#clarityforthegospel

During a recent discussion, Valerie Hobbs and I realized that we share a concern about the pitfalls of social media, especially for church leaders. What follows is an article we wrote together addressing this concern.


Some people love twitter. Some people hate it. It seems everyone at least has an opinion about it. Writes Joe Nocera,

So much on Twitter is frivolous or self-promotional. It can bury you in information. Because people often use Twitter to react to events instantly, they can say some awfully stupid things.

Beyond stupid, Twitter users can be mean, hateful even. It is a place where bullies can build a platform and quickly assemble a mob.

Still, we’ve seen some amazing one-liners on Twitter, mostly from people who intuitively understand how to operate within Twitter’s limitations to craft something clever, funny, or sharp. Who can forget this gem, for instance?

And of course, it isn’t just the funny one-liner that is successful on Twitter. This tweet, like all good tweets, effectively packs volumes into a short space.

But how effective is Twitter at expressing complex concepts? Many of us Christians, including our own esteemed theologians, tweet complex ideas, but the results are often poor. Perhaps you too have seen exchanges that go something like this:

  • Pastor/theologian/Christian author/blogger tweets a complex theological concept in an ambiguous way, sometimes intentionally, sometimes not.
  • Readers/followers ask questions, challenge, push back on the ambiguity. “What on earth are you talking about?”, “This could be dangerous!”, “Did you mean it in this (heretical) way?”
  • Tweeter: “I shouldn’t have to respond to these challenges.”, “Obviously, I didn’t mean it like that!”, “Get a life. It’s Twitter.”, [tweets 10 clarifying responses]

Admittedly, Twitter would be a much friendlier place if we all read with charity to a greater extent. But then again, when it comes to the Gospel, clarity and precision are pretty important. The devil is in the details, as they say. If you don’t believe that, here’s a helpful use of Twitter which makes the same point:

The most obvious sources of the mismatch between Twitter and theology are points already mentioned: lack of skill in using a limited space to express complex ideas and, of course, our own sinful natures. That is, some people enjoy stirring up trouble. They like the attention, and they think they can get away with it online. But there’s another factor in the mix that scholars researching and writing about social media have identified: context collapse.

Context collapse “refers to the audiences possible online as opposed to limited groups we normally interact with in face-to-face interactions” (source). Put simply, it refers to the lack of boundaries in many social media contexts, particularly Twitter, as all posts are public. In most of our off-line interactions, social boundaries allow us to assume shared knowledge. When we are with our friends, for instance, we can use a shared vocabulary. We can assume, to some extent, that people we talk to know us in that context, what we are like, the meanings of our words, what we believe and don’t believe.

On Facebook, some users attempt to recreate these social boundaries by setting up sub-groups or private groups. Even still, for those Facebook users who keep their account public or who have hundreds of acquaintances they don’t know personally, context collapse is a significant issue to contend with.

Context collapse means that tweets and posts for a public audience cannot require much assumed knowledge. When we tweet, we cannot assume that readers have much knowledge of who we are, what we stand for, and whether or not we hold dangerous theological views.

No doubt close friends and those who’ve read all of our work and who interact with us frequently can see our tweets in light of that shared context. But most people reading our tweets cannot do that. And it is dangerous to assume otherwise as we run the risk of leading people astray. This is particularly true when it comes to theology. Mascall writes,

To avoid vagueness and ambiguity is even more of a duty in popular work than in learned treatise. The very fact that the Christian mysteries in their profundity outstrip our finite powers of comprehension makes it all the more important for us to express the limited grasp which we have of them with all the clarity and accuracy at our command, while fully recognising how very imperfect and partial our grasp of them is.

So how can we tweet about theology in a responsible way?

Get off Twitter.

No, really. How can we tweet responsibly, especially about theology, in light of collapsed context? We should aim for clarity, edification, and self-control.

1. Seek clarity in your tweeting.

“But let your statement be, ‘Yes, yes’ or ‘No, no’” (Matt. 5:37, NASB)

Remembering that anyone might read and misunderstand what we’ve written, we need to be as clear as possible. Our speech should be open and honest. We should not give anyone cause to doubt our words or cause to question our orthodoxy. While it’s true that anything has the potential to be misunderstood and that no one can prevent that from happening all the time, our goal should be clarity.

How does this apply to Twitter? Retweeting quotes or snippets from sermons or conference talks without the context may lead to confusion. You understood what was meant, but is the tweeted quote clear to someone who wasn’t there?

