Conscience Binding, Media Ecology, and Theological Controversy

Conscience Binding, Media Ecology, and Theological Controversy

In all that we do, God calls us to seek the Scriptures for guiding directives for what we may or may not write online. Scripture and Scripture alone should bind our consciences. This is especially so with regard to what God requires of us in our stewardship of the internet. If we engage others online, we should do so acknowledging the many dangers that we will have to navigate. We should be slow to listen to the loudest voices, as they are often driven by impulsive zeal and an inflated sense of self-importance. 

There is something innate in the fallen hearts of men that gives them an insatiable desire to seek to bind the consciences of others on just about every given matter. Whether it is food preferences, education, parenting, or environmental considerations, most people love to bind the consciences of others to that to which their own consciences are bound. This is most notably seen in the way in which people assert their opinions about what others should be doing in a pandemic. It has also manifested itself in much of the social commentary about perceived social injustices. In all these things, it is right for believers to appeal to Scripture as the only rule of faith and life. For good reason, Protestants have long found Martin Luther’s bold declaration at the Diet of Worms to resonate powerfully in their souls. When commanded to recant his teaching, Luther famously stated,

“Unless I am convinced by Scripture and plain reason – I do not accept the authority of the popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other – my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. God help me. Amen.”

Conscience Binding

However, the notion of conscience binding is often more subtle among believers than it was in the day of the Reformer’s contentions with the Roman Catholic Church. Today, believers who adhere faithfully to the teaching of Scripture on biblical sexual ethics or socio-political theories frequently seek to bind the consciences of other believers who faithfully adhere to the same teaching of Scripture on these matters. Now, it is no longer enough that one confesses to believe the Scriptures about its teaching on sexual sin and racial unity in Christ. If one does not speak out as loudly, vehemently, and consistently as another online he is excoriated as not have true “convictions” about these matters. It usually plays out in the following way:

A vocal opponent of various forms of compromise and falsehood calls other believers to action. However, the action is generally unspecified. It is packaged with rhetoric about “courage,” “boldness,” or “taking a stand.” It riles up a certain group of individuals who then begin to echo the rally cry of a pressure group. It manifests itself through individuals in just about every denomination. What it often amounts to, however, is a self-admiring attempt to bind the consciences of other believers to speak out in the same way and to the same degree as said individual is speaking out on a social media platform or in a blog post. Under the auspice of “courage,” the rally cry goes out with as much conscience binding force as can be mustered.

This raises several important questions. Do we really grasp the nature of media ecology? Does God expect every believer to take to social media to bodily proclaim opposition to every unbiblical ideology and movement? Is it a lack of biblical conviction that leads others to avoid contention in our interactions with others online? What biblical principles ought to be guiding Christians in the way in which they write and speak publicly about these matters? How should Scripture govern the spirit with which we interact online on significant yet controversial issues that affect both the church and society? These are not easy questions to answer but they are worthy of our reflection.

Media Ecology

Most of us have not adequately reflected on the nature of media ecology. We have ideas and opinions about social media. We employ rhetorical figures of speech such as “dumpster fire” or “train wreck” when speaking about social media. We acknowledge the snare of being drawn into controversy with people we don’t really know and who would not have been, in bygone generations, without the sphere of our moral proximity. We understand the way in which social media can monopolize our time and energy; however, we have not yet fully grasped the “interplay between humans, technology, media, and the environment, with the aim of increasing awareness of mutual effects” (Oxford Bibliographies). I am not sure that any of us will fully have grasped the phenomenon of social media before we die. It is a lightening-fast moving, decentralized, ocean of media evolution and social interaction. Recognizing this should, at least, give us pause about what, when, how, and why we may say something online.

In 2006 Greg Reynolds wrote what is arguably the most careful treatment of media ecology at that time from a thoroughly Christian and Reformed perspective, The Word is Worth a Thousand Pictures. A look back at that work in 2022 is a fascinating sociological exercise. Reynolds wrote his book on the internet frontier. Facebook was in its early stages of development and Twitter did not yet exist. It was a different time. Chatrooms existed, but many us us quickly realized that we did not have the time or interest to jump into the fray of debate in them. The most heated contentions online were usually those found in the comment sections of a blog post. To look back at how much social media has changed the landscape of our world is worthy of deep reflection, expecially as it relates to our use of it in regard to engagement in theological controversy.

What, if any, responsibility do Christians have to make use of online platforms for the propagation and defense of the truth? What does God require of them? This question may sound strange, coming from someone who has spent 15 years writing and publishing articles, blog posts, podcasts, and social media content online. In short, I do not believe that God requires anyone to have a social media account, let alone to have to publish their convictions and opinions about anything in that forum–especially not in response to conscience binding calls to “courageous stands for truth.” Does God call us to take courageous stand for truth? Absolutely. Does he require us to do it on a social media feed or in a blog post? Absolutely not.

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