9 June, 2023

How Paul Used the Social Media of His Time


by | 22 February, 2020 | 0 comments

By Jon Weatherly

Would the apostle Paul use today’s social media? After all, it is filled with triviality, gossip, cruelty, divisiveness, indecency, blasphemy, and “fake news.” When videos of cats wearing shark suits and riding Roombas may be the least evil thing on social media, how can we imagine Christ’s apostle engaging in such an environment?

When a person uses social media for what they consider a noble purpose, still it can backfire. Consider the case of Adam Smith in 2012 in Tucson, Arizona.

One particular day, Smith filmed his interaction with a fast-food employee. Smith wanted to make a point about the fast-food company’s donations to organizations that promote traditional marriage, which he regarded as hateful. He goaded the employee repeatedly, but she remained courteous. Smith—unaware his video put him in a bad light—shared it on social media. Soon it “went viral,” prompting a vicious backlash.

Smith’s employer received violent threats within hours, as media-active people who identified as Christians discovered where he worked. Though Smith offered to publicly apologize, the employer decided to replace him to avoid further controversy. But the controversy followed Smith, who was unable to find other employment; he eventually was forced to go on food stamps to feed his family. Today, sadder and wiser, he works outside the United States in a very different profession.

Would Paul or any faithful follower of Jesus use social media when it has that destructive power?

Of course, we can no more speak of Paul using social media than we can speak of him using airplanes or printed Bibles. The technology did not exist, so our opinions about the question are worthless guesses.

But we can reflect on Paul’s use of the media available to him. The letter in Paul’s time was much like social media in ours, and he used that medium skillfully. We can compare Paul’s use of letters to our use of social media for help in directing our use, for the glory of Christ and furtherance of the gospel.

#Conventional / #Unconventional

It is easy to overlook the clever way Paul adapted an established medium of communication to his purposes. People in Paul’s world wrote letters to overcome the absence that physical distance created. They wrote to stay in touch with business partners or update family members, to communicate a personal and private message or to inform and direct fellow public officials. From ancient letters that survive, we can infer that many were part of a longer chain of back-and-forth communication.

Paul used letters to overcome his distance from the churches he started and from their leaders, much as we stay in touch with distant people using digital communication tools. Paul maintained a lively communication with the churches, and they apparently supplied a lively agenda of problems to address (for example, 1 Corinthians 1:11; 7:1; 2 Thessalonians 3:6). So we can set aside the nostalgic, false idea that predigital life was simpler. Sinners, including redeemed ones, lead complicated lives, and the complications are reflected in the artifacts of their communication. Paul clearly shed tears over the matters he discussed in his predigital letters (2 Corinthians 2:4; Philippians 3:18).

In Paul’s time, letters followed certain conventions. They began with a salutation that identified the writer and the recipient with a simple word of greeting. Next came a brief statement of thanksgiving, typically for prosperity and health, offered to whatever deity the correspondents worshiped. Then came the body of the letter, typically information followed by action points, and a conclusion, offering greetings to others in the correspondents’ circle.

Paul followed those conventions, but he altered most of them. His salutations identify not just Paul as the writer but his status as an apostle. Paul self-consciously wrote as an authorized spokesman for Jesus. He identified the readers likewise by status: they are the church, the assembly of God’s true people made such by the Lord Jesus Christ.

Paul took the standard Greek greeting, chairein, and substituted a similar-sounding word, charis, that expressed a fundamental truth of the gospel: grace. And to that he added a translation of the Hebrew greeting shalom, meaning “peace,” also a fundamental gospel truth and yielding a blend of Greek and Jewish cultural elements expressing the unity of the church across ethnic boundaries. That’s an impressive transformation of such an unremarkable convention.

Paul worked a similar transformation with the thanksgiving section. Normally a perfunctory “nod to the gods,” Paul turned it into a prayer of thanks that affirmed the lively faith even of the most troubled churches and announced the themes of his letter from the very beginning (for example, 1 Corinthians 1:4-9). In one letter, Galatians, Paul omitted this convention, alerting readers that this letter had a message too urgent to be delayed for even a moment (Galatians 1:1-6).

The body of the typical letter of Paul was longer than average, some much longer. Even public figures who wrote letters expecting them to be read by the literate public at large mostly did not generate such long letters. Paul’s arguments were thorough, intricately connected in theme, packed with allusions to Israel’s Scriptures, embodying deep memories of the story of Jesus, all reminding readers of what they already believed and helping them to understand the implications. They reflected a heart and mind soaked in God’s good news, working to soak other hearts and minds in that good news.

Paul’s use of the letter medium, in other words, was both conventional and unconventional. He managed to take something common, often even trivial, and bring it into extraordinary service for the gospel. The letter form did not limit Paul. His pursuit of his mission transformed it.

