How to properly and safely use the Web has been a vital issue since its birth, and wise use of social media is a serious concern. How should Christians approach it? Applying the Bible to modern life is easier than you might think, and the wisdom it contains never changes, no matter how much society does.
I never signed up for Facebook. This was not because of any moral stance; as a capable procrastinator, I just never got around to it. I think I have possibly avoided considerable drama by not being on the platform, but I do love the idea of Facebook—keeping up with distant family, sharing photos and stories, reconnecting with old friends from high school and college.
Over the last few years, social media has become the primary form of communication for many. For good or ill, it now dominates the way we connect with the rest of the world. From it we get our news, political takes, short videos provided for distraction, and general entertainment.
The technology available in our modern age is truly unprecedented, and since it’s constantly changing, it can be difficult to keep up with. Social media platforms come and go like seasons. Where once was Vine, now there is TikTok. In the early 2000s, MySpace was so dominant the original Iron Man movie couldn’t resist mentioning it—who could foresee that, just a few years later, it would become a byword for the obsolete as the Facebook juggernaut crushed it in its ascendency?
By contrast, even the newest passages of the Bible are nearly two thousand years old, so one might reasonably wonder what it could possibly contribute to a modern society that is advancing so rapidly. How can the Bible guide us in the use of social media when Twitter and Facebook only started in 2006, and Instagram in 2010? Can the Bible say anything relevant about our communication when its ancient writers couldn’t possibly conceive of any of these platforms?
What Does the Bible Say About Social Media?
In a word, yes. Not only can the Bible still give us guidance, heeding its instruction is arguably more important now than ever. Discussing what social media is capable of, noted author Jordan B. Peterson said that “we are networked together more now than we ever have been…. the choices you make are amplified and distributed not only far faster than they ever have been, but with far more impact” (“The New Media: My Experience and More,” YouTube.com, November 7, 2017). Because of our new ability to reach many more people far more quickly, heeding the Bible’s instruction on discourse and interpersonal relationships has become crucial in an even deeper way.
A persona—sometimes called an archetype—is an individual character representing a larger group, and in this article, I would like to present to you four personas you will inevitably encounter on the World Wide Web: the Fool, the Teacher, the Busybody, and the Talebearer. It won’t take long to run into these personas; you’ll find that there are a lot of them using social media.
We’ll start with the Fool because he probably represents the broadest category—in fact, most human beings fit into this category in one way or another. That being said, fools are found along a spectrum of foolish behavior.
The Bible uses “fool” to denote one who lacks wisdom or judgment, but does so with respect to moral rather than intellectual deficiencies. The “fool,” as The New Unger’s Bible Dictionary says, is “not so much one lacking in mental powers, as one who misuses them…. one who is rash, senseless, or unreasonable” (“Fool,” 2009).
When we let our emotions start to control us, we venture into foolish behavior. Likewise, if we comment on posts we’d do better to ignore, or even comment on worthy posts in a manner that we know is argumentative, we begin to take on characteristics of the Fool—in other words, we act foolish. This does not mean that we are fools, but just that we are making foolish decisions, as everyone does at times.
How do you know if you have encountered the Fool online? Proverbs 10:8–10 makes it clear that “a prating fool will fall.” To “prate” is to talk foolishly and at tedious length about something—which may remind you of the common Internet “troll.” As Merriam-Webster defines it, “troll” is slang for “a person who intentionally antagonizes others online by posting inflammatory, irrelevant, or offensive comments or other disruptive content.”
While some fools fall into the “troll” category, Proverbs points out that many foolish individuals are simply bitter and resentful. We’re told, “A fool’s wrath is known at once” (Proverbs 12:16). How many times have you read a post of some type, scrolled down to the comments out of curiosity, and found that two comments in, someone was breathing fire over some slight or perceived injustice? Such people make their anger known immediately. Proverbs also notes, “A wise man fears and departs from evil, but a fool rages and is self-confident” (14:16). Again, the Fool can be found in any forum thread or comment section where the conversation quickly becomes vitriolic and starts to demonize a person or group of people. The wise are counseled to depart from this type of conversation.