The same question should be asked when attempting to tweet about a complex theological concept. Is your tweet clear or is it likely to be misunderstood? We’re aiming for sharing the light of the gospel, not muddying the waters. If the concept is particularly complex, maybe it would be better to write more on it elsewhere and link to it through Twitter.

2. Seek to edify with your tweets.

“Let no unwholesome word proceed from your mouth, but only such a word as is good for edification according to the need of the moment, so that it will give grace to those who hear … But immorality or any impurity or greed must not even be named among you, as is proper among saints; and there must be no filthiness and silly talk, or coarse jesting, which are not fitting, but rather giving of thanks.” (Eph. 4:29; Eph. 5:3-4, NASB)

It can be tempting to think that Twitter is fairly anonymous and that no one much will notice what you tweet, comment on, or “like” online. In truth, our words and actions are there for the world to see, and people are watching. People will not always agree with us, and the gospel itself will sometimes be offensive to others. But our words should be edifying, should give grace, and should glorify God. We’re not saying we can’t joke or tease. What we are instead saying is that our teasing shouldn’t be crude, and our jokes shouldn’t be double entendres.

Thom Rainer has a recent article “Five Reasons Why Pastors Are Getting Fired Because of Their Social Media Posts.” (source) In it he notes:

Unsavory comments. A pastor or church staff member making lewd or suggestive comments on social media gains nothing, even if it’s a quote from a movie or someone else. The consequences are always negative.

How does this apply to Twitter use? Be careful what you “like” and retweet. Consider how your jokes and things you respond to online might be viewed by others. We used to say, “Never write anything you wouldn’t want the whole world to see.” Now that the whole world can see what we write, consider this: If someone only or mainly knew you from your tweets, etc, what would their overall impression of you be?

It may seem harsh or unfair to have to police yourself so strongly. But when we are known to be Christians and especially known to be pastors or elders, we will be held to a higher standard. James tells us that this is the way life is.

“Let not many of you become teachers, my brethren, knowing that as such we will incur a stricter judgment.” (James 3:1, NASB)

3. Finally, exercise self-control in your tweeting.

“For we all stumble in many ways. If anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able to bridle the whole body as well. Now if we put the bits into the horses’ mouths so that they will obey us, we direct their entire body as well. Look at the ships also, though they are so great and are driven by strong winds, are still directed by a very small rudder wherever the inclination of the pilot desires. So also the tongue is a small part of the body, and yet it boasts of great things.

See how great a forest is set aflame by such a small fire! And the tongue is a fire, the very world of iniquity; the tongue is set among our members as that which defiles the entire body, and sets on fire the course of our life, and is set on fire by hell. For every species of beasts and birds, of reptiles and creatures of the sea, is tamed and has been tamed by the human race. But no one can tame the tongue; it is a restless evil and full of deadly poison. With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in the likeness of God; from the same mouth come both blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not to be this way.” (James 3:2-10, NASB)

Self-control is included in the list of the fruit of the Spirit. Most often we hear it discussed in conversations about gluttony or sexuality. But it also applies to our behavior online. In fact, it’s the key to this whole discussion.

When we are self-controlled, we are likely to be clearer because we won’t be quick to speak and slow to think. When we’re in control of ourselves, we aren’t likely to be crude or inappropriate. And when we’re self-controlled, we are less likely to stir up trouble.

How does this apply to Twitter? As noted earlier, some pastors/elders/theologians appear to tweet intentionally ambiguous or provocative statements. They seem to enjoy the ensuing firestorm. This is a lack of self-control.

There are many temptations on Twitter to act and react without thought. As James points out, our tongues are hard to tame. It helps if we remember that those people on Twitter who provoke us and tempt us to respond in anger or in ugliness are people made in the likeness of God.

And if the struggle to control yourself is too much? Then maybe it is time to get off Twitter.

12 thoughts on “#clarityforthegospel

  1. Nancy2 says:

    Yup! Pastors/elders/theologians – if you can’t preach a sermon in an arena where you are just a guest speaker, in 140 characters or less, don’t try to put your message on Twitter!

  2. Barbara Roberts says:

    “Some pastors/elders/theologians appear to tweet intentionally ambiguous or provocative statements. They seem to enjoy the ensuing firestorm. This is a lack of self-control.”

    I’d like to qualify that. Sometimes it may be lack of self control. Sometimes is may be the pastor deliberately provoking a firestorm, to (pridefully) show off his “STRONG STAND FOR THE GOSPEL” or for some Christian shibboleth.

