The Gospel Coalition

 

The Bible for Bloggers

Bryan Chapell | Aug 27, 2012

What biblical principles should guide Christian bloggers? I am increasingly thinking about this question because maintaining the mission and reputation of the institution I lead increasingly requires me to respond quickly and frequently to questions, assertions, and criticisms from the unjuried world of the blogosphere.

I do not think I have always responded well. Defending truth may well require correction and rebuke (2 Tim. 4:2). Still, I confess discomfort with the ready sarcasm and flip accusations that seem so prevalent in the world of blogs and but so foreign to the biblical ethic of esteeming others more highly than ourselves (Phil. 2:3-4).

Listening to the "ouch" from others about things I have written, and feeling the "ouch" from what others have written, have convicted me of the need to think more seriously about the biblical benefits and boundaries of such words---a task also urged by leaders with similar concerns at a recent meeting of The Gospel Coalition's Council.

I am particularly concerned about two issues: What general principles should guide Christians in distributed communication, and what special principles should guide Christians when they address issues about and to the church in such communication?

Some may shrug off the question of what is proper Christian communication on the internet, saying it is hardly likely that all internet dialogue will honor the rule of Christ. Even Christians may argue that internet sites and social media create something of a digital lunchroom where participants not only expect the conversation to be free flowing but also less accountable to the standards of traditional media.

Of course, the context and genre of communication properly influence our judgment of what Christians can or should say. We do not expect a stage play to sound like a Sunday sermon, or a website to be as careful as a catechism. But if Christians are to be salt and light in every sphere of life, then they must also consider what should characterize internet communication that honors Christ.

The present era is not the first in which Christians have considered whether the Bible's standards apply to new forms of communication. Gutenberg, Marconi, Coughlin, Hearst, Limbaugh, Drudge, Huffington, and Zuckerberg represent waves of new communication approaches that have changed the shoreline of expectations regarding what utterances can or should be distributed. Still, we limit our God if we presume that he cannot establish transcendent standards of truth and love that supersede changing communication expectations.

As a Christian who believes in the lordship of Christ over the whole of life, I know that I have a responsibility to discern what the Bible requires of me in all aspects of life---even those of the web. [1] I also know that I cannot here address all possible issues (such as those faced by bloggers in lands of persecution). Still, I hope the following discussion of biblical principles will make all of us who engage in internet communication more conscious of applicable biblical principles---and also a bit more reflective before hitting the "post" button.

I. Christian Communication Must Be True

Christian communication that purports to be true, should be. That's obvious, but some additional specificity may be helpful---and challenging. The third commandment (which requires care for God's name, particularly in taking oaths and vows in support of the truth) and the ninth commandment (which is more narrowly concerned with malicious slander) plainly forbid spreading falsehoods in either personal or public communication. [2]

The Bible repeats the requirement of guarding the truth many times and in many ways in both the Old and New Testaments (e.g., Ex 23:1; Lv 19:11-16, 35-36; Ps 82:2-3; Prv 23:10; 31:8-9; Rom 12:9-10; 2 Cor 12:20; Eph 4:25; 2 Tm 3:3; Jas 3:17; 1 Jn 4:20). The judgment of charity binds us not only to tell the truth but also to seek to interpret other's statements and actions in the best light (Mt 7:12; 1 Cor 13:6-7). We are also obligated to protect the reputations of others against slander, innuendo, false implication, and even the damage to truth caused by inappropriate silence (Zech 8:16; Prv 17:15; 1 Tm 6:4; 2 Tm 4:16).

These standards of truth are high, but they merely form the ground floor of the biblical architecture for communication that honors God. Simply telling the truth is not enough.

II. Christian Communication Must Be Provable

The Bible does not allow us to publish what we think is true if we cannot prove it. Before we disseminate favorable or unfavorable information we are required to ensure and evidence its accuracy.

