As computer technology continues to develop at an ever-increasing pace, the networked personal computer has become an indispensable tool for many families in America and around the world. Its multiple uses have altered the way companies do business, and have dramatically changed the lives of us all. The "Computer Age" is upon us, and the "Information Superhighway," which was only a vague concept in the minds of most a few short years ago, is now a reality.
The opportunity to personally interact with others is no longer limited to e-mail, instant messages, chat rooms, or forums, but now extends to social networks using Facebook, MySpace and YouTube, and to online diarists—"bloggers" (short for "Web loggers")—using services such as Word- Press, Blogspot and TypePad. Many people enjoy creating their own personal Web pages, where they can post photos of family and friends, and can express their religious or political views—or even what they are doing at random moments throughout the day, as do millions of Twitter users.
While the Internet provides many exciting ways to make new friends and keep in touch with old ones, Christians need to evaluate carefully how we use this technology. Even in cyberspace—especially in cyberspace!—the "same old" guidelines for Christian communication apply. In Colossians 4:6 we read, "Let your speech always be with grace, seasoned with salt, that you may know how you ought to answer each one." Keeping spiritual principles of communication in mind, here are a few general guidelines that all members in God's Church should follow.
Take It to Your Brother, Not to the Internet
One of the most common mistakes many of us in God's Church make is the misapplication (or lack of application) of Matthew 18:15. Christ instructed: "Moreover if your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone." All too often, we do not take it to our brother alone—we complain to anyone within earshot!
And now the Internet takes this problem to a whole new level. Instead of just one or two others in a local congregation hearing our grievance, Internet communication now makes it possible for gossip to be spread to hundreds or even thousands of people. This is not an overstatement! The potential for wrecking relationships and damaging others' reputations by careless words on the Internet is enormous.
When posting videos or blogging at the numerous sites that are now available, we must at all times avoid personal attacks on the character of others, or any statements that could be misconstrued as slanderous. This is not only for moral reasons, but for legal ones as well. Any blog entry, photo or video that is perceived as defamation or slander could find its way into the courts. God says, "What right have you to declare My statutes, or take My covenant in your mouth.… You give your mouth to evil, and your tongue frames deceit. You sit and speak against your brother; you slander your own mother's son" (Psalm 50:16, 19–20).
In contrast, true love covers a multitude of sins (1 Peter 4:8), and a true Christian will follow this admonition. We all need to uphold high standards of conduct when discussing anyone, in or out of God's Church. If we have a problem with a brother or sister, we must take it to them—not to the Internet.
Weigh Your Words Online
While I was in college, I had an overseas assignment during which students were cautioned to be circumspect in letters written home, because of the long distances and time lag in long-range communication. We were cautioned against writing when we were having troubles with loneliness or adjustments in our new surroundings, or when we might have some problem with our work or our co-workers. It was better to wait until our emotions had cooled and our perspective had improved. Why? It took two weeks for our letters to arrive home. By the time parents read a letter's "tales of woe" and had been worried sick as a result, the student who wrote in a momentary burst of emotion would often have long since forgotten what had prompted such a strong comment!
In the same way, we need to weigh our words today, because the Internet puts a new spin on this problem. Posts and e-mails are dispatched instantaneously, at the touch of a button. Now, friends, acquaintances, and sometimes even strangers, can read our words of frustration and angst almost immediately. And our words can have virtual, never-ending life on the Internet, long after we have recovered from our immediate frustration.
Remember, what goes on the Internet, stays on the Internet! Once you hit the "send" or "post" button, you are putting your trust in how other people handle the information. Do not write or post anything that you do not want the entire global population to know! Undisciplined chatter on a blog, or posting inappropriate photos, may come back to haunt an individual years later. Companies now monitor blogs and social networking sites, and search the Web to make sure they are hiring only the most qualified candidates. They do not want an employee who has been caught angrily attacking a former boss or company, or someone who indiscriminately lashes out at others. They also may shy away from hiring a potential employee who is pictured in inappropriate photos of partying with alcohol or dressing suggestively. Wisdom is the key!
We all become frustrated from time to time. We all say things we wish we could take back. But as hard as it can be to "take back" words that were said face to face, it is even harder to take back our postings or e-mails, which others may circulate long after we have changed our minds about what we wrote. How many of us have clicked "send" or "submit" and then later regretted what we wrote in haste? In the age of the Internet, the proverb is even more meaningful: "Do you see a man hasty in his words? There is more hope for a fool than for him" (Proverbs 29:20). We must weigh our postings carefully, especially in the Information Age, for "in the multitude of words sin is not lacking" (Proverbs 10:19).
On a more sobering note, parents must be aware what their children and teens are posting. Monitor the use of the Internet by your children and teens, and help them understand the dangers that lurk in "cyberspace." Everyone needs to be careful when posting on sites such as Facebook, My- Space, or YouTube. Cyberstalking is a real threat, and many perverted individuals prey on young people. It is a good practice to instruct your children about Internet guidelines, and view their activities regularly. Have them show you their Facebook or MySpace page, as well as the pages of their friends. Keep informed about new trends they may be viewing on the Internet, and be aware of the dangers that are present. If you are not familiar with computers and the Internet, take the time and make the effort to educate yourself! It is simply too dangerous to fail to be aware of how your child is using the Internet. It is our responsibility, as parents, to protect our families by being aware of what our children are writing on the Internet, and to whom.
One golden rule of Internet use is: never give out personal information that could be damaging to you if it fell into the wrong hands (such as addresses, phone numbers, Social Security Numbers, etc.). Another rule is: never reply to a message requesting personal information, passwords, account numbers, etc., in a reply message. Go to the site directly to look for a message to reply to (such as eBay or PayPal) or use the phone to call, using a phone number. Never give out passwords over the Internet.
Reflect Christ in Cyberspace
How is our example on the Internet? Do our postings represent positive reports? Do they speak the truth—or just what we might have heard through the grapevine? Are they just and fair comments to the parties involved? Are they pure, lovely, and virtuous? Are they of "good report" and worthy of praise? These are qualities that Paul said should characterize what we think (Philippians 4:8). As members of God's Church, whatever we say and post is a reflection on His Church and even Christ Himself.
Are we glorifying God and edifying the body of Christ by our words? Or are we just satisfying our own ego by expressing our opinions? What about how we speak about the Church, or decisions by the ministry? Is it respectful to those in leadership positions? Jude warns against speaking evil of dignitaries (Jude 8).
In today's world, people are encouraged to "say everything"—" let it all come out, both good and bad." The result is that shocking, unimaginable filth clutters the Internet. Some have no respect for others' feelings at all. Sometimes anonymous posts or the use of pseudonyms can embolden individuals to post things that they would never write if their identity were known. Obviously, this should not be the case for us, if we are members of the body of Christ. Some who go online have cast aside all rules of etiquette (or, to use the neologism coined in the 1980s, "netiquette"). Yet Solomon said a man is a fool if all he is interested in is expressing his own heart (Proverbs 18:2).
The Bible really teaches a different way. Paul exhorted us to be responsible "ambassadors for Christ" (2 Corinthians 5:20). We are to use a filter on what comes out of our mouth and what we express to others. In Psalm 141:3, David implored God, "Set a guard, O Lord, over my mouth; keep watch over the door of my lips. "What is that filter? Love. As the Apostle Paul explained, we must speak the truth, but it must be in love (Ephesians 4:15).
Most of us who use the Internet can remember times when well-meaning brethren have tried to play the role of "online spokesman for Church doctrine" but have ended up doing more harm than good. If someone is genuinely confused about a particular policy or procedure set in place, or if there is a biblical question, the matter should be addressed to the local pastor for clarification. Every effort will be made to clear up any misunderstanding of policy, or to answer any question that is asked. God's ministers are always available, and are eager to teach and explain the scriptures to anyone seeking an answer. New contacts can be directed to the Church's Web sites and literature for clarification on a particular doctrine or point of prophecy.