When we use social media, one of the questions we should ask is “Who am I spending time with in this community?” Is it wise to spend time in a community if it has a high percentage of “fools”? Proverbs 13:20 notes that those who are the companions of fools will “be destroyed” or “suffer harm” (English Standard Version).
While sometimes we must correct something foolish being said—especially when vulnerable people are being influenced by the foolish talk—it is often wiser to steer clear of this type of engagement. Proverbs 1:7 and 23:9 point out that the Fool despises wisdom and wants to wallow in foolishness. He will not be convinced by a rational and wise rebuke—he’ll just entrench himself further into his foolish outlook.
In fact, the Bible warns that correcting the Fool usually results in a larger argument. Proverbs 20:3, 29:9, and 29:11 show that “any fool can start a quarrel,” “whether the fool rages or laughs, there is no peace,” and a “fool vents all his feelings, but a wise man holds them back.” This is in part because the Fool doesn’t give much thought to what is right and true—only to his own opinion and expressing his own heart, because in his own eyes, he is always right (Proverbs 12:15–16).
With the reach of social media, it’s never been easier to shower our knowledge upon others—but should we? James 3:1 says, “My brethren, let not many of you become teachers, knowing that we shall receive a stricter judgment.” This primarily emphasizes that teachers in God’s Church, having been given the important task of conveying doctrine, are therefore subject to closer scrutiny.
But this verse also cautions all of God’s people against hastily acting as experts on health, diet, vaccines, homeschooling, personality types, or any other subject in which we consider ourselves knowledgeable. While it’s certainly not wrong to discuss these matters, it’s all too easy to place oneself in the role of the Teacher. Doing so brings a high level of responsibility—and risk. James goes on to issue a stern warning about the dangers of the tongue:
Even so the tongue is a little member and boasts great things. See how great a forest a little fire kindles! And the tongue is a fire, a world of iniquity. The tongue is so set among our members that it defiles the whole body, and sets on fire the course of nature; and it is set on fire by hell. For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and creature of the sea, is tamed and has been tamed by mankind. But no man can tame the tongue. It is an unruly evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless our God and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in the similitude of God. Out of the same mouth proceed blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not to be so (vv. 7–10).
This is very corrective language—but again, it provides guidance for our interpersonal relationships. When we take on the role of the Teacher, even if we have the best intentions, we can potentially cause a great conflagration of passionately held convictions and have devastating effects both online and offline. And what we post on social media can spread even faster than a wildfire. Words unfitly spoken can cause catastrophic spiritual damage, whether they’re spoken to one person, a crowd of people, or a massive social media landscape.
1 Peter 4:15 says, “But let none of you suffer as a murderer, a thief, an evildoer, or as a busybody in other people’s matters.”
Have you ever wondered why a persona as seemingly mild as “a busybody” is listed among murderers, thieves, and evildoers? How did the Busybody end up on such a dreadful roster of sinners?
Three different words are translated “busybody” in the New Testament, and each adds to the overall picture of this persona. Fundamentally, to be a “busybody” means “to meddle,” but one could also add “to judge others rather than the self” and “to go beyond proper boundaries.”
Addressing Timothy, Paul was rather plain spoken about this: “And besides they learn to be idle, wandering about from house to house, and not only idle but also gossips and busybodies, saying things which they ought not” (1 Timothy 5:13).
The Busybody is presumptuous—not respecting proper boundaries—and has knowingly or unknowingly set himself up as a judge over the lives of others. Many friendships and family relationships have ended through social media because of this character. The danger of becoming the Busybody should not be taken lightly—great harm comes from such people. The Busybody’s place among murderers, thieves, and evildoers should help us to understand the magnitude of his destructive powers.
