Voices: Restraint: Being a Christian presence on social media

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Baseball used to be America’s favorite pastime. Now that honor might go to fighting on social media. Most people with internet access have at least one social media account, and those with such accounts have access to controversy all day every day.

I am not immune. Within a week or two of first creating my Facebook account as a teenager, I got in trouble with my parents for arguing with a complete stranger about politics. During the 2016 election cycle and its immediate aftermath, I proved old habits die hard.

I don’t think I’m the only person to feel a near-compulsion to weigh in on controversy through my social media. I also don’t think this compulsion is entirely wrongheaded. I do think it can and does sometimes go terribly wrong.

Mixed motivations

I can pinpoint two primary motivations that make me want to jump into the fray on social media. One is pure pride. I am 24 years old with a college degree and most of a master’s degree; so, I know just about everything. Obviously, the world needs to hear my opinion on all the hot topics of the day. I hope my sarcasm is apparent.

The other motivation is more Christian and biblical. God commands his people to speak up in the face of sin and injustice (Ephesians 5:11; Proverbs 31:8-9). Silence in the presence of evil is itself a sin. While I certainly struggle with pride, I also have a passion for truth and righteousness, as I think most Christians do.

What should we do with this tension between pride and righteousness? Is it possible to thread the needle, to boldly speak God’s truth while mortifying our pride? Is it possible to do this on social media? Can Christians have social media presences that speak light into darkness while also exhibiting the deepest humility? I think it’s possible, but it’s not easy.

The dangers of social media

The very design of social media militates against such an approach. Platforms like Facebook and Twitter are designed to provide immediate, individual access. There is no editorial board to review everything and provide feedback before letting it go public. The way these sites are set up, you can log on and fire off a barrage of hot takes in less than 30 seconds.

This has become especially problematic as “fake news” continues to spread. More and more people are sharing false information—both unintentionally and intentionally—on social media. This now is an international crisis. Governments are recognizing the danger of political factions and extremist groups using social media to spread disinformation.

Social media also lacks the nonverbal forms of communication vital for nuance and proper understanding. It’s easy enough to misinterpret a personal conversation. It’s even easier to misinterpret a tweet or a Facebook comment.

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Anonymity and the impersonal nature of social media also decrease the potential consequences of speaking more antagonistically than you would in person. This has led to the rise of “extreme speech” on social media, which often takes the form of expressing hatred and even making threats of violence.

Biblical wisdom

The Bible has plenty to say about how best to communicate with others. James tells us to be “quick to listen and slow to speak” (1:19). Proverbs encourages us to “restrain our lips” (10:19) and “guard our mouths” (13:3). The emphasis here is on slowness and restraint. Social media encourages being quick to speak. The Bible encourages slowness and often silence.

Social media is uniquely vulnerable to the proliferation of falsehood and half-truths. Scripture, however, is full of verses about the importance of truth. Christians should hold ourselves accountable to the highest standards of truth and accuracy. We should fact check and re-check anything we want to say—especially if it will be controversial.

Proverbs says, “A gentle answer turns away wrath” (15:1). Paul wrote that bondservants of the Lord must not be “quarrelsome” and must offer correction “with gentleness” (2 Timothy 2:24-25). Facebook and Twitter won’t block your posts or take them down simply for being angry and harsh. Christians must self-police in this area, and I often do not succeed.

The good news is we have the accountability of each other. The Bible encourages Christians to submit to one another (Ephesians 5:21) and to hold each other accountable (Galatians 6:1; Hebrews 3:12-13; Matthew 18:15-17). Rather than just sound off on social media, what if we regularly consult other believers before we post something?

Public witness

Jesus calls his followers “the light of the world” and commands us to let our light shine before others so they may see our good works and glorify God (Matthew 5:14-16). One of our key tasks as believers is to bear witness to who God is and what God has done. Through our words and deeds, we point people to Christ.

One way we can “let our light shine” is through our social media presence. We as Christians can (and should) be known for speaking the truth in love, for caution and restraint in our speech and for countering the hatred and lies that spread on the internet.

Here’s the thing: None of us are obligated to use social media. There is no biblical commandment to have a Facebook or Twitter account. This is something that has tripped me up. I often have assumed my obligation to speak up is an obligation to do so on social media. It isn’t.

Perhaps one of the ways we can model biblical restraint and wisdom best is simply to speak less on social media, or even not at all. James might consider Twitter or Facebook mere extensions of the tongue he says is so dangerous (3:1-12). There are other avenues for public witness, and we might be wise to use them instead.

Joshua Sharp is a Master of Divinity student and graduate assistant in the Office of Ministry Connections at Truett Seminary in Waco, Texas. The views expressed are those solely of the author.

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