During a tumultuous year where much of our interpersonal interaction has been relegated to online spaces, many of us have found ourselves at odds with others on Facebook groups, Twitter threads, or any myriad of blog comment sections. Lively discussion about important matters should not be discouraged whenever there is a possibility of mutual growth and flourishing. At the same time, it is all too often the case that lively discussion quickly strays from the goal of mutual growth and instead towards the elevation of our position in a self-righteous endeavor that leads to bitter words and anger while leaving the matter at hand unresolved.
The typical American Christian response to this condition has by and large been one of extremes—either we abandon social media and cede it as utterly irredeemable territory, or we tacitly accept the bad as a feature rather than a bug. This is not to say that many Christian thinkers are not considering or living out a middle ground—there are people who try to engage with social media in ways that are God-honoring. However, they appear to be the exception rather than the rule, as evidenced by the seemingly ceaseless bickering in comment sections between members who are presumably Christian brothers and sisters.
There have been previous efforts to bring Christians together in terms of expectations of behavior online. In March of 2019, Archbishop Foley put forward a five-point code of ethics for using social media that is centered on five questions. This code is a good place to start in considering one’s behavior in online spaces. For me, the clincher is the fifth question: “Will I have to confess what I have written as sin?”
Many Anglicans have heard the phrase “rule of life.” A rule of life is simply the framework by which our behavior as Christians is altered as a result of our discipleship. An example of one component of a rule of life is to observe weekly fasts on the Fridays outside of Eastertide. Rules should not be overly complex, or they will be quickly discarded. At the same time, it is good for rules to have an element of challenge to them, so that our flesh is prodded into growth.
A subcategory of a rule of life is the concept of the monastic rule—a set of principles which members of a monastic order are expected to adopt for the ordering of their lives. The most famous of these rules is the Rule of St. Benedict (also available from Lancelot Andrewe’s Press). A distinction between the two is that a rule of life grows and forms with the person forming the rule, while the community is expected to form itself to the monastic rule.
The Rule below is more like a monastic rule. Much of the problem of the bad behavior of Christians online appears to be due to a failure to import Christian virtues into communication generally and online interactions particularly. In this situation, a call to form a community around a set of common rules seems more beneficial than attempting to grow a constellation of individual guidelines.
Whether you adopt the Archbishop’s code of ethics, this Rule, or some other Christian methodology, the important thing is to engage in some Christian discipleship which seeks to redeem our all too often contentious online interactions and to find ways to build one another up in Christ, even those with whom we disagree.
How often do you find yourself turning to your phone to open Facebook or Twitter, Reddit, Pinterest, LinkedIn, or any other social media platform as soon as your eyes open in the morning? I confess that this is something I struggle with. Doing this primes us to forget that our opinions and will are ours only by the grace of God—and then only insofar as we keep from sin. I find that when my day starts out online instead of in prayer, I am much more likely to get offended at something ridiculous or disagreeable, and much more likely to let it sit on my mind and fester rather than being able to move past it and remain at peace.
Therefore, those who would keep this Rule should not engage in social media until after they have first observed their personal prayer custom in the morning. If you find yourself forgetting this, as I often do, upon realizing the breach you should set your phone or tablet aside and immediately take up your daily prayer custom. (If you are still working out what that custom looks like, I suggest starting with Family Prayer in the Morning from the BCP2019.)
This may seem an odd item to include with a rule of life that seeks to govern interactions online. However, many people seem to operate with the notion that their involvement with social media is inevitable. When a Christian is first approaching their behavior online and whether it is serving God, they should spend some time discerning whether there is any spiritual benefit to participating in any online spaces. This could be as narrow as electing to cease participation in a group that provokes the individual in ways that seem always to bring out sinful behaviors, or it could be as broad as stopping all involvement in social media either permanently or for a season.
