Saturday, April 13, 2013

Social Media and the Christian Ethic

Survey Says Social Media a Source of Rising Incivility

According to a recent article in the Christian Post, social media has become a source of growing incivility. According to a survey by Vitalsmarts, 19 percent of respondents have decreased their offline contact with someone because of something that person said on social media. An alarming 35 percent reported blocking or unfriending someone because of a disagreement they had on social media. One source believes that one solution is for “manners to catch up to technology.” After all, social media is a form of human communication. Since all human communication is behavior, it follows that all social media falls under the rubric of human behavior. All human behavior among Christians is governed by Christian Scripture. Hence, Scripture should inform how we behave on social media.

The first step, according to the article, is for Christians to talk about the behavior. This is certainly a good first step. My experience has been that Christians, even supposedly reformed, conservative Christians ignore any attempts to talk about civil behavior on social media. In fact, I have been told by some that any attempt to address incivility is not civil itself, making any conversation on the subject virtually impossible. Perhaps we should have a rating system of sites that are deemed to pass the grade of Christian civility. This way, Christians could go to that site and visit only those internet sites that are rated 4 or 5 stars and avoid the rest.

 The second solution the article offers is that Christians need to self-appoint themselves as judges or monitors. When they see behavior that violates the standards, they need to step in and point it out. This would be an excellent way to keep conversations civil. The issue is finding people who are willing to do that on sites where a handful of people rip others to shreds. The problem is that other viewers are worried that they will become the next target of the cyber-space bullies.

 88 percent of respondents said that people are less polite on social media than they are in person. Based on my experience with two supposedly Christian websites, I can say that this is very consistent with what I have encountered personally. There is no question that the behavior I have witnessed would never go on in Sunday school or Bible Study, not even for a second. This tells me that people really do know better.

The sad truth is that I have encountered some of the least civil people I know on Christian websites in forums that are supposed to promote open and free dialogue. The problem enters when the conversation steps into areas of authority. However, one must question how Christians can speak about most subjects without at the same time touching the issue of authority. What I mean is that if we are discussing human sexuality as an example, the authority of Scripture necessarily comes into view. Such authority forces us onto the sacred ground of judging and violates the greatest command of all relativists: thou shalt never judge anything for any reason, no matter what! The larger problem at issue, of course, is the threat that such conversations pose to autonomy and ego.

 American Christians have swallowed, hook, line, and sinker the American idea that everything is about individual choice. We can choose everything just the way we want it. Moreover, such a choice is ours by birth rite and that being a Christian doesn’t make it not so. If we want a divorce, it is our right, Scripture be ignored or at least reinterpreted to accommodate ME. Secondly, we have grown up under the radical notion of hyper self-esteem. The second great command is, you shall feel good about yourself, and everyone and everything that would make you feel bad or less significant in any way is ipso facto of the devil. People believe what they want to believe, not what they must believe. In fact, I am going to make an assertion that has been completely lost on the Church in America. All Christians everywhere are obligated and duty-bound to believe whatsoever the Scripture teaches. Modern, American Christians, especially the young ones who are more prone to social media, are repulsed by such talk. Others may give it lip service until you show them that Scripture clearly teaches something they find repugnant, such as prohibitions against gay marriage, abortion, and premarital sex.

For purposes of this article, these young believers have dispensed with certain Christian values, seeing them as outdated, ancient, and irrelevant. One of those values is Christian civility. Specifically, they have dispensed with Christian civility on social media. Christians are obligated to believe all that Scripture teaches. Scripture teaches that Christians must be civil toward others. Therefore, all Christians are obligated to believe that they must be civil toward others. It is a simple argument.

What does it meant to be civil? Webster tells us that civility means to be courteous and polite. Does Scripture have anything at all to say about the Christian’s obligation to be courteous and polite? Courtesy means to have respect for and consideration of others. When you disagree with a view or criticize a position, you must be able to do so while showing respect and consideration for others. Now, this does not mean that we soften heretical views or immoral conduct. We need not be considerate of heresy or sin. It is to the person that we must display consideration. This sets the definition for civility.

Are Christians obligated to believe all that Scripture teaches? Paul said in 2 Thess. 3:14 that if anyone does not obey his instructions in that letter to the Church, that they were to mark that man and do not associate with him. This can be done without hating someone. The person is simply informed that you do not think their Christianity is genuine, but at the same time, you do not regard them as an enemy. In other words, you do not think of them as an enemy, but you instruct and correct them as if they were a brother. Jesus said those who are of God keep God’s word. Those who do not keep God’s word are not of God. Yes, it is clear from Scripture that Christians are obligated to believe all that Scripture teaches.

Does Scripture teach that we are to be civil? The Greek word prautetos used in 1 Peter 3:16 commands believers not only to be courteous to one another, but even to those who are hostile to the faith. Even our defense of Christian theism must characterized by a gentleness of attitude and behavior, in contrast with harshness. In fact, courtesy is a fruit of the Spirit. This same word is used in Gal. 5:23. Gal. 6:1 tells us that even when we confront sin, we must be courteous. Scripture teaches that courtesy is a trait of those who have been chosen by God (Col. 3:12). Paul told Timothy, as a leader correcting others, that he must be courteous. (2 Tim. 2:25) The same Paul commanded Titus that he was to malign (slander) no one and that he must be courteous (Titus 3:2).

Civility is not down playing egregious error, heresy, or immoral behavior. It is not vacating our responsibility to hold one another accountable for living up to the confessions and the values that all Christians everywhere are obligated to believe and to practice. Civility is respectfully and gently, even if directly, putting one’s finger on the error and insisting on repentance. By insist, I do not mean yell, threaten or anything like that. By insist, I simply mean that we force the choice. There is no middle ground on the position or the behavior. Either the behavior or belief be abandoned or additional correction will follow.

Mock Situation: A person is engaging in some practice that Scripture deems unacceptable for a believer.

Wrong approach: You tell the person that what they are doing is ungodly, that they must be stupid, foolish, or unsaved and that they better repent right now or else. This is uncivil, discourteous, ungodly behavior in itself and makes the corrector no different from the erring believer (which we all tend to be from time to time).

Biblical approach: You tell the person that we are all sinners saved by grace and that we all err from time to time. God’s method for correcting error is community accountability with Scripture. You take the person to Scripture to discuss the error and show them how their behavior is out of step with Scripture. You help them understand their need to change their behavior, all the while recognizing your own sinfulness.

In terms of social media, it is no different. Christian values are not checked at the mouse. When you disagree with someone, your focus is on the position, not the person. If someone claims that a particular doctrine of practice is true or suitable, based on Scripture, it is perfectly acceptable to require them to substantiate it to be so using Scripture. In fact, it is our responsibility to make such requirements on one another. Those who think otherwise fail to comprehend the true impact of sin on the intellect. I can say that a person’s view is heresy without being ipso fact discourteous. But when I call them stupid, or other names in the process of criticizing their heresy, I have crossed the line. It is safe to scrutinize doctrine and arguments for truthfulness and validity. It is not spiritually safe to engage in malicious slander on the internet, in written letters, books, lectures, or any form of human communication. God has forbid all Christians from engaging in such behavior and we are all duty bound and obligated to do as our Creator mandates. If love is not the predominant identifier of Christian communication, then I would suggest that the communication is not distinctly Christian. All those communicating in a manner that is inconsistent with Christian love and civility should take the time to search your heart to see if there is something there that requires immediate and serious attention.

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