As discussion over controversial social issues explodes online, how should believers engage and respond to these conversations?
Facebook’s founder, Mark Zuckerberg, recently told reporters, “I just believe strongly that Facebook shouldn’t be the arbiter of truth of everything that people say online. Private companies probably shouldn’t be, especially these platform companies, shouldn’t be in the position of doing that.”
This move is merely the latest in a long chess match between those who believe that online conversations should be policed and those who believe that cyber regions should maintain open borders to anything that might be said, however questionable.
The debate has escalated as Twitter has taken to tagging President Trump’s tweets with factchecking links. In response, “Trump accused Twitter of censorship – in a tweet – and has announced plans to issue an executive order that could strip social media companies of protections against liability for user content.”
This tug-of-war between what we should be allowed or banned from saying in online spaces really boils down to these essential questions.
Do online conversations carry the same weight as face-to-face ones?
Where is the balance between expressing the truth (as far as we know it) and taking others’ fears and pain into account before we speak?
Does It Really Matter in the End?
It’s worth noting that this issue existed long before the creation of social media platforms. The internet and, before that, newspapers offered people a way to air their opinions on social issues while minimizing actual interactions with their audience. Unfortunately, the distance has also reduced the need to take the impact of their words on others into account.
As my father once pointed out to me, people will do things in their cars on the road that they would never do to one another while strolling down the sidewalk. Our cars insulate us from the consequences of flipping someone else off in the same way that social media allows us to more easily ignore others’ humanity and the repercussions of what we say.
As believers, we must acknowledge that a written word, even if we don’t know who the audience will be, has enormous power if only because it can be returned to endlessly, unlike a spoken conversation which fades with memory.
Beyond that, though, the Bible says that we will be called to account for our words. David Wilkerson wrote about this very issue, saying, “As Christians, we must face the indisputable fact that the heart is unclean, defiled, and often we speak ungodly things.
“‘A good man out of the good treasure of his heart brings forth good things, and an evil man out of the evil treasure brings forth evil things. But I say to you that for every idle word men may speak, they will give account of it in the day of judgment. For by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned’ (Matthew 12:35-37).
“Those are the words of Jesus and we need to take them to heart…. The secret to victory over anything in your life is closeness to Jesus, intimacy with him, knowing him. Drawing near to his presence will reveal what is in your heart. If you gossip or allow unkind things come out of your mouth, go to the Lord and ask him to help you. And ask the Holy Spirit to put conviction on you each time you start to say something careless, unthinking or unkind.
“May the prayer of your heart be, ‘Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in Your sight, O Lord, my strength and my Redeemer’ (Psalm 19:14).”
If we take Jesus seriously, then we’re going to be much more careful about how we talk to others. Psalm 19:14 will be the prayer of our hearts before we type a single word.
The Law of the Heart and Mind
The topic of governmental censorship, whether in person or online, is a can of worms with wide-reaching ethical, political and social repercussions that one article could never hope to cover in its entirety.
It’s safe to say, however, that God’s law has always held us to a higher standard than any human legislation ever could. Moses’ law condemned infidelity in a marriage, but Jesus’ stated, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matthew 5:27-30, ESV). Christ called his followers to an incredibly high standard of loving people not only with our actions but also with our thoughts and intentions.
That’s impossible unless we start seeing individuals through the Holy Spirit’s lens as beings in God’s image and sacrificed for by Christ. The Gospel Coalition writer Matt Smethurst mused on how only this mentality will allow believers to love others through contentious online debate.
“In his book How to Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds [20 quotes], Alan Jacobs reflects on the human tendency to be constantly clarifying—and widening—the chasm between our perceived opponents and ourselves. We depersonalize in order to delegitimize.
“Yet such social habits come at a steep cost—and not just to our enemy. Jacobs observes: ‘We lose something of our humanity by militarizing discussion and debate; and we lose something of our humanity by demonizing our interlocutors. When people cease to be people because they are, to us, merely representatives or mouthpieces of positions we want to eradicate, then we, in our zeal to win, have sacrificed empathy: we have declined the opportunity to understand other people’s desires, principles, fears. And that is a great price to pay for supposed “victory” in debate.’
“This doesn’t mean we should downplay truth. But love remembers this: people are far more than the sum of their sometimes mistaken positions. The image they bear doesn’t ride on the views they hold.”
Only by holding up people’s real value before ourselves will we be able to honor our God through our conversations with them, no matter how unpleasant they behave.
The Tongue of Truth and Love
Our first allegiance in life, in discussion, in social media chats must always be to God and therefore to truth. Jesus called himself the way, the truth and the life.
This doesn’t mean that, as believers, we have the right to land-blast anyone who is espousing a false view. It also doesn’t mean that we will understand or have the truth right all the time. We may miss the mark or hold incorrect beliefs because of how we were raised or wrong information we were given, and that’s where we desperately need others to correct us.
We need to accept corrections in the truth even as we boldly stand up for what is right and good. That humility can change everything in a conversation.
As Brett McCracken, editor for The Gospel Coalition, pointed out, “Some truths will be traumatic to certain people regardless of how they are presented. The most winsome, loving presentation of a biblical sex ethic, for example, will still be accused of being hateful, bigoted, and threatening by many.
“Still, one’s tone can go a long way toward creating space for difficult ideas to be heard and rationally engaged. An aggressive delivery will naturally be met with a defensive response. But a logical and loving delivery, couched in empathetic understanding, gentleness, and respect (1 Pet. 3:15), might be met with an openness to dialogue.”
Christ never shied away from correcting wrong, but he also was incredibly gracious with people. When he met the woman at the well, he didn’t start in on her five ex-husbands (and current live-in boyfriend). Instead, he invited her into a dialog about what can quench the human heart’s endless thirst.
In many ways, the Bible’s call to us is for less self-censorship and more love in our speech.