The Rules of (Social Media) Engagement
You are very likely going to be exposed to disagreements, debates, and conflict on social media. What rules of engagement should Christians consider?
The following is a recap of a message given at City On a Hill on October 21st, 2018. You can listen to the whole thing here.
There's nothing quite like hearing your phone chirp at you. You know the sound, right? The sound of a text message, Facebook message, or comment on a status update on some social media platform? The sound is exciting because it means someone wants to communicate with you. Someone is interested in engaging in conversation with you. Someone is paying attention to you. So you pick up your phone or open your computer, and with great anticipation you pull open the notification, and there it is! Someone has commented on your status!
And they completed disagree with everything you wrote.
A recent survey from Pew Research Center concluded that over 60% of individuals feel high levels of stress and anxiety when they are in the midst of a disagreement on social media. A whole entry could be written on the brain chemistry, the dopamine release, the stress levels, and the behavioral problems that arise from conflict on social media, but I'll leave that to someone else who knows the science better. The issue at hand today is not so much the psychological effects that social media has on us, but the relational impact social media has on us, particularly when we engage in a disagreement, and specifically in the church.
This fall, we discussed in my home church the reality that social media will almost certainly expose you to conflict if you stay on it long enough. Facebook estimates that since 2009, 55 billion hours have been logged. Of those hours, one can only imagine the number of hours spent arguing. Online conflict is a reality we should embrace. It doesn't seem to be going away anytime soon.
It's Not All Bad
Disagreements aren't fun by any stretch of the imagination, but they certainly aren't always bad. In fact, some of the greatest human advancement and innovation has come at the crossroads of conflict. One of the greatest benefits of healthy disagreement is that it forces us to consider our own position much more closely. It is hard to know just how convincing a position on a particular topic is until it is challenged. When someone questions what you believe, all the sudden you have to decide, "Is this something I DEFINITELY believe myself? Have I really thought about this in depth?" This is a healthy place to be. If we never deeply consider the things we believe, how can we be sure we really believe them? So conflict is not always a bad thing at all. There are some surprising benefits to engaging in disagreement. Even in the Scripture we see how conflict, when handled appropriately, can lead to resolution that ultimately brings rejoicing.
A Biblical Example
In Acts 15, a dispute arises regarding a particular brand of false teaching that was being espoused by a sect of believing Pharisees in Antioch (Acts 15:1-5). The dispute is quickly taken to Jerusalem to the Jerusalem Council, where the church, the apostles, and the elders will all listen to the case being made on both sides of this issue. The Pharisees present their side, and then testimony is given by the Apostle Peter, and then Paul and Barnabas follow after. Their experience prior to this council meeting was that Gentiles were coming to faith and receiving the Holy Spirit, and so they didn't see any need to place the law of Moses onto Gentiles (Acts 15:10-11). After hearing everyone speak, James, the leader of the New Testament church and half-brother of Jesus, stands up and gives his judgment. A letter is written describing his judgment and sent back to Antioch to be read as a resolution, and the result was rejoicing. The church, in the midst of dispute, was encouraged by the resolution.
It's an incredible story, and how nice would it be if the disputes in churches today ended this way? The reality is, not every dispute will have a resolution on this side of eternity (ESPECIALLY on social media), but great pains can be avoided if we in the church take some notes from the early church. In modern warfare, there are particular laws that govern the wars that are fought known as the law of war, although it is frequently referred to as, the law of armed combat. Beyond that, each side develops their own rules of engagement that are meant to limit certain practices to keep them in accordance with the law of armed combat. You can think of rules of engagement this way:
Rules of engagement are guidelines for conduct during conflict.
With that in mind, below are four rules of engagement for conflict that we face based on the conduct of the early church in Acts 15.
Rule #1: Is this worth my time?
It is a question that is not asked often enough. For the early church in Acts 15, it was worth their time, because the issue at hand was a false teaching that was beginning to affect the church and create divisions amongst the believers, particularly in Antioch (Acts 15:1-5). But is it always worth your time to engage in every debate that comes your way?
