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Sins of Cyber-Speech

Does the following sentence make sense to you?  “I found a BFF on FB with my Droid App; his blog made me LOL so hard I had to Tweet.”[1]  If so, you are plugged into the lingo of our digital era.  The philosophical trends and technological advances in our day combine to make our words both abbreviated and multiplied.  Acronyms abound as many millions of people broadcast terse bits of social or self-referential commentary; at the same time, online journals provide limitless space for linguistic catharsis.  The ability to share information with so many people can be used in wonderful ways, but there are also significant dangers associated with ever-expanding mass media.

Because ours is a culture which prizes speaking above listening and in which our words may be dispatched with lightning speed, it is especially incumbent upon us to heed the Bible’s teaching about sins of speech.  The biblical book of James calls the tongue “a fire, a world of unrighteousness” (3:6).  In the age of digital media, our words have an unprecedented ability to burn.

James conveys wise warnings with brevity befitting our decreasing attention spans but with profundity demanding serious, time-consuming reflection.  Let’s consider some of his words about the godly use of language as a means of encouraging sanctified participation in the online world.

Early in his letter, James puts a speed limit on people’s tendency to sprint into speech (1:19).  He tells us to be “…quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger.”  The time it takes for speech to span the earth is increasingly negligible.  No matter how righteous or wicked, our words travel at warp speed into the ears, eyes, and souls of other people.  Such speed is a blessing to Christians; we can encourage far off brethren almost instantaneously.  But this same speed can serve our sin when we want to belittle someone else, or when someone else belittles us.  Vindictive and victimized people can fly to Facebook to muster an online lynch mob or can tweet someone’s location to a real one.  Our quick tempers send our fingers tapping, and within seconds another person’s reputation or very life may be threatened.

As believers, we must honor the ninth commandment (Exodus 20:16) with regard to all image bearers, even when they do dishonorable things (3:9-10).  Even if our witness about our neighbor is true, public internet is hardly the forum to air personal grievances.  If we are on the receiving end of cyber-slander, we must not “return evil for evil.”  For believers, the Lord provides within His church the means of pursuing justice, means best pursued offline and in person.  Face to face meetings are always best whenever possible.  Regardless of the distance between people at odds with one another, believers must take time to prayerfully seek the Lord (1:5) and to listen to biblically based counsel in order to pursue resolution and reconciliation.

Biblical discretion must always drive our digital talk.  Our generation encourages the revealing of even intimate details of one’s life as a means of demonstrating emotional authenticity, and Christians can get caught up in this trend.  However, James’ call for us to confess our sins to one another (5:16) is not an invitation to the public proclamation of our private lives.  Neither we nor the people to whom we “confess” online benefit from “TMI.”[2]  Marriages and other friendships are threatened when outsiders are invited to peer within and comment upon the personal matters which make those relationships special and exclusive.

Lastly, notice that James’ warning about the fiery nature of the tongue follows immediately upon his strictures concerning teaching in the church (3:1).  All of our words matter; our words about the Lord are especially consequential.  To promote God’s good name and to protect God’s people, James tells the majority of believers not to become teachers.  In no way does James denigrate “the priesthood of all believers”, nor does he discourage God-centered dialogue among Christian brethren or evangelization of the unsaved.  His prohibition follows from the fact that Christ appoints the teachers of His church through His church (Ephesians 4:8-14; 1 Timothy 4:13-16).

In cyberspace, anyone can presume to teach.  Some people consider lack of ecclesiastical endorsement a badge of honor and a sign of uncompromised ministry.  As we digitally disseminate our words concerning God’s Word, we can easily avoid accountability by “unfriending” our dissenters.  Zealous, newly reformed young men are particularly easy prey for autonomous preachers whose godless bravado has the appearance of gospel boldness.  Reputable online ministry can be a great blessing, especially to believers separated against their will from a local church.  But we must never use online ministry resources to avoid the personal preaching we should receive in the assembled congregation.  There, the ordained minister looks us in the eye while he preaches to us, and he has to see us looking back!

The virtual world is rife with real delights and real dangers.  As God’s people, let us claim this world for Christ by making our words within it few and full of the fruit of the Spirit.

(Note:  This blog entry is a revised version of my article printed in the November 2012 issue of the _Reformed Presbyterian Witness _and is used with permission from the editor.  For more information, please see www.rpwitness.org )

[1] Translation:  I found a “best friend forever” on Facebook with my particular brand of computerized cell phone and its purchased capability to link to Facebook.  His web journal made me “laugh out loud” so hard that I felt compelled to make a quick comment on it on another social media site called Twitter.

[2] Too much information

Rut Etheridge III

Rut Etheridge III

Husband to Evelyn; father to Isaiah, Callie, Calvin, Josiah, Sylvia. Pastor and Bible Prof. Loves the risen Christ, family, writing, the ocean, martial arts, Boston sports, coffee, and more coffee.

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