You’ve seen it before. You read an article almost anywhere on the web and decide to scroll down to see what others think in the comments section. It doesn’t matter how benign or mundane the article might be—"Baby Panda’s First Steps" perhaps; the comments section will be filled with vitriol. There are the obligatory Obama haters, the perpetual Bush blamers, the Bible thumpers who neglect to draw on the Bible, the angry atheists and the downright mean. Then, of course, we have Godwin’s Law, which states: "As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1."
Despite the hostility of so many comments sections, many of us are drawn to the comment field and jump right in. Unfortunately, Christians often behave just as badly as, if not worse than, their non-Christian Internet neighbors. When we encounter those who disagree with us online, we are tempted to be defensive, angry, hurtful, dismissive and dishonest—and a quick perusal of almost any popular article on the web provides ample evidence that many of us give in to those temptations
In the face of comment sections so full of hatred, as well as our own tendencies toward sin, what are we to do?
The easiest answer to that question is one of passivity: we do nothing. If I am going to be tempted to write something that doesn’t reflect Christ and other people are so set in their ways, I’ll just avoid commenting altogether. Although we are used to the easiest option being the wrong option, that is not necessarily the case here. In many situations, our anger might have such a hold on us that we would do better to hold our digital tongues than to let it out against others (Ephesians 4:26). In other cases, we may not have the knowledge to adequately address others’ misunderstandings and biases, and so we should refrain from offering incorrect correction. For example, in response to someone complaining about judgmental Christians, I recently saw a Christian commenter state that Christians do not judge whether other people are right or wrong in their actions at all because the Old Testament laws were nothing but shadows and because Jesus prohibited Christians from judging others. Clearly there is an element of truth to that response, but it also gets so much wrong that it is likely more damaging than leaving the complaint unanswered. We must remember that James warned the Church that not many Christians should become teachers of the faith because teachers will be judged with greater strictness (James 3:1), and this applies to our instruction as well.
While there are good reasons to sometimes refrain from commenting, there are also times when we should choose the more challenging option and offer a helpful response to others. For those situations, though, our faith in Christ and the truth of the Gospel should have a profound effect upon the way we interact with others online. We must remember the second greatest commandment and love others as we love ourselves, even when those neighbors are angry anonymous commenters (Matthew 22:39). While this commandment does not require us to feel emotional affection for others, it does demand that we always seek what is best for our neighbors. Seeking the best for others out of a holy love has three important implications for online interactions.
First, we must be kind to others. This does not mean we must be “nice,” that much derided term loaded with connotations of being a pushover, refusing to disagree and wanting to be liked. No, this kindness is one of the fruit produced in Christians by the Holy Spirit (Galatians 5:22), the kindness that enables leaders to gently correct those in error (2 Timothy 2:24-25). At its most basic level, being kind to other commenters means not cursing them, attacking them or calling them names (James 3:8-10). It means we ignore their poor grammar or improper use of punctuation, instead of mentioning those things to belittle them and their thoughts. But such kindness does not just tell us what we cannot do; it also informs us of our responsibilities. We must remember our Lord loves each and every commenter, and He willingly died so that they might live. This requires us to respond with gentleness and genuine care because Christ has dealt gently and carefully with us.
Second, we must be honest. The ninth of the Ten Commandments says, “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor” (Exodus 20:16). Likewise, Paul tells us we must not lie to one another because we are being renewed into the image of our God who does not lie (Colossians 3:9-10, Titus 1:2), and Jesus says Satan is the father of lies (John 8:44). Although honesty is to be a hallmark of the Christian life, we find ourselves tempted to lie in discussions in many subtle ways. Sometimes we want to fudge on the meaning of a Bible verse to make it better fit our argument, to make reference to “statistics” from “studies” we feel like we’ve read, to intentionally take others’ statements out of context or even to make unfair comparisons between commenters and other famous figures (… such as Hitler and the Nazis). When we choose to lie in these various ways, though, we do ourselves and the Kingdom of God a disservice. Often, there will be antagonistic commenters who recognize the falsehood of our comments and make use of them to suggest that Christians will say anything to try to win an argument. Other times there may be people won over by such lies, but we must remember the truth of the Gospel cannot be conveyed through lies. When we win someone over by lies, we have not won them over to the truth.
Third, we must seek to be a blessing to others. We noted above that Christians are forbidden to curse others, but we need to pay attention to the fact that we are also called to bless those we might want to curse. We are told to bless those who hate us by helping them and that by doing so we offer them opportunities to be convicted of their own sins before God so that they might be won over to repentance (Romans 12:20-21). In the context of the comments section, there are two chief ways that we might offer a blessing to others. First, when appropriate, we might offer to pray for others who have made some mention of their own suffering. Second, we can offer real insight and kindly correct misunderstanding. In order to provide genuinely helpful correction, though, we must always bear in mind the limitations of the context. This means that in the vast majority of cases, we should not expect a quote from Scripture to be convincing to a non-Christian and should not try to use Scripture as a rhetorical weapon to win arguments with those who do not trust Scripture (Matthew 7:6). We must also remember that we are just an anonymous avatar to those who read our comments, and direct personal appeals to them will likely prove ineffective.
Finally, we can do no better than to live our digital lives with the wisdom of Colossians 3:12-17:
“Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.”
Sam Greenlee (B.A. Theology, Azusa Pacific University; M.Div., Princeton Theological Seminary) is a recent seminary graduate hoping to church plant and pastor in the Sacramento suburbs. He blogs infrequently at The Leaky Jar and with his wife, Amy, at Theologia Ordinarius.