We live in an age of exploding social media options. Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, blogs, forums, Instagram, and online games, illustrate the diversity and ubiquity of social media. New ideas, sites, apps and discussions seem to blossom every five minutes, and a few minutes after that, someone updates the Wikipedia ‘social media’ page and it makes sense—for a minute.
In the last two decades, the internet has become a big part of life, and in the last decade, social media has become part of the way that people interact, and a significant factor in ‘the digital explosion’. Modern people spend a great deal of time telling the stories of their lives via social media, and are plagued by the ever present now. Jesse Rice comments that social media is ‘always on’ and with the advent of smart phones, ‘always-on-us’. Most of us are very much tethered to our social networks, living in the urgency of the ‘ever present now’. Similarly, Arch Hart is conscious of ‘the digital invasion’ which, while offering good opportunities, is potentially a double-edged sword—little is known yet about ‘what the physical, relational, emotional and spiritual consequences […] will be over time’.
As social media is broadly embraced, it is pertinent to consider the implications of extensive uses of mediated communication. This paper considers the biblical significance of relating face to face in some detail. In the light of these rapid changes, I consider how social media can be critiqued through the understanding of embodied communication as the ideal, while recognising that social media offers immense opportunities for conducting relationship.
The concept of ‘face to face’—and the ideal of ‘togetherness’—is apparent in Scripture. It is a strong metaphor for closeness (or lack) of relationship to God in the Old Testament and is significant in the New Testament as many see the face of Jesus, and as the early church join in fellowship and the apostles long to see them. In considering the biblical account of the creation of human beings and their subsequent Fall, we conclude that human beings are created for relationship and made as embodied communicators. Tracing the history of Israel, we see the alienating effect of sin on relationships, both between people, and between Israel and God—a relationship that required the mediation of the prophets and priests. Jumping forward in history, we see how Jesus’ incarnation and atonement make him the perfect mediator between God and human beings. For he himself is both God and man. He is the one who brings the Kingdom of God. This has implications for relationships between believers but also influences their relationships with outsiders. Ultimately a review of scripture will help us see the significance of face to face relating and help us think through how we can use the tools of social media to honour and love God and our neighbour.
Human beings are created by God for relationship as embodied communicators.
When we interact through various media, our embodiment can become abstracted from our communication. Presence is not the only marker of real relationships, but—as I will argue—the best kind of relating ought to incorporate face to face communication.
Propinquity is important, for faces are both means of identity and means of accountability in relationship. Communication is much more than verbal signals, it is much more than speech. It includes such varied elements as tone, voice, articulation, gestures, presence, and body. Very often what a person says may be contradicted by their expression or comportment. Someone who claims ‘life is great’ might betray their words as they well up with tears. Words of distaste may have different meanings depending on tone—sarcasm, anger and distress are communicated not only through words, but also via body language and other physical cues. Face to face interactions also give better opportunities to probe statements in order to understand them better. When communication is conducted via social media, these nuances are more difficult to discern. Bonhoeffer reflects that ‘the mark of solitude is silence, as speech is the mark of community’. Similarly, face to face is also eye to eye. In fact, face to face in 2 and 3 John is literally ‘mouth to mouth’. He longs to speak with his readers directly, rather than through the written word. Interestingly, the only place the phrase ‘face to face’ occurs in the New Testament is in 1 Corinthians 13. This rightly emphasises that insofar as God has created humans as embodied, he has also inherently established the best method of communication. Namely, face to face.
God is perfect. In the Trinity, the Father, Son and Spirit relate perfectly, in a way that is unable to be fully grasped by human beings. God is a relational being, and we are created to be in relationship with him. This is the picture of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, walking in the garden with God, chatting with Him. They had a face to face relationship with God. Their relationship with him and one another was characterised by openness and accessibility. They did not need to go through a channel to get to God. They had an unmediated relationship with Him.
In Genesis we have a very limited picture of what such an unmediated relationship between God and human beings looks like. The rest of the Bible speaks to the mediation necessary between God and humans as a result of their wickedness. Humans cannot be face to face with God, because they are not holy as he is holy. The judgement of Genesis 3 includes the curse of enmity between the man and the woman. Communication becomes difficult, and in addition, as they express their sinful rebellion, God confuses their language in Genesis 11. They still relate face to face, but it has grown increasingly difficult.