There is a growing misconception that if someone questions what you believe, that you are obligated to respond, and this is simply not true, ESPECIALLY on social media. One needs to look no further than to the Lord Jesus Himself. The Apostle Peter tells us in 1 Peter 2:23:
"23 And while being reviled, He did not revile in return; while suffering, He uttered no threats, but kept entrusting Himself to Him who judges righteously;"
The Apostle Paul encourages the believers in Rome:
"18 If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men." (Rom. 12:18)
The reality is, it's not always fruitful nor is it worth your time to defend yourself on social media. The level of intimacy with "friends" on a platform like Facebook is minimal, save for the deeper relationships forged outside of the internet, and in those instances perhaps a discussion in person or over the phone would be a better option. The reality is, engaging in serious discussion with individuals over a digital platform, particularly in text, is not the best way to debate ideas, because the text medium dehumanizes the interaction and creates larger polarization on the topic. A recent study proves this out, although experience has probably long since convinced you of this. There are of course, at least two reasons why it might be worth your time.
Two Reasons To Consider
A. Spectators: Sometimes, the real purpose of disagreement in the digital age is not to change the mind of the person you are talking directly to (the odds of that happening are only 1 in 5, according to this study), but to shape the minds of those who are watching the argument unfold.
B. Kindness: There is, in the Christian's life, at least one other reason to disagree with someone and engage in a back and forth debate. Sometimes, it is worth your time for no other reason than to use it as an opportunity to be kind to your opponent in the midst of a debate, an act rarely seen or experienced for most people. After all, it is, "the kindness of God that leads us to repentance" (Rom. 2:4).
Before you jump into a debate over some topic on the internet, the first rule of engagement is a simple question: "Is this worth my time?"
Rule #2: Listen Before You Speak (...or Type)
It's the age-old proverb, isn't it? "Listen before you speak." I personally like, "God gave you two ears and one mouth so that you would listen twice as much as you talk." As it turns out, it is actually proverbial. Proverbs 18:13:
"He who gives an answer before he hears, it is folly and shame to him."
In Acts 15, we see this play out as well. James, the leader of the New Testament church (Acts 15:19; 1 Cor. 15:7; Gal. 2:9), listens to the dispute of the brothers promoting the false teaching, as well as to Peter, and then Paul and Barnabas. There is never any indication that he sped their testimonies up or interjected at any point. Listening to your opponent will not negatively impact you in any way, and in fact, people will be less likely to respond with hostility (although nothing is a guarantee in this day and age). The second rule will serve you well: "Listen before you speak."
Rule #3: Consider the Scripture
In James' assessment of Peter's testimony, he is careful to point out that it is consistent with the testimony of the prophets (Acts 15:15). A great question to consider before responding to a critic on social media is, "Does the Word of God speak to this issue, and is my position consistent with it?" One of two things will happen if you use this rule of engagement. You will either solidify your position by showing its consistency with the Bible, or it will force you to reconsider your position. Both of these are great outcomes. After all, the Word is capable of equipping us for, "every good work" (2 Tim. 3:16-17). You can't go wrong with the third rule: "Consider the Scripture."
Rule #4: Know When to Quit
Finally, ask the question, "Has this gone on for longer than it should have?" There are times when a discussion can last a long time, and that's not always a bad thing. But, if the original point that was being argued for has long since faded into the background and you are about to start your fourth topic of disagreement, it may be time to pull the plug and walk away. Here is one way to think about it:
"A disagreement without a destination is a debacle."
Not all disagreements have a resolution like the one in Acts 15 (Acts 15:19-29), but if the disagreement doesn't even have a destination? If it isn't trending in one, semi-solid direction? It's a waste of time, plain and simple, and you certainly (hopefully) have better, more fruitful things to do. Before the debate carries on ad infinitum, remember rule number four: "Know when to quit."
Our witness for the Gospel of Jesus is still very much a factor when engaging with others on social media, especially in a heated argument. Debate is a good and productive thing when it is done the correct way, but it can also be quite devastating when left unchecked. If you will follow these four, simple rules of engagement, they won't solve all of your internet woes, but they certainly won't hurt you either.