In 2007, programmer and tech blogger Kathy Sierra suddenly canceled her upcoming appearance at a conference, posting the following explanation on her blog:

“As I type this, I am supposed to be in San Diego, delivering a workshop at the ETech conference. But I’m not. I’m at home, with the doors locked, terrified. For the last four weeks, I’ve been getting death threat comments on this blog. But that’s not what pushed me over the edge. What finally did it was some disturbing threats of violence and sex posted on two other blogs… blogs authored and/or owned by a group that includes prominent bloggers. People you’ve probably heard of.”

As Sierra explained the disturbing course of events that led her to this point, she commented, “I do not want to be part of a culture–the Blogosphere–where this is considered acceptable,” eventually concluding:

“I have cancelled all speaking engagements.

“I am afraid to leave my yard.

“I will never feel the same. I will never be the same.”

After a follow-up post, Kathy Sierra left the “blogosphere” and (to the best of my knowledge) has never posted another blog entry.

In response to this series of events and posts across the Internet, technology leader and publisher Tim O’Reilly called on the world of technology bloggers — and bloggers generally — to consider assembling and adhering to a “Blogger’s Code of Conduct.” His proposal created an international stir, and was reported by The New York Times and the San Francisco Chronicle, as well as by BBC News and other sources.

O’Reilly offered some suggestions for how such an ethical structure might be constructed but made it clear that he welcomed input to develop and improve it. He appealed to the widespread practice of guidelines often posted on blogs regarding comments and their content, and his proposed code of conduct included such radical ideas as: “(T)ake responsibility not just for your own words, but for the comments you allow on your blog,” “take the conversation offline, and talk directly, or find an intermediary who can do so,” and “don’t say anything online that you wouldn’t say in person.”

O’Reilly’s proposal was widely panned and rejected, with accusations of censorship, restrictions of freedom, and just being “dumb.” After a few attempts, O’Reilly all but admitted defeat, though he maintained an urgency about the need for civility online, saying “it concerns me that Kathy Sierra, whose bad experience triggered this discussion, thinks that a code of conduct such as I proposed would do no good. … But I believe that civility is catching, and so is uncivility [sic]. If it’s tolerated, it gets worse.” O’Reilly illustrated his concern thusly:

“If there’s one thing I’d love to come out of this discussion, it’s a greater commitment on the part of bloggers (and people who run other types of forums) not to tolerate behavior on the internet [sic] that they wouldn’t tolerate in the physical world. It’s ridiculous to accept on a blog or in a forum speech that would be seen as hooliganism or delinquency if practiced in a public space.”

Schaeffer’s Legacy

In his 1976 book “How Should We Then Live?” Dr. Francis Schaeffer traced the development of Western history according to philosophical, scientific, and religious trajectories. After extensive and insightful consideration of the foundations of (then) contemporary thought, Dr. Schaeffer concluded that the great hope for Western society was/is to regain a biblical understanding of how we should live.

Much of Schaeffer’s writing unpacked his own understanding of a biblical pattern of living, and his own life and ministry also represented an earnest effort to put his own challenges into practice. Those who know Schaeffer’s work recognize that he was uncompromising in his commitment to biblical truth and Reformed theology; they also recall that Schaeffer, though spirited and impassioned about many things, nevertheless sought to practice a spirit of dignity, respect, and love toward others — including those who disagreed with him, even on the most fundamental truths. The mark of the Christian, Schaeffer held, was clearly defined by Christ: love.

As we consider ourselves nearly 40 years later, and our conduct in the most public of forums — the digital, “online” world — we might borrow from Schaeffer’s contemplations and similarly ask: How should we then blog?

As with Dr. Schaeffer’s book, we might begin by considering the trajectory that general culture has taken. If the Kathy Sierra incident — and the consequent pushback to any suggestion of standards — is indicative of the spirit of 21st century blogging culture, do Christians follow suit?

Should the Church Follow the World?