Dependable Sources

This means first that we must have dependable sources. Where facts are not plain, we may not receive or act upon accusations without the confirmation of multiple witnesses (e.g., Nm 35:30; 2 Cor 13:1; 1 Tm 5:19). Unproven suspicions, idle speculation, quarrelsome suppositions, and malicious rumors have no place in Christian communication (Prv 16:28; 26:20; 1 Tm 6:20; 2 Tm 2:16, 23, 24; Ti 3:9). The Bible admonishes us not to accept reports from foolish, undependable, or malicious sources (e.g. Prv 10:14; 26:24-5; 28:26; Eccl 10:3)---an important standard for the readers, as well as the writers, of blogs.

Righteous judgment also requires getting the perspective of the accused (Dt 1:16-17; 17:2-13; 25:1; Matt 18:15-17). The Bible will not allow us to act as though we have the whole story, when we have heard only from one side of a dispute (Prv 18:17).

Biblical mandates to assess the reliability of sources and perspectives ordinarily make it wrong to receive or distribute anonymous accusations. Allowing "unidentified sources" to make controversial claims not only denies readers the ability to judge the reliability of the source, but may also jeopardize the biblical right of those being accused not to have their reputations stolen or unfairly damaged (1 Pet 2:1).

Verifiable Claims

The biblical requirements of dependable sources and provable information mean that some matters will always be unpublishable for Christians. For example, if we cannot prove the motive for an action, then we cannot publish speculations or assertions about motive without being guilty of spreading unsubstantiated gossip.

In faith-related publications and blogs the attribution of motive where it cannot be confirmed is, sadly, one of the most common breaches of biblical principle. With regularity I read reports that individuals or institution are doing something that a blog or publication disapproves because:

  1. "They desire to lead the church to the right" (or "to the left").
  2. "They just want the approval of their friends."
  3. "They fear the reaction of their supporters."

The Bible says only God "knows the secrets of the heart" (Ps 44:21; cf. 1 Sm 16:7; 1 Cor 4:5; Jas 4:11). Impugning motives without proof violates the ethics of biblical communication.

Years ago a report claimed that in the face of declining attendance, mainline Protestant church leaders "seem reluctant to talk boldly about justice issues for fear of making members uncomfortable." While non-mainline church leaders may find such statements credible and may even take delight in them, without further substantiation this statement fails to meet the standards of biblical communication. This report claims that thousands of ministers in numerous denominations are cowards who willingly compromise their ethics in order to gain approval. Even if the writer believes this story is true, such sweeping and disparaging claims about motives should never be published without corroborating evidence or credible testimony.

Any medium that exhibits a pattern of unproven accusation becomes a threat to all groups who would be jeopardized by falling into public disapproval---including religious groups. While Christians may be sorely tempted to assign motives they suspect are true, what cannot be proven should not be published.

Responsible Allegations

Christian bloggers (and other publishers) sometimes adopt secular practices to justify attributions of motive or to make accusations without proof. For example, a blog may not name a person being disparaged, but may provide not-so-subtle hints of the accused's identity.

Another way of sidestepping responsibility for attributing motives involves using some form of the word "allege"---as in, "He did this awful thing because he wants to promote a gay, feminist, liberal, fundamentalist, postmodern, secular, humanist, evolutionist agenda---allegedly."

In secular journalism, the word allegedly may be used to shield those legally accused from conclusions about their guilt. However, the word can also protect publications from libel suits where accusations are being made without adequate proof. The publication can always protest, "We did not actually accuse the person of wrongdoing, we only alleged it." Such a defense, however, while being within legal fences, transgresses the biblical commands against spreading gossip and against stealing another's reputation. Christian bloggers may not escape scriptural injunctions against impugning motives by padding accusations with "allegedly" language.

It may, of course, be newsworthy to report that a significant individual or group has impugned the motives of another person. When well-known Pastor Jacobs says that well-known Pastor Wells began this ministry in order to "line his own pocket," then the fact that one of such stature has made such an accusation becomes a story in itself. But a journalist or blogger who relates such information must also hold Pastor Jacobs accountable to prove that what he has said is true. Further, if the one making the accusation does not have stature, nor significant proof that the claim is credible, then biblical mandates against the spread of gossip forbid repeating the allegation (Ex 23:1; Prv 10:18; 1 Cor 6:10; 2 Cor 12:20; 2 Tm 3:3; Eph 4:31).