We are grateful that many Church members have the time, skill and interest to help Area Pastors set up and administer local congregation Web sites. If you have the inclination and skills, contact your Area Pastor for instructions on how to get started. The Church has put together a protocol of standards and guidelines for local congregation Web sites. Members may obtain a detailed review of guidelines for creating these sites by contacting our Legal Affairs or Media Department at LCG International Headquarters (you can reach them via e-mail at [email protected] or [email protected]). You can also contact Legal Affairs or the Media Department for guidelines on posting links to the Church's Web sites on personal Web pages.
The Church certainly wants to encourage creativity and communication among its membership, but it is vital that we never let our "creativity" come at the expense of our Christian responsibilities toward one another. When we communicate, in any medium, we should remember that we are doing so as converted Christians—representatives of Christ and His Church—and that as a result we should always show love toward one another and avoid confusion in all that we say or do. As Paul wrote: "Now I plead with you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment" (1 Corinthians 1:10).
Give an Answer, Not a Sermon!
What about being called to answer for our beliefs? Is it wrong to express our beliefs in personal online communications? Of course not! Jesus warned that in the last days His disciples may be called upon to give testimony for Him (Luke 12:11). The Apostle Peter instructed us to "sanctify the Lord God in your hearts, and always be ready to give a defense to everyone who asks you a reason for the hope that is in you, with meekness and fear" (1 Peter 3:15). We need to be ready to give an answer. Paul told the brethren that by this time they ought to be capable of teaching (Hebrews 5:12).
But applying Peter's instruction takes discretion and discernment. It takes understanding what our role is, and what it is not. Though we are all called to be part of the body of Christ, we are not all called to be the mouth or the spokesman (1 Corinthians 12:18). Those who find themselves discussing Church matters online should make it clear that they are expressing their personal views and do not speak for the Church—unless they have been appointed to such a role. The Internet is full of self-exalted teachers of doctrine—it seems to be one of the signs of the times. Even members of God's Church must be wary of falling into this temptation. James said we should not covet the job of teacher, for teachers are judged more strictly. It is a serious warning—as teachers are held responsible for what they teach (James 3:1).
Even in posting personal expressions of belief, be wise and discerning. To put a new twist on an old phrase, "whatever can be misunderstood will be misunderstood!" Especially in today's highly critical environment, and because your words can be archived and available for years after you have posted them, any explanations you give of your beliefs and activities need to be careful and well thought out.
Even the Apostle Paul, with his tremendous depth of understanding and grasp of doctrinal nuances, was misunderstood— and his writings were twisted—by some (2 Peter 3:16). Today, articles published in the Living Church News and Tomorrow's World are pored over by a group of editors and reviewers. Even articles written by long-time ministers and experienced authors are still checked and double-checked for accuracy and clarity, to try to ensure that they really convey what the Bible says and what the author intended. And even then, as Paul experienced, sometimes misunderstandings can ensue. How much more important it is for each of us individually, who do not have a staff double-checking our words, to be extra careful of what we write for public consumption! If you post opinions quickly and carelessly, without taking time to prayerfully review your words, you do so at your own peril. Once you have posted something that a reader can prove is incorrect, it is out there in cyberspace, and may already have been archived, copied or printed by others before you catch your mistake and fix it. Even today, Web users can search old USENET postings from the 1980s, from a time when many were not so careful about their words—and many of those old words remain a permanent embarrassment to people who posted in haste decades ago! What you post online may last longer than you expect—and, even more importantly, your choices in communicating will have a lasting effect on your ability to cooperate with God instilling in you His holy and righteous character!
Jesus Christ warned that each of us will be held accountable for every "idle word" (Matthew 12:36). As Christians in God's Church, we are learning to be kings and priests. We are in training for that position right now. As we strive toward the high calling that God has prepared for us, let us all review our actions with regard to proper Internet communication, and let us make sure that we surpass the world's standards of politeness. We have a much higher standard to live up to—that of Jesus Christ. He is listening and watching. Notice Malachi's prophecy. "Then those who feared the Lord spoke to one another, and the Lord listened and heard them" (Malachi 3:16). As a Christian, you have a glorious future ahead. When you blog, post or e-mail, do so with that future in mind!