After 18th-century literary icon Samuel Johnson had dinner at a friend’s house, his biographer, James Boswell, asked if the conversation had been any good. “No, Sir,” he said. “We had talk enough, but no conversation; there was nothing discussed.”

Johnson’s friend had offered one kind of hospitality at that dinner party, but not another kind: discussion. Conversation, whether remote or in person, is an exercise in hospitality, or welcoming the other. When we engage someone in conversation, we invite them into our thinking.

Jesus set an example of this, from his first encounters with the disciples to his theological discussion with the woman of Samaria to his many confrontations with the religious leaders who opposed him. Conversation was a primary tool in Jesus’ and the apostles’ ministries.

We live in a world where words abound but conversation is scarce. And it’s easy to think of a place where the ratio of words to conversation seems worst: social media, which 72 percent of Americans use, Pew Research Center says.

One can only wonder what Johnson would have to say about the culture of discourse today, especially in the realm of social media.

But more important is what the Bible says. With Jesus’ and the apostles’ word-based approach to evangelism and discipleship, it is unsurprising that Paul repeatedly warned Christians to demonstrate their faith not only by living well but also by good conversation (Col. 4:6; 1 Tim. 4:12).

Paul not only engaged people directly in discussions about Christ but also wrote voluminously about the faith.

It’s through these writings—which have some surprising similarities to today’s social media context—that Paul has discipled the generations of the church. One similarity, for example, is that Paul’s letters are remote interactions between specific people that the rest of us can listen in on. They also tend to be about news items, highlights, and problems (although there’s plenty of perspective on real and hoped-for relationships). And Paul’s recipients had trolls in the background contradicting, misinforming, undermining, and discouraging Christians.

Paul’s handling of remote, semipublic communication should guide how we approach social media. How did Paul converse in such circumstances? The apostle’s method can be boiled down to the three simple rules he outlines in 1 Thessalonians 5:21–22 as a response to prophecy: Test everything. Cling to what is good. Reject every kind of evil.

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Many times, our exchanges on social media are more about gut reactions than careful thought or reflection. They do not foster reflection or thoughtful deliberation. Social media is a realm more conducive to outbursts and slogans than extended discussion. It is a medium designed to provoke its users to scan and click.

But Paul presents conversation as a proving ground where ideas should be tested. Through discussion and debate, he proved the gospel’s truth and exposed the fallacies of those who opposed it.

His advice means that testing and disagreement sometimes go together. Disagreement and deliberation have been important features of the church’s conversational life since its inception (Luke 22:24; Acts 15:2; 1 Cor. 6:1–2). The church’s first internal crisis was sparked when the majority community, made up of believers from a Jewish background, overlooked the Hellenistic widows in the daily distribution of food (Acts 6:1–7).

The solution came in part through deliberation, but not without drama. The problem surfaced as a complaint, and those who were aggrieved demanded the apostles address the need.

Likewise, the church’s first major theological crisis, which also grew out of ethnic conflict, was resolved after “much discussion” (Acts 15:7). One striking feature of the corresponding Greek phrase (polys zētēsis) in this verse is the variety of tones it may signify. It can imply debate, disputing, discussion, or argument. In other words, this watershed disagreement was probably resolved only after a lengthy and passionate conversation where differences of opinion were expressed.

These were serious debates where relationships were stretched; some people (like Peter in Galatians 2:11–14) were reproved; and others (like Paul and Barnabus in Acts 15) parted angry.

Such drastic measures are seldom justified. Instead of making public arguments the default, we must make a genuine effort to understand each other and to hold on to our relationships.

It is clear from interactions on social media that we have not lost the capacity to disagree. Nor are disagreements always destructive. Disagreement can be a catalyst for positive change and even conflict resolution.

Unfortunately, debates may also have the opposite effect. Rather than bringing us close together in Christ, they may drive us further apart—or off course.

I believe we have lost our stomach for the kind of deliberation or disagreement that can preserve and even strengthen our fellowship, the kind that helps us reconsider and improve our course. We post memes. We shout. We grumble. We accuse. We declaim. There is talk enough but no conversation. We no longer know how to discuss with one another so as to test the truth and also keep our friendships.