So if we honor the biblical requirements to distribute only what is true and only what is provable, then have we fulfilled all of the obligations of Christian communication? The answer is still no. We cannot distribute information or commentary simply because we believe it is true. And even if we can prove what we are reporting is true, that is still not enough. What else could possibly be required of Christians before they distribute news about others?

III. Christian Communication Must Be Edifying

The further biblical obligations of Christian communicators may initially be grasped by considering a secular journalism distinction. In the minds of most non-journalists "libel" and "slander" are synonymous, relating to the spread of false information that damages someone's reputation. But there is a legal distinction between the two terms. Slander spreads falsehood; libel occurs when a person is "held up to public ridicule or contempt," even if what is said is true.

In a classic example of libel, a story may reveal that a homemaker with four children in a sleepy suburb was a drug addict 15 years ago. Without a compelling public interest (and special rules of law apply to public figures and issues of public interest) the law will not allow journalists to publish such facts---even if they are true.

Edifying Motives

Secular law will not allow the distributing information (even if it can be proven true) that damages without purpose---and neither will Scripture. Christians are biblically obligated only to say what will edify (i.e., build up; see Eph. 4:12, 16). This means that, in addition to being careful about judging the motives of others, Christians must also consider their own motives when assessing the appropriateness of news they distribute or characterizations they make.

Journalists are trained to consider whether there is "a compelling public interest" for their story. Christians (whether writers, bloggers, broadcasters, or good neighbors) are under the further obligation to consider how their words fulfill their calling to "give grace to those who hear" and to redeem all things for the glory of the Savior (Eph. 4:29; 1 Cor. 10:31).

I recognize that, for some people, saying blogs should be edifying is a little like advocating a polite hockey game. When our society's web tastes are accustomed to bruising rhetoric, we do not relish commentary unless it bashes somebody. Christian bloggers face the dilemma of knowing the Bible requires edifying speech, but also realizing that a blog that does not rip or ridicule may not attract the traffic that justifies its existence.

Edifying Purposes

By identifying this dilemma, I do not want to suggest that there is never biblical cause to criticize or challenge. We edify not only by saying encouraging things, but by identifying injustice, dishonesty, irresponsibility, and evil that threaten a church, community, or orthodoxy. We do not further Christ's purposes by ignoring wrongs that perpetuate heresy, corruption, or oppression. To edify we may need to "reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching" (2 Tm 4:2).

Biblical edification may also include declining to report what damages others for no purpose honoring to God or furthering his priorities (Prv 11:13; 17:9; Jas 1:26; 1 Pt 4:8). Thus, when I met with an organizational committee designing the mission statement for a web magazine, we recognized that it was not enough to say the publication would engage in "accurate reporting." A commitment only to accuracy may simply allow a publication to gather facts that, while true, result in cynical, destructive, and self-absorbed journalism.

Truthful and accurate reporting remains essential, but without a higher, spiritual purpose the facts alone will not keep our reports edifying and biblical. As a consequence, our web magazine added to its mission statement a clause committing us to engage in accurate reporting "for the welfare of the church."

If criticism must be leveled, Christians must understand that their reporting and commentary cannot simply be driven by pageviews, the satisfaction of embarrassing opponents, or leverage in the latest church power struggle.

If Christians do not recognize the need for a higher standard than bare truth, then we may not see anything wrong with reporting the true and provable positions of U.S. troops in a time of war (as a well-known television reporter did years ago), or vilifying a brother or sister in Christ simply because we have the facts and find it fun to do so.

Without the higher goal of edification, truth can be employed for evil as effectively as can lies. Thus, in addition to being true and provable, edifying communication must also be respectful, fair, and responsible.

