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The internet has multiplied the opportunities for stupid debate. I daresay the same thing happened with the printing press. But I’m not going to argue the merits and pitfalls of the way that anybody can post anything on the internet. What I’m concerned about at the moment is how the internet has multiplied the opportunities for sinful debate.

Instead of using the personal, community-based Matthew 18 model for resolving conflict, Christians have progressed into the modern age: we can now use forums, Facebook, and blogs (with their infamous comments pages) to promote our views and put others down!

There are two types of conflicts that Christians can air in the ether. First, Christians sometimes debate theological issues in the metaphorical “public square.” Someone takes a position publicly, so if others want to refute him or her, they do it publicly. This type of conflict is, I think, a legitimate use of the internet; the early church had its methods of public debate (like Iraneus’ Against Heresies). However, when we engage in this kind of abstract argument, we can sometimes descend into illogical, ill-founded arguments or personal attacks, which leads on to the second kind of conflict.

In the second type of conflict, Christians sometimes take their personal grievances to their computers. The internet has become our church, our pastor, our Savior: when we get hurt in the course of “body life,” rather than going to Jesus first, and then dealing with the conflict within the church community, we take it online. Whether it’s an issue between two people, or a problem within a church or organization, these things are much better addressed face to face. Sadly, the internet provides an easy opt-out from the hard work of confrontation.

In my own internet surfing, I’ve definitely felt anger bubbling to the surface as I have read another Christian’s blog or comment. I’ve had to restrain myself from writing “zingers” which will really “get” my “opponent.”

Here are seven sinful tendencies in myself that I think the internet can exaggerate—can you relate to any of them?

  1. Laziness – Posting views and grievances from the anonymity of my laptop means that I have no biblical community to hold me accountable, both in my personal walk with God, and in my exegesis and reasoning. On the internet I can just spout my opinions, which can lead to sloppy logic and sloppy living.
  2. Ungraciousness – Sometimes I don’t see those who disagree with me as people. They are their little tag name (“heretikfighter84”) or their little avatar icon. I can lose the holistic view of people that I would get if I were living with them in true community. If you live in church community with someone, you see your “opponent” as a bereaved mother, a student struggling with depression, that guy who faithfully does kids work each week, that woman who makes a killer banana meringue pie. But when you “see” people on the internet, you just identify them with their view, rather than appreciating the whole person.
  3. Anger – When I see someone making a stupid argument (which it must be if I don’t agree with it!), or when I see someone being ungracious to someone else on the internet, I can start to fume at my desk. I persuade myself that this is righteous anger, and that I would be totally justified in ripping their argument to shreds.
  4. Pride – I can read things written by other Christians and tend to think that my arguments/opinions/ideas are worth more than theirs. Of course, there’s a place for reason, and we hold our beliefs because we think they are right—but that doesn’t give me a license to look down my nose at my brothers and sisters.
  5. Gossip – Talking or typing about other people can seem harmless, but the Bible says it’s a sin. If I’m in disagreement with someone, it’s a lot harder to talk to them than it is to talk about them, but Jesus didn’t call us to an easy life.
  6. Hypocrisy – The ungracious attitude, anger, pride, and gossip mentioned above can lead me into hypocrisy. James says that with our tongue (or keyboard), “we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth comes blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, these things ought not to be so!” (3:9-10) Again, “If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless” (1:26). John says, “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother or sister, he is a liar” (1 John 4:20).
  7. Lack of love – Jesus said that unbelievers would know we belong to him by our love. When they see our internet debates, what will they think about him?

I always think I’m virtuous until something rocks my boat, whether it be a personal conflict or an idea I don’t agree with. That’s when the sinful tendencies in me rear their heads and I get to practice some character development! I’m not saying that we should never engage in debate on the internet. Let’s just check our hearts and make sure we’re not bashing people over the heads with the logs in our eyes.

In my next post I’ll make a more positive list of biblical values we can use to guide our internet dialogue… Until then, happy surfing!