Either through AOL chat, online newspapers, bulletin boards, blogs, Facebook, or Twitter I’ve been running online comment sections since 1999. I’ve had a lot of experience seeing how people choose to say things either openly or anonymously. I’ve also seen a steep decline in the quality of online (and real life) discourse.
By 2004 online newspapers and blogs became ubiquitous. That year was dubbed Year of the Blog. Anonymous commenting flourished. Prior to this, the only public discourse available was tightly controlled. Letters to the Editor had to be signed with your real name, and include a telephone number so the editor could call to verify. Journals and other publications demanded the same. The internet either wasn’t invented or it was so new, not everyone was online. Books went through an even tighter process, if you could even reach the front door of a publishing house. Handing out personal leaflets or pamphlets was looked upon with suspicion, especially if someone was handing them out while standing on a street corner. To use a microphone at a public meeting you had to sign your name and be called to the podium. If your discourse was too inflammatory, your mic would be shut off. If someone wanted to say something publicly either in oral or written form, it was very hard, and there was no such thing as anonymous commenting. (Benjamin Franklin’s penchant for pseudonymous commenting notwithstanding).
It’s amazing to me that it’s been 11 years since the Year of the Blog and 16 years since the internet with its comment forums, bulletin boards and comment sections has become part of normal daily life. That short history lesson was needed, because 16 years is a long time and many of the younger brethren don’t know what it was like before we could easily and anonymously say anything, anytime, anywhere.
I’ve enjoyed the loosening of the forums available to the public in order to employ free speech and I am a great advocate of the internet as a freely available place to exchange ideas. However with great freedom comes great responsibility, Eleanor Roosevelt said. Many people fail to take their responsibility for measured speech responsibly, and the devil is having his heyday.
Just as we thrill to the idea that we can support international ministries like Grace to You which reaches a huge audience, and just as we can responsibly use social media and the Internet to get the message of Jesus across to a wider audience ourselves, so satan uses social media too. He captured Hollywood and then the networks and then cable. Now online Christian newspapers, blogs, forums and the like are bastions of false doctrine, angry rhetoric, and tarnished witness.
The bible has a lot to say about how a Christian should speak, and also what to do when speaking to and dealing with non-believers. Over 70 times in the bible we read proverbs, commands, and advice for proper speech.
I’d like to take a moment to discuss online Christian speech and to bring us back to the biblical standards for how to react to hateful speech, scornful speech, sarcastic speech, and mocking speech. The bible says a lot about how WE are supposed to conduct ourselves in discourse, but today I’d like to comment on how to proceed when faced with less than desirable comments online, AKA, moderating.
What do you do when faced with someone’s sarcastic, mocking comment, or seems to want only to argue?
The short answer is: delete them without a second thought. If necessary, block them. More on why in a moment.
Here is the lesson. I’ve noticed a marked upswing in scornful and hateful comments. In some examples it’s obvious that they should be deleted. The other night I received a comment responding to an essay that simply said, in all caps, “I HOPE YOU ALL DIE.” I actually laughed at that one, because we all do die. The sad or happy part is what comes after for each of us.
But satan is a subtle creature and he instills a sly menace in some comments, comments that on the surface seem like they should be engaged with but are only there to cause a hindrance to pursuit of God’s glory. Another commenter said the other night,
It consistently amazes me how you pick and choose bible verses that are applicable to your argument, yet call out “false prophets” for doing the exact same thing.
The clues in this comment are the word ‘consistently’ (he keeps reading this blog enough to think I do something consistently which in his opinion is stupid. My question is, why keep reading?), the scare quotes around the phrase “false prophet” (Scare quotes are often used to express skepticism, disapproval, or derision, says the journalism dictionary, and writers are advised to use them sparingly) and the ad hominem charge with no supporting data. An ad hominem attack is simply an attack on the writer’s character. Lacking data, reason, or logic, they usually just fall back to “you’re a big huge poopyhead.” They rarely if ever use a name.
I responded like this:
Can you show me an example of which verse I’ve used incorrectly, and show me how the verse should be understood? Anonymous, you have scare quotes around the phrase “false prophets”. Does this mean you believe there aren’t any? Or, do you believe the ones I’ve called out are not actually false? Please use scripture to help us understand your meaning.