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Without an honest attempt to test the truth of someone’s assertion, we can end up worse than when we started. In their paper on whether discussion brings better results, Cass Sunstein and Reid Hastie write, “Agreement from others tends to increase confidence, and for this reason like-minded people, having deliberated with one another, become more sure that they are right and thus more extreme.” This “ideological amplification” is a danger to Christians as well.

In his book Think Again, Adam Grant observes that people tend to adopt one of three roles when relating to those with whom they disagree: preacher, prosecutor, or politician.

“The risk,” he writes, “is that we become so wrapped up in preaching that we’re right, prosecuting others who are wrong, and politicking for support that we don’t bother to rethink our views.”

And we can get so wrapped up in the responses of bystanders, when our disagreement is on social media, that our ability to reason degenerates even faster.

Grant describes what he calls “constructive conflict.” Conflict that’s about how to best get a job done (as opposed to relationship conflict, trying to change someone else’s personality and preferences) “can be constructive when it brings diversity of thought, preventing us from being caught in overconfidence cycles,” Grant explains.

In order for a conversation to flourish, there must be a willingness to tolerate others’ expression of ideas with which you strongly disagree. This kind of communication requires many factors, including the discipline of patience and a mutual spirit of goodwill.

Stephen Miller observes in his book Conversation: A History of a Declining Art that wit and patience are essential ingredients of a successful conversation. “One cannot be a good conversationalist if one lacks a sense of humor,” he explains. “Equally important is being a good listener.”

Not all debates are healthy. Some are damaging not only because of their subject matter but also because of what motivates them. Paul warned Timothy not to have anything to do with “foolish and stupid arguments, because you know they produce quarrels” (2 Tim. 2:23).

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Many of our online debates are foolish and stupid. Their aim is not to persuade or facilitate understanding so much as to provoke—to strain a relationship or hurt someone else. When someone’s post begins, “I don’t know who needs to hear this …” “I’m sorry, but …” or “I don’t know the details, but …” you can expect the ensuing post to not be worthwhile.

Grant says that when we fight about someone’s personality or the way they do things (relationship conflict), it limits our ability to discern and change our position. “When a clash gets personal and emotional, we become self-righteous preachers of our own views, spiteful prosecutors of the other side, or single-minded politicians who dismiss opinions that don’t come from our side.”

Paul indicates we need to watch our tone. Certainly, there is a place for passion and even anger. But the way we speak the truth is important. “The Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful,” Paul says in
2 Timothy 2:24.

In his book Numb, Charles Chaffin describes social media as “a high-powered outrage machine.” Moral outrage has a place. Paul expressed outrage, sometimes using language that might seem immoderate (Acts 23:3; Gal. 1:6; 5:12).

Jesus showed anger at the hardheartedness of the religious leaders in the synagogue when he healed a man with a shriveled hand (Mark 3:5). Theologian B. B. Warfield explains in “The Emotional Life of our Lord,” “Precisely what is ascribed to Jesus, then, in this passage is that indignation at wrong, perceived as such, wishing and intending punishment to the wrong-doer, which forms the core of what we call vindicatory justice.”

This raises an important question, especially for Christian conversation: To what degree should we entertain ideas that we find untrue or offensive? Is it even possible to have an honest conversation with someone when you know beforehand that you will never be able to accept their ideas?

Outrage is not justified simply because we
feel it.

Just as there are limits to the degree to which I am willing to extend hospitality to others, I am also limited in the degree to which I can entertain some ideas. The fact that I invite someone into my house does not mean I want them to live there. The respect I grant to another in conversation does not mean I find their assertions believable.

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We are warned against aiding and abetting those whose teaching denies fundamental truths of the Christian faith (2 John 1:10–11). There may be occasions where it is in my best interest—and even in theirs—not to entertain such ideas at all (Rom. 16:17; 2 Tim. 3:5). Scripture warns believers to avoid godless chatter, foolish controversies, and false teachers (2 Tim. 2:16; Titus 3:9).

The context in which the conversation occurs makes a difference. Within the church, we are to set boundaries against contradicting the essential truths of the Christian faith in conversation.

One implication for social media is that we should be more guarded in to what and to whom we give our attention. We cannot control whose voices can be heard on social media and probably should not. Outside the church, they are welcome to make their case in the realm of public discourse.