Respectful

Communication guided by Scripture advocates priorities that promote the kingdom of God on earth. At times, this mission will require us to expose and counter unbiblical influences and worldviews to which peers may be blind (e.g., materialism, consumerism, escapism, authoritarianism, secularism, humanism, racism, and cynicism). Advancing Christ's purposes also requires holding the church, its members, and its leaders accountable to kingdom priorities of compassion, integrity, purity, humility, and sacrifice. But in order for such communication to contribute faithfully to Christ's purposes, it must also be respectful.

Respectful communication is driven by the awareness that our comments and critiques are always directed toward those made in the image of God (Gn 1:26-27; Jas 3:9). We are stewards of his glory even amid the "glorious ruins" of humanity, to borrow from Francis Schaeffer. The golden rule applies not because others always deserve such regard, but because the divine image in them---marred as it may be---requires our regard. Those guilty of gross misconduct are, yet, to be treated as a believer would wish to be treated (Lk 6:31).

The Christian responsibility to address wrongdoing accurately and vigorously does not annul the law of love toward neighbors or enemies (Lv 19:17-18; Mt 5:44; Lk 10:36-37; Rom 12:9-10; Jas 2:8; 1 Jn 4:20-21). We do not approve of evil, but we speak of evildoers with prayer that the exposure of their sin will lead to their correction and repentance. We never cease to be responsible to communicate in a manner best for others' eternal good. Thus, we must regard all, always, with "proper respect" (1 Pt 2:17).

If such respect is demanded for persons in general, then it is even more necessary for the leaders of God's appointment in both the secular and church realms (2 Sm 1:14-16; Rom 13:1; Heb 13:17). Sadly these two classes of individuals often receive the most disrespectful commentary in "Christian" publications and web posts. Christians who write critically of leaders are never excluded from the apostles' commands to pray for those in authority and to treat them with respect (Rom 13:7; 1 Tm 2:1-4; and 1 Pt 2:13-14, 17). Yet, despite these clear scriptural imperatives, the demeaning of leaders is blood sport made frequent on religious blogs, especially in their feedback comments. There the most provocative seem convinced that the righteousness of their perspective permits them to ignore Scripture about honoring leaders.

Proper respect for secular authorities established by God may actually be less difficult for us than respect for fellow believers. We often save our worst slurs for those we consider enemies within the camp. Critique of, and disagreement with, church leaders can create ethical challenges for believers that secular commentators do not face. For example, how do we deal with leaders among the covenant people whom an apostle would label as dried up springs or muddy pigs (2 Pt 2:17, 22)?

Before we would attach such labels, we must be very sure that we can also speak with an apostle's certainty about the character of those we are describing. Additionally, if we are not sure that we are describing unbelievers, then we also have an obligation to remember that we are speaking of those united to Christ and indwelt by his Spirit (Gal 2:20).

Such persons are as precious to God as Jesus himself and are to be honored by us (Rom. 12:10). They are his covenant people, his treasured possession, and citizens of heaven with all of its rights, privileges, and protections (Eph 2:19). With such persons we are required to keep the unity of the Spirit and the bond of peace as much as we are able (Eph 4:2-3; Rom 12:18).

Finally, we are biblically required to treat fellow believers---especially leaders---as members of our eternal family (Gal 6:10; 1 Tim. 5:17-20; Heb. 13:17).

Some time ago, a blog posted an article implying that a professor at our seminary had taken a position contrary to principles he has defended all of his life. I phoned the author to say that, while he had written nothing factually untrue, his insinuation breached biblical obligations. "The Bible says that you are to 'treat older men as fathers' (1 Tm 5:1)," I said, "and, until you have proof of his error, you are bound to defend the reputation of this man as though he were your own father." The writer simply replied that he did not feel that these principles applied in this situation. But he had no basis for excusing himself from his family obligations to a father in the faith.

The compartmentalization of life that excuses living by differing ethics in differing spheres is a betrayal of Scripture. Christ is Lord over the whole of life (Phil 2:9-11). As the psalmist writes, "The earth is the Lord's and everything in it" (Ps 24:1).