I’m serious here. The Internet is a cold screen, and facial expressions and tone won’t come through. Maybe I misunderstood the person, and I’d like to give the person a chance to respond with scripture and facts in order to understand their intent and position.
Sometimes they respond positively, and we can go on in unity under the love of Christ, gaining a better understanding. However in this particular example, when I asked Anonymous to provide bible verses he said, “That’s a nice little trick there.” Then he simply made more ad hominem charges. I deleted the comment. Why?
1. If they are a non-believer, why allow them to co-opt the discussion and insert false doctrine or destroy the tone? Also, you can’t disciple a goat into a sheep.
2. If they are a believer, why allow them a forum to further dig themselves into a sin-hole?
Discernment lesson: Don’t let trolls online or people in real life sway you from a focus on Jesus with the bible as the basis. Scripture is the only truth, and the only means when discussing Him to arrive at a reasonable conclusion. (Isaiah 1:18, 2 Timothy 3:16). If they refuse, you know they aren’t genuinely striving to glorify Jesus or trying to help you (or me). In these cases, sadly, the bible says plenty about conversations like the one Anonymous wanted to have.
Since their conversation doesn’t emanate from above, but from within, “Like a dog that returns to his vomit is a fool who repeats his folly.” (Proverbs 26:11)
“A fool takes no pleasure in understanding, but only in expressing his opinion.” (Prov 18:2). This goes both ways, for the commenter, but also for the Moderator. Once we stray from scripture, everything else is our own opinion and I would quickly become foolish too. That’s why I’m vigilant, I don’t want to provide a forum for a fool to increase his sin nor to provide a pit for me to fall into. I”m a sinner too.
In these cases when the person persists in their opinion and becomes more heated, we shake the dust off and leave them be. (Mark 6:11). “Have nothing to do with foolish, ignorant controversies; ” (2 Timothy 2:23)
“Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest you be like him yourself.” (Proverbs 26:4)
I say all this to let you know that if you run a blog, forum, or comment stream, like on Facebook, to not be hesitant to delete, refuse to engage, or leave people like this alone. In cases like these I delete and don’t think twice. No regrets. Sometimes I think we are so full of love and care for everyone to come to Christ we engage in conversations that are better left alone, which only end up damaging our own character as we sin by falling into sarcasm, anger, or “foolish controversies.” If you run an online forum or facilitate a real life group, don’t damage your own witness by over-extending into the fool’s sphere. To keep a clear head, it’s simple- always stay with scripture as the basis for any conversation. It is scripture that convinces, convicts, and saves. Not my opinion- or theirs.
If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless. (James 1:26)
The other important reason to be strict about not letting the conversation stray too far off scripture and off the point is that we don’t want to be a place where doctrinal confusion reigns. I refuse to allow this blog or any other forum I moderate to become a hindrance to the growth of a weaker brother or sister. I do not want to confuse anybody! Questions are fine, discussion is fine, but allowing people with an agenda to promote their false doctrines won’t happen here.
I can’t tell you how many people comment about the ‘fact’ that Darby invented the rapture, or how John MacArthur is a false teacher, or how Beth Moore must be a good teacher because she “helped” someone feel better about themselves. And don’t even get me started on how many people write to me with their dream or vision. Those comments will never see the light of day. Not. Gonna. Happen. I am responsible to Jesus for everything I say and everything I do. I won’t be part of helping to send a sister off in a wrong direction under the false notion of “fairness” or “love” to a person who may have mal-intent or is just plain wrong. I truly love my brethren too much for that.
So do not let anyone guilt you into publishing their comment, or worse, their essay as a guest writer, just because they have a misunderstanding of what censorship and free speech is. Not publishing a comment isn’t destroying their free speech. It’s called moderating. Free speech means any person can go start their own blog and they can comment all day and all night if they want, and here in America for the time being, people can still do that.
Whoever keeps his mouth and his tongue keeps himself out of trouble.. (Proverbs 21:23)
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. (Ephesians 4:29)