In the wake of devastating floods in Houston, social media—including conservative Christians—spread word that Joel Osteen’s 16,800-seat Lakewood Church turned away people who sought shelter. Many believers called the polarizing megachurch pastor a hypocrite.

“This jives perfectly with his behavior during Katrina. What would Jesus do @JoelOsteen. He’d open the doors (and also turn over the tables),” one woman tweeted.

“You’re not Christian. Failing to help those in need, come your judgment day, how will you explain your actions to the Lord? Shame on you,” another posted.

What we post on social media can take on a life of its own. The matter feels urgent, so we hastily type rebuttals. Veiled as zeal for truth, we run to our computers and phones to adjust error and admonish the man who got it all wrong. Any public misstep can be called out to legions of our followers who, in turn, can pass on the public rebuke to their followers.

With so many people agreeing with us, confidence grows that we have chosen a worthy battle.

Love Truth, Hate People?

It felt good and right to call out Joel Osteen, but was it true? Did it honor the Lord?

The truth is Lakewood Church itself had sustained flooding. At the time of the backlash, only three people had requested assistance from the church, and they got it. Considering this, how often do we tweet retractions when we’ve posted something we assumed was true but turned out to be false? Have we considered that as surely as we know others’ words and actions have consequences, so do ours?

In Scripture, the point of rebuke is correction and, if necessary, repentance. But this goal often seems lost when we log on to our computer. On social media, public rebuke can seek to shame or discredit. As friends like or retweet our thoughts, our reprimand toward another can fester into outrage.

Maybe they had it coming? Perhaps they said or wrote something horribly wrong. After all, if you speak publicly, it’s only fair to be rebuked publicly, right? I used to think this was true, even biblical. But what happens when we pass on information we cannot possibly confirm? Will we place a kind intent on their words as we read them, or are we quick to assume the worst motives?

As Ed Stetzer writes, “It seems some Christians hate Joel Osteen more than they love the truth. I’d expect that from the world, but I hoped for better in the church.”

Rebuke or Revenge?

Consider the effect that social-media shaming has on the lives of those who receive our scorn. Is our zeal for truth fueled by personal contempt or love for their eternal soul? Technology makes it easy to lose sight of the image-bearer we’re addressing. Rather than creating a sorrow that leads to repentance, our public rebuke can generate shame, which leads to despair.

Scott Sauls expresses this point well:

As a Christian who is active on social media, I often remind myself that each image-bearing name is sacred. The ninth commandment, which warns against bearing false testimony of any kind about one’s neighbor, must remain in the forefront. I must remove all negative caricature—the exaggeration of someone’s worst features and the censoring out of her or his best ones—from my words, both spoken and written. It is unChristian to bless God while cursing a person with a soul.

Christians wouldn’t murder someone they disagree with in the name of standing for the truth. Yet some believers use social media to assassinate an individual’s character, going far beyond the critique of a specific action or words. As James writes, “From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so” (James 3:10).

How often do we read of repentance, forgiveness, and reconciliation due to being confronted and shamed on social media? And if someone does publicly repent, how likely will those on social media receive them back? As Sauls points out, “Apologies don’t make good stories, do they? They aren’t as tweetable.”                                 

More Excellent Way

When possible, we ought to confront one another in person. It helps to look them in the eye when we speak of their heart. Acts 18 tells of an intriguing encounter with two laypeople, Priscilla and Aquila, and a Greek scholar named Apollos. An “eloquent man, competent in the Scriptures,” Apollos preached publicly to many, but his theology needed correction. So Priscilla and Aquilla pulled him aside privately and “explained to him the way of God more adequately.”

Their correction didn’t invalidate Apollos as a minister. Afterward he returned to public ministry with Priscilla and Aquilla’s blessing. Instead of destroying community, this confrontation built redemptive relationships.

I’m grateful for the men and women who have loved me enough to quietly pull me aside and correct me. They could have easily called me out publicly, and many onlookers would have admired their insight. Instead, they put my welfare before their ego. As a result I continue to look to them for guidance, and their influence extends far beyond one encounter.  

Has social media warped our thinking? Might privacy produce better outcomes? 

The next time a post or tweet tempts you to reply with a snarky comeback, or take to your own platform to write a powerful rebuttal because the truth is too important to wait, consider our brother James’s words: “Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God” (James 1:19–20).