You Can Have Better Social Media Debates: 5 Points to Learn and Use from Jesus’ Example

How to have a good social media battle.

By Tom Gilson Published on June 19, 2023

Ever find yourself in a pitched battle on social media? I sure have. Would you believe there’s something to learn from Jesus Christ about these battles? There is, and I believe you’ll find it helpful and encouraging.

Before I came to The Stream, I did most of my writing at my blog Thinking Christian. It was a lively place there. I did a statistical sample once and learned that the total number of words contributed by commenters and me there numbered around 4 million. It was my blog so I could set my own rules for discourse. They came together in what I called the “Starbucks Standard”: If you wouldn’t say it sitting across the table from someone at a coffee shop, then don’t say it here. I enforced it, by giving gentle requests, then warnings, then deleting, and (if necessary) by banning.

That’s not much help on Facebook or Twitter, though. We need strategies that work well without that control. But it’s good to remember we have control over ourselves. I still apply the Starbucks Standard to myself. Or you could put it this way: Never forget these are fellow humans you’re interacting with.

Sometimes they’re annoying, demanding insulting humans, though. Sometimes I have to wonder if they know anything other than how to push my buttons. I want to carry on a decent human conversation, and they’re hardly acting human. I can’t blame ChatGPT or any other AI, either. This has been going on a lot longer than they’ve been around.

I had one of those debates not long ago, and my recent column, “Would Jesus hate the transgender movement?” came out of it. It occurred to me it might be worthwhile passing along some principles I put in practice there — principles that come out of my study of Jesus’ debates. If you want more on these ideas, you can find it in my short book, How Would Jesus Blog? Answering Online Adversaries Jesus’ Way. This isn’t for every online conversation, by the way. It’s specifically for when you meet up with people who want a fight.

When to Jump In

This latest go-round started when someone asked conservative commentator Matt Walsh, “Do you think Jesus would treat the trans movement with the same amount of hate that you do?” Walsh said yes. That started a firestorm. And I stuck my nose in.

Should I have done that? Good question. I hope I’m wise enough to ask it every time I think about getting involved. Whether I jump in depends on a lot of things, but mostly these:

  1. Does it matter? Could my jumping in do any good?
  2. Do I have time for this, or is it stealing from something else I should be doing instead?
  3. Am I really that interested in the topic?
  4. Do I know what I’m talking about?

You’d be surprised by how many people — Christians included, sad to say — miss out on that fourth point. Don’t do it! If you don’t know what you’re talking about, just stay out, please. I won’t be talking here about how to make your case. This is about how to handle the tactics the other guy uses on you.

Who’s Setting the Rules Here?

The topic met those four tests for me this time, so I dove on in. The reaction was swift. I think they were just waiting for some other Christian to mock. Because they know exactly what Jesus would say, right? They heard somewhere Jesus was love, so he’d love everyone and everything, right? Silly Christians don’t even know that?

So someone demanded I tell him where Jesus said He wouldn’t have liked the transgender movement. And I do mean demanded. He insisted I show him where Jesus said it “in red words.” When I said it wasn’t in a simple proof text, he pushed all the harder. I said it would take me a lot longer to answer the question than it took him to ask it, and he pushed even more. That’s where Rule 1 comes in. They want control, they’ll even act like you owe it to them, but that’s just rude.

  • Rule 1 for social media battles: They don’t own your time, and you don’t owe it to them, either.

Years ago on my Thinking Christian blog, someone actually said, “I insist you answer! Your religion says you have to witness to me, and you have to answer!” Actually, no. Read the gospels and you’ll find many times when Jesus didn’t answer. If they expect you to jump to their demands, just remind them you have a life.

Who Sets the Rules of Debate?

Jesus didn’t let His adversaries force Him into anything. He refused to let anyone else determine the rules of debate. This guy on Twitter tried setting the terms not just for me but for others in the conversation, demanding we supply him a proof text:

Sorry, but no. There is no rule or principle that says Jesus’ answer has to be that clear. My questioner would have an even harder time showing me “in red words” that Jesus was okay with transgenderism! The fact is, Jesus taught principles, not every tiny little specific law. He actually stood against the Pharisees’ multiplying laws that way.