Though this state of affairs warrants God’s condemnation of humanity, God does the opposite. He provides for his rebellious people. He fulfils his promises. He no longer speaks to his people face to face, but he speaks to them through the prophets, and opens up a way for Israel to express their relationship with him through the priesthood. Scripture itself functions as a social medium through which God relates to his people, and they exhort one another.
Throughout the Old Testament there is a longing for God’s face to be for his people, because when his face is against someone, it is a sign of curse. It looks for the opportunity for relationship with Yahweh—a closeness with the living God. Even in the exile there is a desire amongst scattered Israel to be restored as a nation. To be together in the land God promised to them. To dwell face to face in the presence of God once more.
Although Israel was eventually restored to the land, their longing for a face to face relationship with God would not be met until the coming of Jesus. In Jesus, we see the face of God. But Jesus is both God, and the mediator between man and God (1 Tim 2:5). This is not the place for an extended reflection on the Trinity; but it is pertinent that Jesus is both fully God and fully man. This enables him to be both the second person of the Trinity and the mediator who opens up the way for humans to be in a relationship with God. Though it is difficult to understand, we may also say that in a way, Jesus shows us the face of God. For when the disciples cast their eyes upon Jesus they see the Father: ‘whoever has seen me has seen the Father’ (Jn 14:9). Paul describes Christ as ‘the image of the invisible God’ (1 Cor 3:15).
What this means is that in Jesus it has become possible, in some sense, to have a face to face relationship with God. It is possible, because Jesus is God. As we await the return of Jesus, it is by the Spirit that we experience some sense of this restored face to face relationship with God. As those who are indwelt by the Spirit, Christians have some taste of the intimate relationship with God, but it is still limited by our fallen nature, and we look forward to the time coming when relationship with God will not be mediated, but face to face. Revelation speaks of a perfect city where there is no temple, but we will dwell face to face with God, in perfect relationship:
And I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and its lamp is the Lamb. (Rev 21:22-23)
This is not all that is achieved by Jesus. He also ‘breaks down the dividing wall of hostility’, overcoming the conflict that characterised human relationships since the Fall (Eph 2:14). This passage speaks specifically to the Jew-Gentile relationships, but has wider implications that can be seen in the book of Acts and some of the New Testament letters.
The writings of the apostles frequently reveal a sense of longing to see both those familiar to them, and those with whom they share a common bond in Christ but no direct relationship. It is in the example and exhortation of the apostles that we get a sense of how we are to pursue relationships. That is, we are to pursue them by the Spirit in the last days, looking forward to the new creation, when there will be no more pain or tears, including from broken relationships (Rev 21:4). However Paul also recognises the benefit of writing rather than being present—he can warn and admonish in a different way—yet even in this he anticipates seeing them face to face (2 Cor 7:8-16).
Having been made for relationship, suffered the consequences of the Fall, and been restored to right relationship with God, we have been brought from a place of exclusion from a face to face relationship with God into an embrace with Him.
As we have been embraced by God, so we can now embrace others. Our actions can be driven by the love that God has shown to us. This love has been shown to us in the face to face relationship we share with Jesus, by the power of the Spirit. And so we can seek to show this love to others by sharing face to face relationships with them. This is the best way to live out relationships as God intended them to be.
As believers, we are called, as we have opportunity, to meet together, face to face. There is something special and unique about actually attending a church service rather than livestreaming one. Meeting for coffee and doing life together differs from admiring coffee art on Instagram and liking people’s statuses. It is vital to perseverance:
And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near. (Heb 10:24-25)
We need each other in order to persevere: to exhort one another to good deeds; to encourage each other through hardships; to hold each other accountable. It is easy to deceive via mediated communication, much harder to do so face to face. There are two traps that we can fall into in our use of social media—communicating uncensored what we are doing minute by minute, or conversely focusing on ‘image-crafting’, such that everything that is broadcast is carefully staged to paint us in our best light. