A web of wisdom: social media to the glory of God #1

Social media is perhaps the most common or popular expression of what is sometimes called Web 2.0. Web 1.0, for those who may be wondering, consisted mainly of static pages containing fixed data. Web 2.0 is the more dynamic, interactive expression of the interweb which we all now enjoy, or at least employ. Web 3.0, for those tantalised by such prospects, is likely to involve ever-closer tailoring in real time to the perceived interests of users based on data gathered from their previous activity. (Amusingly, the fact that this is being done has terrified and infuriated my esteemed mother - Google beware!)

Social media are those platforms and applications in and by which people create, share, exchange and comment on information. Most definitions and catalogues include the vast range of wikis, blogs, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Pinterest, Tumblr, Instagram, Snapchat, chatrooms and instant messaging and message boards, MySpace, Bebo, Flikr, Vine and a host of others.

But, if we are professing followers of Jesus Christ, should we get involved, and - if so - how and to what ends? Can we use social media to the glory of God? That question drives the answers to the may and the must of social media engagement. I think that, were he available to offer an opinion, the apostle Paul would suggest, in essence, that we may use social media and that, if we do, we must do so to the glory of God.

My answer is based on 1 Corinthians 10.31: "Therefore, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God." Here Paul is responding, for the second time in the letter, to the language that may have been or have become a Corinthian slogan, possibly a twisted version of a truth now being abused by misinterpretation and misapplication: "All things are lawful for me." Even if Paul or another teacher had used some form of this language, it was never intended to provide cover for gross wickedness. In chapter 10 Paul responds to the assertion that "all things are lawful" with the reminders that not all things are helpful or edifying. His ensuing discussion, working through the matter of food offered to idols, ends in the general principle that whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, you are to do it all to the glory of God.

To be sure, Paul wants us to ensure that our most mundane activities are performed with an eye to glorifying God. But this eating and drinking is not, in the context, a mundane and meaningless activity. It is an activity that might involve entanglement with idolatry, if not in our own eyes then potentially in the eyes of others. Paul's point of principle, then, is that our great concern ought not to be with our own rights, desires and freedoms, but with the potential impacts and implications of our behaviour on the honour and glory of the Lord. God's glory and the church's reputation will be compromised on our account if what we do makes others judge unfavourably the faith we profess and the God whom we serve.

Our grand concern is all things ought to be the glory of God, the honour of his great name. All else ought to be subordinated to this. In the words of Charles Hodge, commenting on this passage, "Let self be forgotten. Let your eye be fixed on God. Let the promotion of his glory be your object in all you do. Strive in everything to act in such a way that men may praise that God whom you profess to serve." Notice the proactive nature of this: definitely seek out these ends, either by what you pursue and the way you pursue it or by what you refrain from pursuing. Matthew Henry also gives us some helpful insights:
The apostle takes occasion from this discourse to lay down a rule for Christians' conduct, and apply it to this particular case (v. 31, 32), namely, that in eating and drinking, and in all we do, we should aim at the glory of God, at pleasing and honouring him. This is the fundamental principle of practical godliness. The great end of all practical religion must direct us where particular and express rules are wanting. Nothing must be done against the glory of God, and the good of our neighbours, connected with it. Nay, the tendency of our behaviour to the common good, and the credit of our holy religion, should give direction to it. And therefore nothing should be done by us to offend any, whether Jew, or Gentile, or the church, v. 32. The Jews should not be unnecessarily grieved nor prejudiced, who have such an abhorrence of idols that they reckon every thing offered to them thereby defiled, and that it will pollute and render culpable all who partake of it; nor should heathens be countenanced in their idolatry by any behaviour of ours, which they may construe as homage or honour done to their idols; nor young converts from Gentilism take any encouragement from our conduct to retain any veneration for the heathen gods and worship, which they have renounced: nor should we do any thing that may be a means to pervert any members of the church from their Christian profession or practice. Our own humour and appetite must not determine our practice, but the honour of God and the good and edification of the church. We should not so much consult our own pleasure and interest as the advancement of the kingdom of God among men. Note, A Christian should be a man devoted to God, and of a public spirit.
So in this flood of data which we are called upon to surf, with its endless demands and vast opportunities, we cannot afford to engage thoughtlessly and carelessly. Like food offered to idols, our use of social media reflects on our profession of following the Lord and therefore, ultimately, it reflects on the Lord God himself.

It is therefore absolutely right to ask, first of all, "May I and should I engage?" The answer to that question will involve a frank and honest assessment of our own character with its appetites and inclinations. Taking that into account, we must consider the form, intentions and usual effects of any social media application or platform: What is the tone and nature of this? What is it designed to do for, to or with its users? What are the trends and tendencies of those who employ these as tools or as toys? Such questions will often throw up an immediate and obvious negative. Sites given over to slut-shaming or the exposure (literally) of ex-boyfriends and girlfriends have no place in the Christian's online cache. There may also, however, be sites which some will consider harmless which a Christian, or some particular Christians, should avoid or ignore because they do not need them or would not be able safely and profitably to use them. Remember, there is rarely, for many of us, any "You must!" to the question of social media involvement.

That brings us to the second question: "If I may engage, how must I do so?" How may I do so to the glory of God? In order to begin to answer that question, I wish to offer a web of wisdom, a grid drawn from the Book of Proverbs, which I hope will help believers filter out dangers and assess their contributions to various social media platforms. In the coming posts I will suggest some basic principles, some supporting texts which I hope you will ponder, and a brief summary which may help in your pondering. I do not expect that it will answer every question, but I hope that it will encourage a thoughtfulness and carefulness about our use of social media to the glory of God, as well as prompting thought about other forms of communication.

#2 to follow . . .