Twitter is an enticement to sin.
How’s that for a lead? Shall I say more?
I discovered Twitter early and have maintained a steady presence there, despite various pauses, doubts and regrets.
I almost abandoned the site last year when Elon Musk took over. I might do so still for various Musk-related reasons, such as the way he has treated workers, weakened hate-speech oversight and articulated some of his own deeply problematic views.
But my primary worry about Twitter, the one I want to write about today, has to with what seems to me to be the growing toxicity of “Christian Twitter.”
My descriptive statement: Twitter entices Christians to lose verbal self-control and to attack each other harshly. This is not a good look for Christianity before a watching world. It is not too much to say Twitter entices Christians to sin.
My normative statement: Christians should remain on Twitter only if we can manage to do so with a self-discipline we are not currently demonstrating.
Caveats: I write as a Christian ethicist rather than a media critic; I am writing only about Twitter rather than other social media sites; and everyone’s experience of Twitter is different. My experience is mainly with Christian Twitter, Academic Twitter, and Baseball Twitter. The last is by far the most pleasing.
I also acknowledge I have made posts on Twitter that I very much regret.
That said, here goes.
For users, Twitter appears to function as a place to express thoughts and emotions, to promote events, products and oneself, and to learn interesting things. But Twitter’s most important evolving function is as a place to experience a virtual community of the like-minded.
We Twitter users are ourselves being used. We are being used to make money, by advertisers and by the site’s owners. We are being used as sources of a great amount of data. And we are being used by powerful actors who seek to manipulate our views and practices.
“We are being morally (mal)formed by a media ecosystem, a subculture we did not create and do not control.”
More important, Twitter users are also being shaped, in a moral sense. We are being morally (mal)formed by a media ecosystem, a subculture we did not create and do not control.
It is a subculture that has developed deeply problematic moral dynamics.
Because Twitter not only allows but invites quick, unfiltered, reactive statements that initially appear to lack direct impact because they are simply typed on a screen rather than spoken to a human being, Twitter entices us to hasty, unwise and sometimes hurtful speech.
Twitter talk routinely violates Christian moral norms about speech. Yes, the Bible offers speech norms. Here is the single best statement of these norms in the New Testament, found in Ephesians 4:25-32:
So then, putting away falsehood, let each of you speak the truth with your neighbor, for we are members of one another. Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not make room for the devil. … Let no evil talk come out of your mouths but only what is good for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God. … Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice. Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.
Lies, sinful anger, evil talk, unedifying speech, ungracious words, bitterness, wrangling, slander, malice, unkindness, hardheartedness, unforgiveness. Can anyone really argue with the claim that Twitter, including Christian Twitter, resounds with such behavior every single day?
The routine daily functions of Twitter directly entice us to violate these Christian speech norms.
Twitter gives us quick release for our thoughts and emotions. But quick verbal release is often not wise or measured, not loving or disciplined. In no way does it “improve on the silence,” as the Quaker test would have it.
“Twitter builds us up by tearing others down.”
Twitter gives us opportunity to advance ourselves, our products, our brand. But because one great way to advance is by offering cutting remarks at the expense of others, Twitter builds us up by tearing others down.
Twitter can be where we find community. A major way to find community on Twitter is to say something critical about people our side dislikes — including Christians from whom our type of Christians is alienated, with whom we are not in community. In this way, Twitter becomes a place where we rehearse and intensify the painful divisions that already exist in the Christian community.
Twitter is not a place where we practice church discipline, a very delicate, challenging practice which can only take place, if it all, within a covenanted community of Christians who love each other.
The Twitter subculture invites us to find in-group community by offering angry attacks on agreed enemies. Sometimes these attacks come to focus on one person or group with laser intensity, with everyone piling on. These moments on Twitter can end up becoming a massive public flogging, a ritualized flagellation of the offender of the week.
Having been the recipient of such a public flagellation during one especially terrible week of my life, I find myself somewhat immunized from the desire either to experience it again or to inflict it upon anyone else.
My humble suggestion is a reconsideration of how Christians are using Twitter. Unless we can act on that site with discipline, and without giving in to its powerful and numerous enticements to sin, we should abandon it.
David P. Gushee is a leading Christian ethicist. serves as distinguished university professor of Christian Ethics at Mercer University, chair of Christian social ethics at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, and senior research fellow at International Baptist Theological Study Centre. He is a past president of both the American Academy of Religion and the Society of Christian Ethics. His latest book is Introducing Christian Ethics. He’s also the author of Kingdom Ethics, After Evangelicalism, and Changing Our Mind: The Landmark Call for Inclusion of LGBTQ Christians. He and his wife, Jeanie, live in Atlanta. Learn more: davidpgushee.com or Facebook.
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