This freedom is essential to the peace of a society where diverse and mutually exclusive worldviews coexist. But it does not mean we have to grant them a forum to spread their views within the church. We exercise control over whose words we will attend to and how much attention we will give them.

Regardless, any outrage we feel must be tempered by discernment, grace, and love, or we will become trolls.

Outrage is not justified simply because we feel it. We do not always have all the facts. Our perception may be skewed or even incorrect. Sometimes what we perceive to be vindicatory justice is only a sentimentalized counterfeit of justice—the rage of those who enjoy the luxury of being angry from a distance.

With godly humility, we could treat disagreements as opportunities to negotiate, with an assumption that both parties share something of value. We might also see them as an education, a chance to learn about and understand another.

Even when we know ourselves to be on the correct side of a disagreement and we believe the issue has importance, vitriol doesn’t have a place.

Paul points out in 2 Timothy 2:25–26, “Opponents must be gently instructed, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth, and that they will come to their senses and escape from the trap of the devil, who has taken them captive to do his will.” It is in hope of people coming to their senses that we gently instruct, rather than attack. Gentleness is to be our default tone.

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Our predilection for outrage ignores the combined evidence of science and personal experience, which shows that successful disagreement is built on a history of positive interactions. In the case of the Christian, it’s built on love.

Research by John Gottman and Robert Levenson into differences in handling conflict between happy and unhappy couples shows that there is a “magic ratio.” Those who disagree successfully have five positive interactions for every negative one, even while they are arguing.

There is more to exhortation and correction than catching people in their mistakes. Paul counseled those who wanted to help another believer caught in a sin to apply the remedy with gentleness and humility (Gal. 6:1). Although he confronted Peter publicly, apparently behind the scenes they were able to maintain a cordial enough relationship that Peter could refer to him as “our dear brother” (2 Pet. 3:15).

Paul’s letters—his remote, semipublic communication—reveal an ability to integrate truth and love. It might be better to say they demonstrate his ability to infuse the truth with love (Eph. 4:15).

Image: Illustration by Mark Wang

This is more than a matter of tone. The mark of love is not fair speech or even a nice manner but genuine concern for the other and time spent together in happy fellowship. Again, I think of hospitality. Hospitality recognizes the vulnerability and needs of the guest.

Most cultures recognize that the burden of hospitality places certain obligations upon the one who grants it. What do we owe our guests? For one thing, we owe it to them to treat them with gentleness and civility, to consider their needs.

Within the hospitality of conversation, this does not necessarily mean we must agree. But we have to treat others with respect by acknowledging that the ideas they express are valued by those who share them. If we reject their assertions, we must do so accurately and fairly.

One of the weaknesses of online interactions is their depersonalized nature. We comment from a distance without actually seeing how our remarks affect others. Frequently, we are speaking in forums where most of those who read our remarks are unknown to us.

This anonymity provides a shield that allows us to be harsher than we might otherwise have been. It gives the illusion that the person who is the subject of our remarks isn’t vulnerable. When we are hospitable in conversation, even online, we take responsibility for the safety and well-being of the welcomed guest; when they are out of sight, we imagine them to be humans with human responses.

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Truth, when it has not been infused with love, can be as damaging as false teaching. In A Little Exercise for Young Theologians, Helmut Thielicke tells the story of a student who got into an argument with his landlord over doctrine. The student’s aim was not to inform or even correct. His goal was merely to win. Instead of shining a light, he wielded the Bible like a weapon, intending to “crush the man by the impression of an overpowering erudition to which he could never attain, and thus to reduce him to a feeling of helplessness.”

Thielicke wrote these words long before the era of the internet. Yet the pattern he depicts is all too familiar: “Here truth is employed as a means to personal triumph and at the same time as a means to kill, which is in starkest possible contrast with love.”

We have many examples of this online. And we may be tempted to feel that it’s a holy role to play. But launching our digital arguments in one another’s direction from the safety of our ideological corners is not the way that Christians are to approach disagreement. We are to have real conversations. The apostle Paul shows the way: Speak the truth in love. Test everything. Cling to what is good. Reject every kind of evil.

John Koessler is a writer, podcaster, and author of 15 books. His latest book, When God Is Silent, will be released by Kirkdale Press in August 2023.

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