#Trolls Need #Grace Too

In his letters Paul sometimes answered opponents (or “trolls” as they are called on social media). People who falsely represented Paul and his gospel plagued many of his churches, and Paul addressed them unequivocally.

Those who treated Gentiles as second class by demanding they become Jews (Philippians 3:2), who divided the church over personal loyalties (1 Corinthians 1:11-13), who openly practiced immorality (1 Corinthians 5:1, 2), who questioned the resurrection or return of Jesus (1 Corinthians 15:12; 2 Thessalonians 2:1-3), or who encouraged people to add “improvements” to their faith in Jesus (Colossians 2:8)—these Paul called out vigorously.

How vigorously? We see Paul’s full vigor when he wished sarcastically that advocates of Gentile circumcision would “go all the way and castrate themselves” (Galatians 5:12). But we see his restraint more broadly in something he did not do. In his letters to churches, Paul did not mention his opponents’ names. When he wrote to a trusted individual, Paul named a few opponents (1 Timothy 1:20; 2 Timothy 2:17). But we see no public naming and shaming, no “doxing”, that amplifies the social pressure on the opponent. Paul would have spared Adam Smith his ordeal, even if he found Mr. Smith’s actions deplorable.

Why was Paul discrete about naming the bad actors? We can infer that Paul protected identities to give room for repentance. In 1 Corinthians 5, Paul called out a man for sexual immorality. But in 2 Corinthians 2:5-11, he urged the church to welcome back one who had repented, perhaps referring to that same man. We might say, therefore, that Paul deliberately “subtweeted”—criticized without naming the offender—with a redemptive aim.

That redemptive aim is surely what is most obvious about every part of Paul’s letters. His words could be gentle or harsh, but his goal was always to encourage faith in Jesus, growth in that faith, consistent behavioral expression of that faith, restoration to that faith, and unity in that faith. Paul did not seek personal notoriety. He did not write to “own” his opponents. In fact, when they “owned” him (Philippians 1:16-18), he rejoiced that in the process, the gospel was proclaimed.

Likewise, Paul did not write to pit people against each other. Always maintaining the truth of the gospel, he sought to invite those who had abandoned it back to the gospel, not to antagonize or stigmatize them. Furthermore, in matters unrelated to the core of God’s good news, Paul encouraged Christians not to quibble and divide but to promote unity by putting others before oneself, as Christ did (Philippians 2:1-11).

@PaulAnApostle: #Viral #Share

How successful were Paul’s letter-writing endeavors? We know his letters did not fully solve every problem they addressed. Two of his letters were followed by additional correspondence (1—2 Thessalonians, 1—2 Corinthians). His letters to fellow church leaders warned of perpetual struggle for the hearts and minds of sinners, even converted ones (2 Timothy 3:1-9). We can surrender the fantasy that if we simply did what Paul did as well as he did, we could solve all the church’s problems. Church leadership is “whack-a-mole,” not “one-and-done.”

But we also know that Paul’s letters “went viral.” Those who read them immediately perceived their supreme value, their faithful articulation of the truth of the gospel. That is, they recognized them as the authoritative Word of God. So they made copies (by hand) and shared them with other churches and individuals (Colossians 4:16). Within Paul’s lifetime, churches likely had assembled small collections of his letters and read them regularly for edification (2 Peter 3:15, 16). Those collections were the beginning of our New Testament.

Further, we know that for many readers Paul’s letters had the transformative effect that he intended. Would the Corinthian church have made copies of their letters to share with other churches if they ignored their message? Would Philemon have allowed others to see, let alone copy, his letter from Paul had he not followed through by forgiving and emancipating his slave and now Christian brother Onesimus and financing his journey back to Paul to assist in Paul’s ministry? The fact that these letters were circulated, not destroyed, is our surest evidence of their impact.

#GraceAndPeace > #Instafamous

What, if anything, does this say about our use of social media? First, I have something to confess. I am an avid social media user. I love the connections that social media maintain for me, and to be honest, I love the attention I get on social media. I even like trolls who respond to my posts. I’ve been slow to finish this article because I keep checking social media. I am not an objective arbiter about the value of social media.

But I will offer this with some confidence: though social media has accelerated and expanded our interpersonal communication, social media itself is not what spoils our interactions. Our sinful habits are the problem.

In Paul’s vocabulary, the problem is the works of the flesh, and the solution is the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:16-26). If we can have the mind of Christ (Philippians 2:5), clothe ourselves with Christ (Galatians 3:27), and be led by the Spirit (Romans 8:14), we can use these new media as he used an old one: to express the timeless truth of God so that lives can be transformed. Our social media can, like Paul’s letters, be the vessel of #GraceAndPeace.

I will contemplate this. And maybe I will restrain my next post.

Jon Weatherly serves as professor of New Testament and vice president for academic affairs/provost at Johnson University.

Jon Weatherly

Jon Weatherly serves as professor of New Testament and vice president for academic affairs/provost at Johnson University.


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