What the Bible says about using social media

Advice for online living, according to Apostle Paul

When it comes to social media, we often feel adrift. How should we behave in this relatively new space? After all, the Bible has nothing to say about social media.

Or does it?

Actually, it’s my contention that Paul wrote some good advice on the subject. Well, it is advice written for a different context, but I reckon it nails exactly the issues confronting us today in social media – for we are called to live out our new identity in Christ in the various contexts that present themselves to us.

So, I’m going to look at a Bible passage, Colossians 3:8-17, but with practical application to social media.

8: “But now you must get rid of all such things – anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive language from your mouth.”

I can sum this up by saying that, on our social media, we shouldn’t use words intended to hurt. Anger might result in bold words directed towards good change, but transformation should be our goal. One unhelpful strategy I have seen Christians use frequently is that of derogatory labels, such as ‘cultural Marxist’, SJW (social justice warrior), ‘fundie’ (fundamentalist) and ‘nutjob’. Such labels are simply a way of dismissing people or of positioning ourselves. They are about scoring points rather than persuasion.

Address the point, don’t dismiss the person.

9-10: “Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have stripped off the old self with its practices and have clothed yourselves with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator.”

Truth is frequently another casualty of social media wars. This often manifests through sharing biased or unreliable links, and can result in slander, which is condemned above in verse eight. In the passion of the moment, we share something that makes our point without checking it. This is no excuse.

It is good to check both the reliability of the source and of the particular story. There are websites to help you check bias and run fact checks, such as Media Bias Fact Check, Associated Press Fact Check, and Poynter International Fact-Checking Network.

We are to live out for the world a different way to be in community. On social media, this means we should resist polarisation.

11: “In that renewal there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all!”

This doesn’t mean that somehow those categories no longer exist. People live in the world with multiple identities. Rather, it means that in Christ we have a new kinship. Indeed, we are to live out for the world a different way to be in community. On social media, this means we should resist polarisation. Conviction is good, but we can so easily enter into a mindset of “my group” and right or wrong.

Instead, make friends with people different from you. Listen to them. Seek to love them – if they are Christian, as sisters and brothers, and for all, as people who are made in the image of God.

12: “As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness and patience.”

Often when we Christians argue on social media, we argue about how to be holy, but without similar concern for whether the way we are arguing is holy. In this public arena, we witness to Christ through Christlikeness. In particular, I would suggest we pay more attention to humility. We should be ready to admit our errors or lack of knowledge, especially on social media, where we speak more off the cuff more often.

13: “Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.”

With the options such as unfriending, unfollowing and blocking, social media seems to encourage a more disposable attitude towards relationship. At times it may be necessary, for example if you are being trolled or if a relationship is unsafe. But, let us introduce the gospel to how we deal with fights online. Instead of upping the ante with more inflamed comments, do things like take a break to calm down – or message the person privately to sort it out.

Apply that grace of the gospel, in which God declared that not one person was disposable.

Consider how you can offer online gestures of love.

14: “Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.”

Perfect harmony sounds like the exact opposite of many social media experiences. That’s hardly surprising, because we often don’t approach it as a place in which we work on our relationships. We do this more in the offline world. For the people I live with, I might try to love them better by keeping an eye out for when they are stressed and offering them a cup of tea or help. Consider how you can offer online gestures of love.

15: “And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful.”

Like harmony, peace isn’t associated with social media. I’m not going to suggest a weak version of peace here, in which we avoid saying anything that might upset people online. Peace should be the biblical “shalom” – promoting whole and healthy individuals, communities and world. Sometimes that will mean calling out injustice, for instance. But that understanding of peace also means we shouldn’t believe we have pursued it by simply naming and shaming online. Rather, we need to think through whether what we say and how we say it is going to be effective in pursuing peace.

Instead of merely venting, it is more helpful to view social media as a place in which we can collaborate together for shalom.

16: “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God.”

I must admit, I have been known to roll my eyes at people who post Bible verse memes continually. You wonder whether that is how they have conversations offline, lobbing in unrelated verses indiscriminately. We should treat social media more like conversation, rather than Christian advertising. However, this doesn’t mean we need to be coy about our faith. Instead, we can let our faith flow into our online lives in the same way it flows into our offline lives. This is about being genuine.

I once used to be awkward about my faith online, but I’ve increasingly shared my heartfelt joy and dependence on my faith openly on social media. I’ve found this has more clearly expressed my love for Jesus than Christian memes or preachy pronouncements.

Stop to pray – maybe even this verse – before you go on social media.

17: “And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.”

And, what a perfect place to finish. This seems self-evident, that we should seek to live online lives in the name of Jesus. Yet, behind our screens, it is so easy to slip into lower standards than we expect elsewhere.

So, what’s the antidote? For some, social media fasting has been proposed. But let me suggest a different spiritual discipline: prayer. Stop to pray – maybe even this verse – before you go on social media.

Pray for yourself when people upset you – before you respond. Pray for others as their need becomes evident. And thank God when you observe beauty and love in social media interactions. For God is present in the whole of creation – including online.

May you know the presence of God online, and may you be the presence of God online.

Megan Powell du Toit and Michael Jensen discuss “Social Media Etiquette 101” on episode 28 of their podcast With All Due Respect.