The principles that govern how we treat fellow believers in the church and in our homes do not disappear simply because we are alone, posting a blog comment late at night. We are always obligated to speak the truth in love (Eph 4:15), honor others as we would wish to be honored (Phil 2:3-4; 1 Pet 2:17), and defend the reputations of fellow believers from false, unproven, or uncharitable characterizations (cf. Prv 31:8-9; 2 Tim 4:16).

Fair

So how do we deal with a fellow believer whom we believe is wrong and whose misdeeds need to be brought to light? We must deal with such a person fairly.

Fair Representation

We do not show partiality simply because one is weak or powerful, unlovely or attractive, wealthy or destitute (Lv 19:15; Rom 12:7; 1 Tm 5:21; Jas 2:1-9). We represent others' thoughts, ideas, and explanations as accurately and credibly as possible.

As a rule of thumb, our arguments should represent our opponents in a way they would approve or make their case even better than they could. Straw man caricatures of others' positions are not fair, because incomplete representations of others' ideas do not reveal the full truth of another believer's convictions. In other words, straw man arguments are a form of lying about a person, because they misrepresent what that person actually believes.

In order to represent other persons fully and fairly, Christian are obligated to obtain their views directly from them (not relying on hearsay or gossip). Especially if the report contains an accusation, it is important to allow them to interact with what will be reported. In essence, the principles of Matthew 18, giving a person direct opportunity to respond to personal accusation, do not disappear from our Christian obligations simply because we are engaged in internet chatter.

If someone has intentionally said or published a matter available for public scrutiny, then the initial obligations of Matthew 18 are already met for critics. Scripture intends for accusations to be proven by witnesses so that false claims or misunderstanding do not become the basis of judgment. But if someone has made views or actions available to others (in publications, internet, or other media outlets), then he or she self-attests to the concerns that others may wish to critique. In other words, we are not obligated personally to contact an author or speaker about published views before critiquing those views.

Fair Critique

When critiquing published views, the obligations of truthfulness, charity, and respect remain. If the potential for misunderstanding is significant, critics must make a reasonable effort to clarify the original author or speaker's intentions before distributing judgments that could needlessly distort, create conflict, or damage reputations. Often this can be done by giving the original author or speaker a preview of the article, entry, or comment that a critic has prepared to publish. The instant postings that internet readers may expect from a blogger do not remove the Christian's obligation fairly to represent others' views or actions.

When clarification from the original source is not feasible, and the intentions of that source are unclear, we may not assume the worst possible reading to be the only possible meaning. In such a situation, a critic is obligated to provide an alternative interpretation to readers in addition to the critique---even if the alternative interpretation could blunt the critique. The rule of charity requires us not to make a malicious reading of another's words the only interpretation we consider.

Fair Judgment

A Christian blogger is also biblically bound to judge whether those making critique or comment have the expertise and character to make fair comment. To give platform to what is uninformed or ungodly, unfairly exposes the body of Christ and its members to wrong impressions and consequent damage.

I recognize that the ethics of the internet favor the democratization and equalization of all commentary. A wiki-mindset assumes that the larger the universe of opinion, the greater the likelihood that truth will bubble up. But the Bible does not judge truth by consensus or establish morality by popularity.

We are called to make our evaluations with righteous judgment, requiring adequate knowledge and applying biblical principles (Deut 16:18; Ps 87:2-3; Prv 3:30; Jn 7:24). In order to enable readers to maintain these priorities, we should at least require commenters claiming special knowledge or expertise to identify their relevant credentials, qualifications, or associations.

In addition, we are commanded to keep our tongues from expressions of malice, slander, and obscene talk (Col 3:8) and to ensure our "speech always be gracious" (Col 4:6). Giving platform to those who will not follow these standards makes us complicit in their sin.