    Rather like an abusive person picks fights with those he likes to oppress and abuse. He steers the interaction to make it all about Him and His Opinions and His Skill as a Debater.

    • Rachel Miller says:

      I agree that those who deliberately start firestorms are doing it on purpose. I was using a different application of self-control. If we are behaving in a way we know we shouldn’t, that can be not keeping ourselves (our sin) under control. Not that we’re out of control. Does that make sense?

      • Barbara Roberts says:

        Yes it sort of makes sense.

        But I’m quite cautious about the use of the concept of ‘self-control’ because it has been so misapplied and misused in the field of abuse.

        In my experience, the difficulty with putting it like you did — “If we are behaving in a way we know we shouldn’t, that can be not keeping ourselves (our sin) under control” — is this:

        When a person knowingly does something wrong to other people, he is in control of himself by choosing to act wrongly. And his choice to act wrongly has a motive: he is trying to GAIN CONTROL over the other people.

        To say that he is not keeping himself (his sin) under control, misses the important point that he IS in control of his sin/flesh and is CHOOSING to sin against those other people.

        To say that such individuals are not ‘keeping control over their sin’ is to minimize their responsibility for their misbehaviour. It makes it sound like they could have been the victim of their own sin impulses.

        In domestic abuse, which is the field I know best, abusers love to perpetuate the common myth that an abusive man ‘just lost control of himself’. He did not lose control. He was IN CONTROL of himself at every point… and he was trying to GAIN control over his victim.

  3. Barbara Roberts says:

    Another thing people often do on twitter and on other social media, is to use a pronoun without making it clear what their pronoun is referring to. The WRITER knows what he or she means by “it” or “they” or “them” …. and assumed that all the readers will know as well.

    The twitter platform makes this even more of a problem than it is on other platforms, because unless you make the effort to dig into the other tweet or tweets-thread which that tweet was responding to, you have no context at all by which to interpret it.

    A big part of the art of writing is to ensure that what you write cannot be misinterpreted by any of your readers.

    In my primary school days when we were answering reading-comprehension questions, the teacher always used to tell us, “When you write an answer, include the question in your answer”.

    So if the question was, “What did the man do when he found the door left open?” you had to write the answer, “When the man found the door left open, he went inside and checked to see if anything had been stolen.” It was not satisfactory to just answer, “He went inside and checked to see if anything had been stolen.”

  4. Herjourney says:

    But no one can tame the tongue; it is a restless evil and full of deadly poison. With it we bless our Lord and father, and with it we curse men who have been made in the likeness of God. Key words * —“have been made in the likeness of God.” Not all men have been made in the likeness of God. In the spiritual likeness of our father. With their mouth they curse men and women who have been changed into the likeness of God.
    If you’ve been in the battle as a warrior in the front lines for the King? You will be cursed and hated. “A Cry For Justice” believes in identifying a wolf for what He/she is. A false prophet. No mincing words here.
    Taking the word of God out of context can lead even the well known seasoned theologian on a one way ticket to never return land.

    • Barbara Roberts says:

      As one of the co-leaders of A Cry For Justice, I want to clarify something here.

      I believe that every human being is created in God’s image, and that ever since the Fall that divine image in every person is deformed and blighted by sin.

      I further believe that the Bible says that some people are so persistent in committing sins, heinous sins, that they sear their consciences. They become in effect agents for the evil one.

      So, I would not agree with the statement “Not all men have been made in the likeness of God.” But I would agree with the idea that some people have so determinedly put down and seared their consciences, that in their character and behaviour they have almost no residual likeness to the image of God.

      • Herjourney says:

        After the fall of mankind the image of man was altered, in that man then was created in sin. Genesis 1:26-27
        I belief in the doctrine of predestination. It’s not that man pursues after God. But that God pursues after Man. He has all power to change the sinner into a man after God. I agree that some people are so persistent in committing sins, that their conscience is seared. That in the last days demons will roam the earth by the indwelling of evil spirits into the human soul. Thus deceiving even the Christian .
        The Holy Spirit is so needed to discern good from evil. Not disagreeing with your stance. Just adding a bit of depth that might aid the follower in these last days.

  5. Jeff Crippen says:

    Yes, Barbara’s comment here is a correct statement of orthodox doctrine. All human beings bear the image of God. They have eternal souls/spirits and a knowledge of God as Creator.

    In his sin, man strives to suppress that knowledge as Romans 1 says, choosing to fashion his own gods. As his rebellion persists, God gives him over to a depraved mind, a state that repentance is rarely found in.

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