Christians on the internet can sometimes be like the fake Batmans in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight—copycat caped crusaders wearing hockey pads and DIY cowls. Our personalities online can often mimic a kind of “second life” as vigilantes: “Self-appointed citizens who undertake the role of law enforcement in their community without legal authority, typically because the legal agencies are thought to be inadequate.”
Tim Challies discusses how cyberspace is often thought of as a “place”—but one where our embodied selves never have to go anywhere:
We now see cyberspace as a place, but also as a state of being. Cyberspace gives us a place to be ourselves apart from our bodies. And in many cases the draw is irresistible. Often, we are led to view this as a superior alternative to the real world.
What’s more, if we are disgruntled with the state of the church and believe its government inadequate, we now have a “place” to go and supervise the church from behind the safe buffer of a screen.
There are times when an “online watchman” role can be helpful, especially when exposing corruption in churches or institutions that have silenced or dismissed dissenting voices within. But in my experience, online watchmen are usually less like investigative journalists and more like internet trolls—prone to ill-informed speculation, smearing, and spreading division.
“The words of a whisperer are like delicious morsels; they go down into the inner parts of the body” (Prov. 18:8). Social media often exacerbates the temptation to receive rumors and raise the alarm about strangers in the church. No longer are we satisfied with our faithful service to a local body of believers; instead, we can be in the People Everywhere business—people we don’t really know but can easily think the worst about. We can become obsessed by outrage at things happening far beyond our proximate community. We can scroll and vent when distant others rage about the latest dangers and problems caused by those people, in those churches.
No longer are we satisfied with our faithful service to a local body of believers; instead, we can be in the People Everywhere business—people we don’t really know but can easily think the worst about.
These ecclesial vigilantes ignore church polity and try to take matters into their own hands. Even if they don’t know the people they speculate about, they often feel safe spreading suspicions and rumors, refusing to bear all things in love (1 Cor. 13:7). Sometimes these online watchmen gain followings, and other Christians begin to see their voices as more authoritative than their own pastors. Scripture warns us of these factious and divisive men:
But avoid foolish controversies, genealogies, dissensions, and quarrels about the law, for they are unprofitable and worthless. As for a person who stirs up division, after warning him once and then twice, have nothing more to do with him, knowing that such a person is warped and sinful; he is self-condemned. (Titus 3:9–11)
For those tempted to be divisive, it’s no wonder the online world is so appealing. It lacks the structures of accountability that hold the real world and the church together. Even though cyberspace isn’t really a place, though, the consequences of what takes place there are real. Digital words hold no less weight than those we say in person.
Proverbs 18:4 says, “The words of a man’s mouth are deep waters; the fountain of wisdom is a bubbling brook.” “Deep waters” is a phrase that harkens back to Ancient Near Eastern views of the abyss (Gen. 1:2), a place of chaos, the realm of beasts and sea monsters. James also picks up this imagery: “For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison” (James 3:7–8).
For those tempted to be divisive, it’s no wonder the online world is so appealing. It lacks the structures of accountability that hold the real world and the church together.
The bleak and severe warnings regarding speech in James 3 should give all of us pause. He says the beasts of the deep are easier to tame than the tongue. Why can our words be so devastating? James answers: “With [the tongue] we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so” (James 3:9–10).
Don’t Bear False Witness
The Westminster Larger Catechism lists no less than 47 “speech sins” forbidden by the ninth commandment (“Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor“). Such sins include:
all prejudicing the truth, and the good name of our neighbors . . . especially in public judicature . . . speaking the truth unseasonably, or maliciously to a wrong end . . . misconstructing intentions, words, and actions . . . aggravating smaller faults . . . unnecessary discovering of infirmities . . . stopping our ears against just defense; [and] evil suspicion.
Those who spend their days building a personal brand on the sins above forfeit the privilege of speaking credibly into others’ lives. As Jesus himself said, “The good person out of his good treasure brings forth good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure brings forth evil. I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak” (Matt. 12:35).
When we fail to keep the ninth commandment in these regards, we must repent—and charge others to repent—and trust in the One who, while being led to slaughter, “opened not his mouth” (Isa. 53:7; Matt. 26:62–63; 1 Pet. 1:23). Give your attention to the silent and slaughtered Lamb, not cowards in “hockey pads” always looking for a fight online.