Responsible

Responsibilities for Bloggers

A blogger may contend that he or she is not responsible for what others say in such open forums. But this defense can be compromised by the blogger's self-interests. At sites known for their edginess, shutting down or refereeing incendiary comments may damage the popularity of the blog.

The "cock-fight fascination" that draws visitors to religious controversy creates ethical pressures for Christian bloggers who believe they best fulfill their mission by garnering more attention for their point of view. The Bible calls them to seek peace, but they have to multiply controversy (or allow commenters to do so) in order to keep their blog visitable and viable (Rom 12:18; Heb 12:14-15).

We will not have means to navigate these issues unless we again agree that the Bible applies in the blogosphere (Ps 24:1). With that agreement, we can examine biblical responsibilities that we personally assume when we post on the internet.

The biblical ethic that primarily should bind us is not maximizing pageviews but faithfulness. If faithfulness should require our failure to succeed in worldly terms, then loyalty to heaven's priorities demands that we fail rather than disregard Scripture.

As a consequence, principles of Christian speech stated previously in this article regulate believers' internet communication:

  • Christians are not permitted to voice idle speculation or echo damaging rumors.
  • Our speech (spoken, printed or digitized) must be gracious, respectful, free of malice, and without obscenity.
  • Our judgments must be fair, impartial, and based on adequate information.
  • We may not demean for personal gratification or gain.
  • We may not slander.

Still, the question remains regarding what bloggers should allow others to say in comment forums. Here is the key principle: A publisher (site, blog, or other media outlet) that has the ability to referee others' comments has the responsibility for the righteousness, if not the rightness, of what others say in that forum.

In other words, a blogger may well provide for expression of a variety of views without expecting that they all be correct or agreeable. But the variety of views should all be expressed righteously; i.e., without transgression of biblical standards of godly and ethical speech.

When making determinations about what blog comments to allow, we should remember that the Bible says it is as wrong to pass unsubstantiated reports, unfair statements, and gossip as it is to originate them (Ex. 23:1; Prov. 10:18; 17:4; 20:19; Rom 1:29-32; 2 Cor. 12:20; Eph. 4:31; 5:11). As stated previously, the Bible also prohibits receiving unproven accusations or publishing reports from foolish, undependable, or malicious sources.

Responsibilities for Readers

Note this principle about ungodly reports not only means that bloggers should reject unbiblical comments; it also means that believers should avoid reading them. By keeping the pageviews high, readers imbibe evil and contribute to the viability of sites promoting ungodliness.

Much ungodliness in the Christian blogosphere would disappear if responsible Christians steered clear of the scandal sites and watchblogs. All believers are obligated to promote only what builds up the body of Christ (Eph. 4:12, 16). Thus, we cannot excuse ourselves from responsibility for what others say, if we have provided, or supported, their platform.

Responsibility for Comments

But what if the blogger cannot monitor the comments of others for practical reasons (e.g., posts are too numerous or time is too short), or principled convictions (e.g., the purpose of the forum is to provide uncensored expression of opinion)? Is it ever right to provide platform to unrestricted commentary, knowing that ungodly or unethical speech will result?

The answer to these questions must be a qualified yes. The need for free expression may on occasion and for a time outweigh the need to guard Christian expression. In times of crisis, repression, or breaking news, it may be more important to allow comments to fountain than to impose monitoring that may restrict information or create distrust of open access to the site. If it is apparent that everyone can say anything, then readers will hopefully adopt a caveat emptor ("buyer beware!") mindset regarding all comments---and hopefully more principled standards will guide the site when the crisis has passed.

Still, open channel commentary of an unbiblical nature should not be the practice of Christian bloggers on sites representing themselves as dependable sources of information and Christian dialogue. Giving platform to comments that demean or defame disregards too much Scripture. Captivating, funny, or titillating as it may be to read a clever put-down or an impassioned rant, ungodly communication should not be promoted by God's people.

Though seminary students are busy, every now and then a student newspaper or webzine gets started on our campus. I always encourage it---on two conditions.

