Should Christians disagree on social media?

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Social media, whether it’s twitter or Facebook (I assume that TikTok and Instagram have the same challenges but I’m not trendy or young enough to know) isn’t always the easiest place to be. Friends fall out quickly, words are said, others are muted, unfriended and blocked.  It can become toxic very quickly.

Sadly, that seems to be as true of how we Christians conduct ourselves on social media as non-Christians. In particular, we have seen the culture wars fought with increasingly strident words used.  People are quickly condemned as heretics if they interpret one verse in Genesis 3 slightly different to others or don’t use exactly the right form of words to describe the Trinity.  The recent revisiting of the debate over David’s Sin against or with Bathsheba offers a good but sad example. One side accuses the other of supporting violent suppression of women, the other side in turn claim that to disagree with them is to use worldly/Marxist methodology (Critical Theory) in order to intentionally promote a feminist political cause.

It’s no surprise then that quite a few people have been calling for the rollercoaster to stop so they can get off of it.  They have pleaded that we seek to show love on social media, to remember that these are platforms where our words and deeds are witnessed in public by believer and non-believer alike.  Some have gone so far as to suggest that we should restrict our use of social media to share Bible texts and evangelistic invitations.

Now, I think there are some important things to hear there.  First, we should remember that what we are saying is being witnessed and is in public. This does mean that we should consider how our words will either bring glory to Christ or dishonour to the Gospel.  Though remember that we should not modify our language for public consumption but speak in private as we want to be heard in public too.  But it does mean that I also want to consider how I’m overheard. Just as when I preach publicly to Christians, I am aware that those who don’t know Jesus yet are overhearing and so want them to be able to track back the Gospel from what I say, so too with Twitter and Facebook.

Secondly, I think we need to be aware of the limitations of social media. Much of it isn’t designed for nuanced conversation. Indeed, the platforms serve to amplify resulting often in heat rather than light. This also means that social media may not accurately reflect the true, wider mood as political parties have discovered to their cost.  In other words, we can assume that everyone is talking about a subject when in fact only a small minority, even of people on the social media platform, let alone the wider public have any idea of what is going on.  So, once again, to use the David and Bathsheba controversy as an example, I suspect that if you found your way to this article via twitter then you are well versed in the arguments and know the back stories of all protagonists on either side. That may even be colouring your own conclusion. Meanwhile, if you have found your way here via Facebook or a link from another blog then you may not have a clue what I’m on about and who all the people involved are. 

With this amplification of issues and of tribes comes a risk that we become passionate about minority, third order issues that (if we are church leaders) our congregations are unaware of and unbothered about.  Meanwhile it is even less likely that non-Christians are at all bothered about these things. The irony is that in our quest for relevance we become even less relevant.

Having said that, I want to put a word in for robust debate and even disagreement between Christians on social media. Why? Well, first of all because despite what we might think, our conversations in other contexts are public and observed too. Now, it may be less likely that a non Christian would be aware of a particular book these days but that reflects the evolution of communication. In the past, Christian disagreements were just as public as their tracts and pamphlets were read. I find that passionate atheists for example are just as aware of Christian disagreement on other media from blogs to journals as they are of our twitter arguments. The same goes for Muslim apologists.  This comes back to my previous point, we shouldn’t conduct ourselves different on social media to how we conduct ourselves in other contexts. Indeed, I suspect that truth will often out.  The flaws I display on twitter and Facebook are the same flaws you’ll see in me face to face sitting in our living room. This is why in the past I’ve spoken about the problem of cyber bullying.  Show me a bully online and I’ll show you the bully in real/embodied life.

Secondly, because in fact, these debates do make a difference. People are listening in who need to know that there are people who are putting a different view to what they’ve been led to believe,  Minds are changed but also as I’ve found through my personal inbox, often there are people who have been crushed and bullied by others, certain of their monopoly on truth and power. So, I can be a big encouragement to discover you are not alone and to have others advocating for you.

Thirdly, because the irony is that going on social media telling other Christians that they are in the wrong is unsurprisingly not a neutral position. You are in fact taking a stance and entering into the debate. 

Fourthly because of a more general point about social media and about debate.  Social media gets a bad reputation as not being the real world. And yes, it has its downsides but there are positives too. There are people I count as friends and Gospel partners today who I first met on Twitter. Just yesterday I had the privilege of meeting a brother in person for the first time who I first had contact with online. He also introduced me to another Gospel worker, a friend of his who is serving very close to us -and I in turn introduced them to another church planter. It all started with following each other on twitter!  Or take the book a few of us collaborated on about facing depression “The pastor with a thorn in his side.” Do you know what, whilst a couple of us have met in person, some of the contributors have only met via twitter, WhatsApp and Zoom.

Not only that but I now consider people to be good and faithful friends, people I have been able to turn to for support and you might not expect that from our initial encounters. We started out by arguing passionately with each other, realised we had things to learn from one another, started following each other on Twitter.  And as with the situation above, social media contact moved to in person contact. We may have disagreed on secondary issues but we were united in the Gospel.

So, whilst we may not be comfortable with the confrontation of debate, I’m also tempted to say “Don’t knock it until you’ve tried it.”

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