“Social media may have connected more human beings to one another than any other moment in human history, but it has also robbed us of quality in our relationships,” writes Rhyne R. Putman, in a very helpful article entitled: “How Social Media Worsens Theological Divides.”
This has been on display for the world to see in the last few weeks, on Twitter and in the “blogosphere,” as Christians have been debating different issues that pandemics and lockdowns raise for followers of Jesus. If you’ve seen any of this, you’ve noticed that sometimes the exchanges have been…less than pretty. Putman suggests that this has to do with the inherent weaknesses of social media itself:
Even with all this ability to communicate, we still gravitate toward echo chambers that protect us from the risks of having open dialogue. We love protecting our tribes, our labels, and the reassuring safety that comes in numbers. Anyone who challenges us is one click away from being unfollowed or blocked.
We dehumanize theological debates when we only think of people as their ideas. It is easy to get in a comment thread and play trench warfare, lobbing conceptual grenades at others without ever taking a moment to know and understand them as persons or having concern over how they may feel about what you say. When we engage in debates like this, we have forgotten that these social media accounts represent real people made in the image of God, deserving of basic human dignity.
This is true, right? I don’t know how many of you are personally engaged in this kind of a thing, but it is good counsel for the future, and a biblical way to see what many people around us are engaged in. Putman also observes:
Ultimately, we must remember the unbelieving world is watching. Behavior unbecoming of Christians can adversely impact the proclamation of the gospel to the unbelieving world. For this reason, Jesus repeatedly emphasized the need for his followers to love one another in their public witness to the world (John 13:35; John 17:21; John 23). With the same spirit, Paul discouraged law court disputes between Christians because of the impact it had on the unbelieving public (1 Cor. 6:1–6). A spirit of irenicism should permeate our debates and disagreements, especially in a post-Christian context in which faithful believers are becoming a minority.
Why is Putman’s point here so hard to remember sometimes? When I post something online, it’s there for everyone to read. Which means that, almost automatically, social media should be ruled out as a way to have real discussion about hard issues Christians disagree about, especially if our ideas are only half-formed, or we’re still working things out ourselves. But we can’t just think about ourselves, right? Even if I think my ideas are sound and worked out, Christian love leads me to consider anyone else who might engage with my ideas, or even “listen in” to the discussion online. This is the most obvious application (to this issue) of texts like Romans 14:1, and 15:1, and 1 Corinthians 6:1-8.
Of course, no one should think that hard discussions are somehow opposed to Christianity. Not at all. God has not made the church to be a monolithic group-think organization in which we at the bottom receive our thoughts from those at the top unquestioningly. Healthy Christian community will be full of all kinds of discussion about all kinds of issues. (Things like… How do we relate to current ideas about gender and family? Should we wear masks all the time? What about women being pastors? Which translation of the Bible is best? Should a church support missionaries fully or should they have a network of churches who support them? What does 1 Corinthians 11:14 mean? Who should we vote for in the Fall? What does the Bible really say about the Rapture? Calvinism: true or false? Is home schooling more biblical than public schooling? Are video games ok?)
But it is not a mark of health or maturity to lack the ability to distinguish between which kinds of discussions should happen in public, and which should be private.
For instance, imagine a close-knit extended family. To the world outside of the family boundaries, they present one (true) way of seeing them—they work hard, invite their neighbors over to their houses, and take care of each other. They seem to be characterized by total family unity. But what those outside the family don’t know is that, after a long family dinner, when the coffee is being poured, deserts are being served, the kids are playing upstairs, and it’s just family around the table, then the real discussions start. Then, when it’s understood that everyone present loves each other and is committed to each other no matter what, and fundamental unity is the air they all breathe—then the differences between them can come out, and they can have real, difficult discussions. They can debate politics and how Grandma is spending her savings and if the family business is headed in the right direction—and they can even argue and get heated if need be, because those things don’t touch the fundamental reality of their commitment to each other. They will leave that evening, even if they get mad at each other, still family, forever.
The world outside never needs to see those discussions, or overhear those arguments. It has nothing to do with them. And this is how we should view debates over everything from eschatology to what constitutes faithful Christian witness in the face of Coronavirus. There are a lot of different opinions out there. The Church is full of all kinds of views. Many of us are passionate about how we see things. By all means, debate them. But not on Social Media.
Invite everyone over. Get Tacos. Eat them and enjoy each other. Then clear the table and get down to business.
And if you’re locked down through June 8, try FaceTime with three close friends. Have it out. And then pray for each other.
It’ll beat Twitter every time.