The first condition is that all characterizations of persons or positions must be respectful. The second condition is that, before anything critical is published, the writer of the article must make sure the person or group being criticized has been allowed to comment whether the piece is accurate and fair---particularly if it involves citing private matters or could have been misunderstood.

Not surprisingly the requirements to be respectful, fair, and responsible often kill the incentive of those interested in the publication. The internet has made students today so accustomed to a person or idea being flamed for fun that they see no reason for a publication unless it allows them similar pleasure.

A student said to me, "But we want controversy." I had to ask, "At whose expense and to what end?" The answer was only that controversy would boost readership. That is certainly true. Controversy and insult will get attention just as surely as a fight behind the gym will gather a crowd. But the apostle Paul wrote, "So I tell you this, and insist on it in the Lord, that you must no longer live as the pagans do. . . . Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear" (Eph 4:17, 29). Those whose faith differs from that of the world must have communication principles that differ from the world.

IV.  Christian Communication Must Be Redemptive

No set of words---such as respectful, fair, and responsible---will ultimately provide all the criteria active bloggers need for the complex and quick decisions needed for their frequent posts. I do not anticipate that any blogger (or I) will remember all of the Bible verses that apply to each day's writing or comment editing.

Redemptive Instincts

Like so many other aspects of the Christian life, we develop habits and instincts that guide us through most of life's ethical issues. As a consequence of how biblical instincts develop and control those in whom the Spirit dwells, I write now with great hope for Christians active in the blogosphere. For though Bible memory and text application may fail us, there remains an overriding ethic that will guide committed Christians: we are stewards of Christ's name on earth.

Fundamental to our Christian calling is the joy that we each participate in the redemption of creation for the glory of our Savior. The splendid gift of Christian communication, in whatever media or form it takes, is that Christ can use our thoughts, words, and images to further his purposes on earth and for eternity.

Redemptive Purposes

Our communication is not simply about staying within the bounds of biblical propriety---it is about being champions of truth, beauty, justice, and mercy. The heart and mind set upon such things are not consumed by petty arguments, not enthralled with personal banter, and not distracted by personal acclaim.

Those led by the Spirit know deep down at the soul level what speech and attitudes are redemptive, and these become the guiding passions of each day's campaign for the glory of Christ. These passions are not simply about vanilla smiles and sweet sentiment. They are the wellspring of instincts that can identify the most subtle evil; they are the lifeblood of the will to endure lifelong battles; and they are the backbone of the character to stand alone if need be to speak for Christ.

We are advocates for the advance of the kingdom of God. Such advocacy under the banner of our Savior is truly noble and will be full of enough controversy for anyone willing to fight on his terms. You will find, however, that even fellow believers will often resist fighting on Christ's terms because of the discipline and charity such redemptive battles require. They always obligate us to consider the heart and soul of those we are fighting, as well as those we are defending. Our most rigorous critiques still require us to desire the good of those we are correcting and, if they are believers, to engage them in such a way that the Spirit will lead them to repentance and reconciliation in the church (Rom 12:21; 15:2; Eph 4:29, 32; 1 Thes 5:15; 2 Tm 2:25; 1 Pt 2:1).

Our published words should seek to safeguard the opportunity for unity that is the church's unique testimony and power. Name calling, the desire to shame, and the demand to take scalps for the camp we represent will not redeem. Our communication must honor Christ in manner as well as in message until the whole body is united under its Head for his worldwide purposes (Eph. 1:21-11; 4:15-16).

The Bible forbids any action motivated by malice (Lv 19:17; Eph 4:31; Col 3:8; Jas 1:20). Yet, because the lust for victory and retaliation is so strong---even in the church---respectful, fair, and responsible communication will cause its champions to suffer attack and abuse. But such suffering for the sake of the kingdom is the redemptive pattern that the Master left us to follow and will produce the fruit he desires (Jn 15:5; 1 Pt 2:21).