How does the church reflect, or contrast with, the spirit of the age in such contexts? This is a perfect opportunity to demonstrate a countercultural presence as those who are different because we are in union with Christ: Although we share the same freedoms from censorship and of expression that other bloggers (and blog readers/commenters) have, we willingly forsake them when the mark of the Christian — love — prevails on us to do so. We can maintain a rigorous devotion to uncompromising orthodoxy and marry that to an ethos shaped by love for one another. Yet, too often I am discouraged when I find that no such counterculture exists among many Christians, including many in the PCA. And I am not alone in my discouragement.

A few years after the Kathy Sierra/Tim O’Reilly events, an email landed in my inbox (and about a dozen others) from a fellow pastor. His request: “(A)nyone want to help me write an overture, asking the General Assembly to erect a study committee to consider the ethics of blogging and other online interaction?”

I responded that it sounded great, except that we don’t need a study committee to tell us not to act any differently online than in other areas of life! We don’t need a study committee to instruct us that the same ethical principles that we exercise among our congregations and communities, and that we apply at presbytery and General Assembly, also apply in our posts and comments on blogs, Facebook, and Twitter. We don’t need a study-committee report to teach us that when the fruit of the Spirit is absent from our online personae, we are probably sinning (and publicly, no less).

At least, we shouldn’t need a study committee to show us those things. But maybe we do.

Maybe we do need such a study committee, because multiple incidents in recent years have occurred within our denominational circles that suggest it would be helpful after all. Blogs written and edited by PCA pastors and elders have instigated and contributed to divisiveness among our denomination; they have published posts and comments that are presumptuous, if not slanderous, in nature about members in good standing; they have incited a spirit of doubt and mistrust that is contrary to Christian character and to good presbyterian order; and they have often become venues for theological and ecclesiastical gossip.

Such blogs have “reported” on accusations against a teaching elder that were still pending action by his presbytery, claiming “journalistic interests” as their grounds for doing so. Some of these blogs have contributed to tension and relational dissent in PCA ministries and multi-presbytery cooperative committees. PCA Bloggers have openly asserted that a presbytery was uniformly deceived by a teaching elder; it must have been deceived, they argued, because his presbytery found him innocent. And some blogs have “reported” on decisions of presbyteries and the General Assembly using subversive language that implies an unsubmissive spirit.

At least one PCA presbytery has considered charges against one of its members for violating his ordination vows in his blog’s content and tone. At least one PCA teaching elder has very openly quit blogging, at least in part because of the offenses that he acknowledged his blogging has caused. More than a few pastors have found themselves backpedaling because a Twitter comment they made was too easily construed as being grossly out of accord with what we expect from pastors.

What is going on? Why is this apparently so challenging? Do we need to spell out a code of conduct for our online presence, a system of ethics for our digital selves? Do we need to invite Tim O’Reilly to be a seminar presenter at an upcoming General Assembly?

If so, that suggests much about us. We’re not talking about “spammers” who commandeer comment space to advertise porn and suspect prescription drugs. This is not about “trolls” who anonymously wage personal attacks in the form of offensive comments and responses. We’re not dealing with “griefers” who do damage to websites and their content. These are church elders — men who have taken vows before God and His people promising to adorn their profession of faith, to set an example before the flock, and to devote themselves to the purity, peace, and unity of the church.

What Scripture Says

Does the Word of God speak to our conduct on blogs, in comments, and in other forms of social media? Of course; we simply must apply a principle that even those outside the church clearly recognize: How we conduct ourselves online should not be different from how we conduct ourselves in person.

What should be the tone and approach of our blog posts and Twitter comments? Paul writes, “I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:1-3). Do our blog posts demonstrate humility and gentleness? Are they a clear exercise of patience and bearing with one another in love? Are they constructed in such a way as to maintain unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace?

When we recognize error in the writings or teachings of others, how can we write or comment about it in a godly manner? God’s Word says, “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing” (1 Corinthians 13:1-2). Are we handling matters of heavenly truth in a loving manner, or are we clanging symbols? Do we demonstrate our knowledge, understanding, and superior faith with love?