Leviticus 19:16 introduces us to the biblical persona of the Talebearer: “You shall not go about as a talebearer among your people; nor shall you take a stand against the life of your neighbor: I am the Lord.”
Thanks to social media, the ability to “go about” has never been easier. A study into the Hebrew word rakil, translated “talebearer,” paints an ugly picture of someone intent on gathering slanderous information about others. The word denotes one who is a slanderer, an informer, a scandal-monger traveling about.
Rakil is derived from a primitive Hebrew root that describes someone traveling for trade. This is a person who travels about as if he were on a trade route, looking for scandals and slanderous information he can use to his benefit against other people. The Talebearer looks to swap “dirt” with anyone who is willing, taking pleasure in gathering and revealing injurious or private information.
This behavior is also linked to the Fool, as Proverbs 10:18 notes that “whoever spreads slander is a fool.” And like the presumptuous Teacher, the Talebearer is so devastating to a community that he is compared to a fire (Proverbs 26:20).
The Bible also provides us with instruction on how to deal with the Fool, the Teacher, the Busybody, and the Talebearer. “He who goes about as a talebearer reveals secrets; therefore do not associate with one who flatters with his lips…. Make no friendship with an angry man, and with a furious man do not go, lest you learn his ways and set a snare for your soul” (Proverbs 20:19; 22:24–25).
Scripture shows us that oftentimes the best course of action is simply to remain silent and remove ourselves from contentious people or situations. In other words, if we cannot use Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram without being surrounded by contentious people who want to argue foolishly or even reveal secrets, the best course of action is to not use such services at all.
What should we do instead? God’s word reveals that, too. “He who is devoid of wisdom despises his neighbor, but a man of understanding holds his peace. A talebearer reveals secrets, but he who is of a faithful spirit conceals a matter” (Proverbs 11:12–13).
The wise are discreet. They understand that all people make mistakes. Concealing a matter doesn’t mean engaging in a deceptive coverup; it just means that when your neighbor stumbles you don’t go running to make sure everyone knows about it—on social media or otherwise.
And thankfully, the proverbs tell us a relatively simple way to conduct ourselves wisely: Simply don’t say anything. “Even a fool is counted wise when he holds his peace; when he shuts his lips, he is considered perceptive” (Proverbs 17:28).
What We Say in Our Hearts
Advancements in our modern world can be difficult to keep up with. But our human nature doesn’t change. No matter the platform, we can hurt with words and be hurt by them. We all say insensitive things, especially when we don’t have all the facts—which is often the case. We all want to be a part of a community, but the irony of social media is that research is showing that such services are making us lonelier than ever.
According to God, the world is filled with the foolish, and they are busy getting their message out. If we spend a lot of time commenting and arguing online, it’s very likely that we are wasting our time. If we are wise, we will restrain ourselves, practice discernment, and comment sparingly.
In Psalm 14:1, David says, “The fool has said in his heart, ‘There is no God.’ They are corrupt, they have done abominable works, there is none who does good.” What’s interesting about this scripture is that whether or not “the fool” is denying God’s existence aloud, he is denying in his heart God’s relevance to the physical world. And it is in his actions and behavior that such a denial demonstrates itself.
The Apostle Paul quoted Psalm 14 in Romans 3:10–18 because, even a thousand years after the psalm was written, he still considered it relevant. Building on Psalm 14, Paul ended this section of scripture by saying, “There is no fear of God before their eyes.” Again, this is not a matter of people saying God doesn’t exist. “Maybe He does and maybe He doesn’t,” they reason. Theirs is more of a sense that “God doesn’t care what I do.” There is no fear of consequences from a divine being, so “I can get away with any behavior I desire.” In the end, the proverbial “fool” is simply one whose words and actions, online or offline, are not governed by God.
God’s spiritual laws that govern our lives and communities continue to be true and right, regardless of how much has changed about how we interact with one another. The Bible is still as relevant to our world as it has ever been. Let’s be peacemakers, hold our tongue, give people the benefit of the doubt, and avoid foolish behavior.