Redemptive Responsibilities

Even those who are not called to write blogs or publish other forms of Christian communication have responsibilities. First, we should use Christian principles to evaluate the communication that pervades our internet browsing. Consistently imbibing contemporary media without biblical discretion tempts us to consider what is pervasive as being acceptable and imitable.

The reason some of today's advocacy journalism and web commentary are so dangerous to Christians is not because we are blind to their biases. Rather, the danger lies in our tendency to think that, since we agree with the viewpoints of certain commentators, therefore their digs at, and disrespect of, opponents are acceptable among us.

Blocs of Christians grow to appreciate certain commentators because they seem willing to say what we would like to say but our biblical instincts have made us hesitant to express. At first, we chortle at the sarcasm and scorn with guilty pleasure that our enemies have been made to squirm. But, over time, we no longer feel guilty, and then the real damage is done. Christ's testimony erodes when his people grow so accustomed to verbal disdain that we begin to believe such speech is permissible for us. When the church fills with people holding so little regard for her spoken witness, then her redemptive purposes are far removed from her daily priorities.

We must determine whether our web tastes have been cultivated by the world or by its Creator. Returning evil for evil is not a Christian option. When the speech habits of the world become the unexamined practices of the redeemed, then it is time for correction and repentance. We correct by letting those in our own camps know when their commentary has moved beyond the bounds of biblical ethics and Christian love. We repent by, first, confessing that we are as wrong to receive gossip and slander as to spread it, and, second, by refusing to consume or visit the publications and sites that claim to be Christian and do not honor Christ's commands.

Redemptive Calling

Words have power to defend the helpless, repulse evil, inspire beauty, promote mercy, and further justice. Words also have the power to counter each of these kingdom goals. The believer's calling, whether on the internet or in neighborhood conversation, is to communicate in ways that extend Christ's rule over all. When we provide and support communication that is true, substantiated, edifying, and redemptive, then Christians will simultaneously counter and transform our culture. This generation's communication trajectories have clearly been claimed by the internet; this generation's calling is now to claim the internet for Christ.


[1] A few years ago, I gathered many of these thoughts for a journalism essay [published as "A Christian Journalism," in Speaking the Truth, ed. Kimberly Collins (New York: World Journalism Institute, 2008)], but new challenges have led to some fresh edits and adds that will hopefully advance this conversation.

[2] See expositions of these commandments in Westminster Larger Catechism 111-113, 145; Westminster Shorter Catechism 76-78, 53-55). The answer to Question 145 of the Westminster Larger Catechism is particularly instructive: The sins forbidden in the ninth commandment are, all prejudicing the truth, and the good name of our neighbours, as well as our own, especially in public judicature; giving false evidence, suborning false witnesses, wittingly appearing and pleading for an evil cause, outfacing and overbearing the truth; passing unjust sentence, calling evil good, and good evil; rewarding the wicked according to the work of the righteous, and the righteous according to the work of the wicked; forgery, concealing the truth, undue silence in a just cause, and holding our peace when iniquity calleth for either a reproof from ourselves, or complaint to others; speaking the truth unseasonably, or maliciously to a wrong end, or perverting it to a wrong meaning, or in doubtful and equivocal expressions, to the prejudice of truth or justice; speaking untruth, lying, slandering, backbiting, detracting, tale bearing, whispering, scoffing, reviling, rash, harsh, and partial censuring; misconstructing intentions, words, and actions; flattering, vain-glorious boasting; thinking or speaking too highly or too meanly of ourselves or others; denying the gifts and graces of God; aggravating smaller faults; hiding, excusing, or extenuating of sins, when called to a free confession; unnecessary discovering of infirmities; raising false rumors, receiving and countenancing evil reports, and stopping our ears against just defense; evil suspicion; envying or grieving at the deserved credit of any, endeavoring or desiring to impair it, rejoicing in their disgrace and infamy; scornful contempt, fond [i.e., infatuated or doting] admiration; breach of lawful promises; neglecting such things as are of good report, and practicing, or not avoiding ourselves, or not hindering what we can in others, such things as procure an ill name.





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