How should we go about “reporting” on topics that we have learned information about, that we believe others want or need to know about? In the letter to the Philippians we read, “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves” (Philippians 2:3). Are we approaching matters concerning others with humility? Have we extended them proper charity and the benefit of doubt?

What about when we believe someone to be in serious error, and desire their proper correction and, if necessary, discipline? Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that is not tolerated even among pagans, for a man has his father’s wife. And you are arrogant! Ought you not rather to mourn? Let him who has done this be removed from among you” (1 Corinthians 5:1-2). Do we handle such things with arrogance, or do our words convey that we genuinely mourn? Is our desire merely for him to “be removed” from among us, or do we genuinely hope that “his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord” (1 Corinthians 5:5)?

Finally, how might we handle topics and issues on our blogs that are before the courts of the church? “But all things should be done decently and in order” (1 Corinthians 14:40 — the “presbyterian life-verse!”). Will my words undermine the proper procedure for presbyteries and/or the Assembly, or will they help advance the conversation? Am I hindering or helping the biblical, presbyterian order of how matters are to be decided by the church? Will those who read my post recognize my avowed submission to the brethren and to the system of government of our denomination?

What Our Theology Says

As always, our confessional standards are informative in considering our obligations in our conduct in handling the truth, and in our behavior toward our fellow man. It has already been pointed out in other contexts that the Ninth Commandment, and the Westminster Larger Catechism’s teachings on it (WLC #143-145), are directly relevant to the subject of blogging and other online media.

For example, question 144 points out that our duty is to truth, and PCA bloggers are seldom vulnerable to accusations of stepping outside that duty. The same question also highlights our obligation to the good name of our neighbor; a charitable esteem of our neighbors; and loving, desiring, and rejoicing in their good name. It points us to taking care to be sorrowful about their infirmities, and also in being ready to receive a good report about them. And it challenges us to discourage “tale-bearers” and slanderers. Are these directives applicable to our blogs? Are we exposed by them in the words and attitudes expressed by our posts?

Likewise, question 145 forbids us from lying, speaking untruth, and bearing false witness — which, again, we do very well. It also forbids us from withholding truth about our neighbors; from “slandering, backbiting, detracting, talebearing, whispering, scoffing, reviling, rash, harsh, and partial censuring.” It tells us to take care not to speak the truth unseasonably or maliciously. We are to refrain from “misconstruing intentions, words, and actions;” from stirring up rumors and from carrying evil suspicion; from rejoicing in the disgrace of others; and from many other practices that are far too easy to entertain on blogs or via Facebook and Twitter. Do we find ourselves, and our blogs, accused by these checks? Have we “procured an ill name” by way of our online conduct?

A “Blog Ethics Checklist”

“Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (Philippians 4:8).

Has my comment, tweet, or post focused on one or more of the following?

What is true

What is honorable

What is just

What is pure

What is lovely

What is commendable

What is excellent

What is worthy of praise

“But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law” (Galatians 5:22-23).

Have I communicated the above in a manner that is consistent with ALL of the following?

Love

Joy

Peace

Patience

Kindness

Goodness

Faithfulness

Gentleness

Self-control

Not negating good and proper use

The ancient adage says, abusus non tollit usum: “Abuse does not negate proper use.” Blogs, Facebook, and other forms of online digital media can serve a healthy and constructive purpose for the church and for the world. They can even be a means by which the kingdom is grown and extended! But for that to happen, those who use them — not least pastors and elders — must devote themselves to the same conduct, the same ethos, the same virtue that is expected of them and displayed in them in all of life. We must hold ourselves to this standard, and hold one another accountable for the same — and in so doing, form the counterculture that our commitment to truth and our call to love demands of us.

How should we then blog? How should we “tweet”? How should we post and comment on Facebook? We should do it as we are to live: with love being the defining mark.

Ed Eubanks is Pastor of Dove Mountain Church (PCA) in Tucson, Ariz.; he is married with four children.