences into our lives, it also has led to countless unintended consequences and deep ethical challenges that push us to consider how to live out our faith in a technological society.

This week, Chelsea Sobolik’s ERLC colleague Jason Thacker joins her to discuss his new project, the digital public square and important tech policies that you need to know about.

Guest Biography

Jason serves as chair of research in technology ethics at the ERLC. He also serves as an adjunct instructor of philosophy, ethics, and worldview at Boyce College in Louisville, KY. He is the author of the forthcoming book, Following Jesus in the Digital Age with B&H Publishing, as well as The Age of AI: Artificial Intelligence and the Future of Humanity with Zondervan. He also serves as the editor of a forthcoming volume with B&H Academic on Christian ethics and the digital public square, focused on content moderation and online governance. He is the project leader and lead drafter of Artificial Intelligence: An Evangelical Statement of Principles, and his work has been featured at Slate, Politico, Christianity Today, The Gospel Coalition, and World Radio.

Resources from the Conversation

By / Sep 16

My family lives just outside of a small town in Tennessee with a historic downtown district. Like many small towns throughout our nation, we have a downtown square that serves as a hub. In prior generations, these public squares were gathering places for everyone. People regularly traveled in from the outskirts of town to shop, eat, and do business. They would also come together for community events and to freely engage with one another. While many historic downtown public squares have been abandoned in light of the growth of suburbs, there is a renewed interest in revitalizing these historic neighborhoods and to provide a place for communities to gather once again — especially in a digital age that has led to increasing isolation.

These public gathering places serve as an apt metaphor for a period when much of our daily communication, commerce, and community are facilitated in the digital public square of social media and online connectivity. With the rise of the internet and various social media platforms — such as Facebook, Twitter, and TikTok, and massive online retailers and internet companies like Amazon and Google — these new digital public squares promised to bring about a vibrant era of connectivity and togetherness across distances, more diverse communities, and more access to information. Many of these initial promises were made in light of oppressive regimes throughout the world that stifled free speech, suppressed human rights, violated religious freedom, and limited access to information in order to maintain control over other human beings made in the very image of God. 

Ethical challenges in the digital age

While technology has brought incredible benefits and conveniences into our lives, it also has led to countless unintended consequences and deep ethical challenges that push us to consider how to live out our faith in a technological society. Each day we are bombarded with fake news, misinformation, conspiracy theories, ever growing polarization, and more information than we could ever hope to process. We are regularly faced with challenges where wisdom and truth are needed, yet faith is not always welcomed in the public square and in the important debates over digital governance. In truth, technology has always been used and abused by those who seek to hold on to power and wield it to suppress free expression all around the world. But today, these threats seem more visceral and dangerous to our way of life than ever before.

One of the most challenging ethical issues of our day with technology is centered around the proper role of digital governance and the ethical boundaries of free expression in the digital public square. Many have recently begun to question the role of the technology industry over our public discourse, as well as the responsibilities of individuals, third-party companies, and even the role of the government in digital governance. While much of the dangerous, illegal, and elicit content is rightly moderated, questions remain as to what kind of ideas or speech are to be welcomed in the digital public square and how we’re to maintain various ethical boundaries as we seek to uphold free expression and religious freedom for all. 

On one hand, our digital public squares are very public and have an incredibly diverse group of community members. But on the other hand, there is often immense pressure to conform to certain secular ethical principles that tend to push people of faith out of public conversations and debates simply based on their deeply held beliefs about God, the nature of humanity, and how we are to navigate these challenges to free expression and religious freedom. 

A new research project

The complex nature of the questions surrounding ethics and religion in the digital age is exactly why I am excited to announce that the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission is pioneering a new research project called the Digital Public Square. This project is designed to help provide the local church and the technology industry with thoughtful resources that will help everyone engage these important debates over digital governance and promote free expression as well as religious freedom for all. We seek to cast a robust vision for public theology and ethical engagement in a technological society — a vision grounded in a historical understanding of the role of the church in society and in the unchanging Word of God. While some believe that religion has no role to play in a modern society, we believe that our faith is central to how we engage these pressing issues and live faithfully in the digital age.

The Digital Public Square project will gather some of the best voices from across academia, journalism, public policy, think tanks, and most importantly, the local church to clarify the state of the digital public square and to cast a vision for Christian engagement in the areas of content moderation, online governance, and engagement with the technology industry as a whole. Just as Christians have sought to develop a robust public theology on matters of church and state relations for many generations, Christians must also think deeply about how God would call us to engage the challenges of technology and these companies that operate around the globe in vastly different cultural contexts. We will seek to answer questions surrounding the nature of free expression, the role of democratic values around the world, and best practices for cultivating a truly diverse digital society where people of faith are a vital part of these important conversations.

We will do so in a four-prong approach that will extend throughout 2021 and 2022. The project will include an in-depth report on the state of the digital public square, a set of guiding ethical principles for digital governance, and numerous resources for the local church to use in order to engage and bear witness to the gospel in the digital age. These resources will include two different book-length volumes: Following Jesus in a Digital Age with B&H Publishing, and The Digital Public Square: Ethics and Religion in a Technological Society from B&H Academic in 2022. The latter will feature contributions from 14 leading thinkers from across society addressing the pressing issues of digital governance, such as the nature of the public square, US and international technology policy, religious freedom, hate speech/violence, seuxality and gender issues, pornography and other objectionable content, misinformation, fake news, conspiracy theories, and the rise of global digital authoritarianism. 

To learn more about the Digital Public Square project and to receive project updates, along with our weekly content on technology ethics, visit ERLC.com/digital.