What this looks like in the practice of this Rule is the adoption, at minimum, of a regular period of abstinence from being on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or other spaces for non-work or livelihood reasons. Many of us have friends that “fast” from social media during Lent—I say that this is the minimum of what we should do. It may also be desirable to abstain on a more regular basis, such as with the traditional fasting days (typically Fridays outside of Eastertide which are not also Feasts of the Lord), or on days commanded by our leaders. Doing this helps us to see that things do not, in fact, fall apart without our engagement. Arguments that are decades old will still be there for us to contend with when we take up our involvement again. Pictures and amusing distractions from day-to-day life will not have vanished for our restraint.
At the end of each time of abstinence, whether for a day or for a season, we ought to engage in prayer with God anew as to whether we should be involved at all on social media, even as a silent consumer.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus enjoined the crowd to be careful in how they judge others, and in many cases not to do so at all. At the same time, he instructed them to be discerning in how they relate to those who were obstinate in refusing to hear the truth: “Do not give dogs what is holy, and do not throw your pearls before pigs, lest they trample them underfoot and turn to attack you.” (Matt. 7:6 ESV)
How often do we see a comment from someone on an article, video, or some other media that provokes us to respond? How often do we make a post on some sensitive topic of discussion only to have someone comment to ridicule and deride us? Much frustration and strife come from failing to heed Our Lord’s command—even when interacting with people who are supposed to be “on our side” in the Church!
Think about this: if the Lord commanded restraint and a limit to forbearance in proclaiming the gospel to those who reject it, unarguably the most important communication to go forth from human lips or written by the pen, then how much more restraint and forbearance should we have in things which are not the gospel? If I agree with my brother on the gospel message, yet he and I differ on how best to serve the country at the ballot box, for the sake of peace I ought to hold my tongue, especially if I know that not doing so is unlikely to persuade him and only to cause both of us ongoing stress and strain.
Understand that I do not mean that actual error should go uncorrected, but at the same time, there comes a point when we must recognize debates as unprofitable and cease engaging with those whom we cannot be peaceable with.
It is, therefore, a part of this Rule that you should plead your case once with a person and only engage further if you discern that there is profit in the dialogue. But if they are not receptive to your position, you are to leave them be. And if someone of like mind as you has already said what you would say and the person who differs is not receptive, you will leave them be as if you yourself had first engaged with them.
Just as we are not obligated to be involved at all with social media, we are not obligated to follow every Twitter account, be friends with everyone on Facebook, or connect with everyone on LinkedIn. We know this because all three of those sound ridiculous—our news feeds would be unmanageable, and I know many offices have been trained and counseled about the security risks of connecting with people you do not know on LinkedIn. I think many of us are generally thoughtful when it comes to sending or accepting friend and connection requests, but what about after the online “relationship” is established (as in, the linking of the accounts through a database and permissions connection)?
We ought to have criteria not only for how to accept friend and connection requests but also for how and whether to maintain those connections. I think many people wrongly assume that if they are not friends with someone online, then their “real life” friendship is imperiled. This does not necessarily have to be so. Most platforms have mechanisms for managing the level of interaction between accounts, which allow you to remain friends with someone but limit how often (or whether at all) you see regular updates from them in your newsfeed. I have friends and family on Facebook with whom I have significant disagreements over politics and social issues. Rather than write them off for their views that I disagree with, I modify what I see from them so as to maintain the peace.
Therefore, to follow this Rule, you should be intentional and prudent with who you add to your friends list or connections. After the connection has been made, make ready use of the tools the platform gives you to modify your intake of content rather than subjecting yourself to something that will unnecessarily disturb the peace of friendship and community. Except in the case of blatant rudeness, intentionally offensive behaviors, or abusive speech/promotion of abusive content, do not equate curation of your social media feed with a severing of a friendship.
This may seem like common sense, but all too often we see evidence of Christians online who denigrate, deride, and devalue those who disagree with them on even the slightest point of doctrine, opinion, or even speculation. I have seen it as often (if not more so, regrettably) from clergy and ministers as from laypersons. It is as if we have collectively forgotten that the recipient of our derision is not just some disembodied avatar or a collection of text on a screen—it is an incarnate human being made in the Image of God. If you are clergy or a lay ministry leader, consider that this could be someone under your pastoral care or a recipient of your ministry. The core of this part of the Rule is whether you serve your neighbor rightly in your speech.
My own rector is loath to use social media for exactly this reason—to him, it reinforces a false teaching that has crept in more and more as technology increases, that humans are really mind-creatures not embodied souls. While I see his point and understand his reluctance to use the medium, for me it is no different than exchanging letters between two people who are at a distance. Unfortunately, there appear to be more people who have bought into the false teaching my rector identifies and, worse, have enshrined it as truth, evidenced by their carriage toward others.
The fact is that, aside from Twitter troll-bots and spam email accounts, most of the interactions you will have online are with real live flesh-and-blood human beings who are using the same medium of communication you are. And even if you suspect you are dealing with a troll-bot, until you are really sure it doesn’t harm you in the least to carry yourself and interact as if it was a person you pass by in the hallways at work.
Additionally, if you are interacting with someone who claims Christianity as their faith, then you are potentially interacting with a brother or sister in Christ. While the Apostle Paul did not have Facebook or Twitter, he wrote messages carried by workers in the Church to his friends and their associates. He had some enemies who wore Christian hats but acted very unlike the Christ that Paul preached to them. The striking thing about his responses to those enemies is in how little he says about them. He does not spend time berating them, he simply points out their error, expounds the truth, and then moves on. Even when he advises discipline for someone who was obstinately in the wrong, he does so not from a place of anger, but out of love for their eternal soul.
If you determine to keep this Rule, you will not use abusive, derisive, or denigrating speech about anyone you interact with online, and least of all a fellow believer. You will remember that the God who created you created the other party as well. If needed, you will refrain from any response until either you feel no need to respond, or the Holy Spirit gives you the truth to speak in love. Here, I strongly advise that you identify one friend whom you can text, email, or otherwise collaborate with to be your “filter” for what you should say or how you should say it if it is worthy to be said. If you cannot do these things, the best way to keep this Rule is to consider this an answer to the question of whether you should even be involved on social media at all.
I grew up in the age of the Internet when almost everyone was anonymous. For years, I had a screen name that on the one hand expressed my personality but also shielded me from scrutiny. At the time, I felt that this was the right thing to do—surely anonymity was the most expedient way to ensure freedom of speech and exchange of ideas!
Unfortunately, even good ideas can be abused. People hide behind pseudonyms and say horrible things which would get them in hot water with those who hold authority over them. Sometimes they get found out (a.k.a. “doxxed”) and wind up in hot water anyway. But often they do not, and this generally leads to people having a harder time melding the anonymous and secretive online life of an apparently disembodied set of opinions we disagree with or even find offensive with an image-bearer of God.
The best-known witnesses and promoters of the Faith were not anonymous writers and philosophers, they were the martyrs, the personally persecuted. They were those who publicly took up the cause of Christ, lifted high the cross on their own backs, and set out on the path to follow Our Lord. As Christians, this is what we are called to do in every arena of our lives. If we contend for Christ, we do so personally.
Of course, I do not mean to speak ill of people under official persecution who meet in secret and evangelize in secret—in that case, the work of the Church may require that they continue under a cover of secrecy. I speak mainly to those in the West who are under no such immediate threat, and whose chief opponents are either those without official standing or those within their own church bodies (as unfortunate as that may be).
Therefore, in keeping this Rule, you are expected to give up anonymity online, where doing so does not materially endanger yourself, those you care for, or your livelihood, provided that you remain in good conduct otherwise with this Rule. If you retain anonymity solely for the avoidance of social ridicule or to preserve pride, then you are in violation of this Rule. You should stand behind what you write or say or do online in a way that is reasonably accessible for those who wish to attribute your work.
This may be among the hardest precepts of this Rule, after the suggestion not to be involved in social media at all. For those of us who grew up where anonymity on the Internet was the norm, to give up anonymity seems strange and dangerous, and indeed it can be dangerous, even if we strive to be at peace with everyone we interact with. Nevertheless, I observe that it is a far greater danger to our souls when we are given the opportunity and encouragement to lead a double life.
It is my hope that this Rule will be helpful for all who read it and choose to follow it. It is challenging but doable, as any new discipline should be. Grace and Peace in the Name of Our Lord Jesus Christ.