  • Rule 2: Don’t get snookered into false terms of debate. Answer truly and honorably, and you’ve done your job, whether it satisfies them or not.

What About ‘Changing the Subject’?

I did notice, though, that he was changing the subject there. The original questions was whether Jesus would “hate the trans movement.” Now this fellow was making it about trans people. I wasn’t about to let the debate go there. It’s too easy, for one thing: We know Jesus loves all sinners, which means you and me and everyone include trans people.

Jesus never let anyone set traps for Him like that.

  • Rule 3: Don’t chase people down false trails, and don’t let them trap you there, either.

I could have called him out for changing the question, but I had something more important on my mind, something that wasn’t obvious in this guy. He kept pushing, demanding, controlling, and mocking. I wish it didn’t happen so often, but it does.

Change It For a Reason

So I asked him a question of a different sort, “It sounds to me like no matter what I said, you’d brush it off as bigotry. True or false?” What does he do? He accuses me of changing the subject.

Well, okay. He was right, up to a point. I did change the subject, but it was neither careless nor sneaky, the way his shift to “trans people” had been. I did it intentionally, because …

  • Rule 4: If they don’t really care to hear your answer, you’re not obliged to tangle with them.

Study Jesus’ interactions with people who’d chosen to follow Him, and you’ll find He engages with their questions. Study His interactions with curious bystanders or adversaries, and you’ll see something entirely different. He has control. He asks them hard questions, and if they don’t want to answer, He lets them walk away, lets it be over.

When They Call You Stupid or “Weaseling”

My Twitter opponent pulled out the big guns after that: “If you can’t supply some evidence for your claim, I’m going to have to assume your position on transgenderism has nothing to do with Jesus’s teachings. And that means you just might be obstinately holdings on to these positions for no sound biblical reason.”

You’re not just interacting with one person. Your word reaches others.

I guess he thought I’d have to cower under a threat like that. Oh no! Hes’s going to assume I’m bad! What will I ever do now?

What I’ll do is let him assume whatever he wants to assume. I don’t expect to put a dent in that anyway. (I could insert rule 4b at this point: When in doubt, re-read Rule 4.)

There are a couple ways I could have proceeded from there. In an upcoming column I’ll show you what I did, and how Jesus’ example can really help turn a conversation around. It actually did, this time. To a point, anyway, which is the most I ever expect.

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In the meantime there’s another course worth mentioning. I could easily have said, “Assume whatever you like. It’s up to you. I’ll just ask other readers here to look at what I’ve said and draw their own conclusions.”

Jesus didn’t persuade everyone he talked with, so if I don’t persuade everyone online, I’m okay telling myself I never expected to do better than He did.

Reach the Onlookers

That approach ties in to Rule 5, which may be the most important of them all. Jesus didn’t win His points with everyone. Some of them even decided He was better off dead. (He won that one a different way!) His debates with them still encourage every follower of His who reads them, though. So …

  • Rule 5: Write with onlookers in mind.

This isn’t just theory, not just urban legend. My son had daily live religion debates with an atheist classmate in high school. The year after they graduated, another classmate contacted my son and said, “I have just become a Christian, and one reason is because of the way you handled those debates with Jason.” So you need not get discouraged over people who never respond. You never know who might be lurking in the background.

I could have ended it that way, but I took a different approach. It takes longer to explain, so I’ll save it for another column. Honestly though, in the space I have here, I can’t do any of this just as I’d like. I encourage you to get a copy of How Would Jesus Blog?. You’ll learn how Jesus’ example can guide even in today’s online world.


Tom Gilson (@TomGilsonAuthor) is a senior editor with The Stream and the author or editor of six books, including the highly acclaimed Too Good To Be False: How Jesus’ Incomparable Character Reveals His Reality.

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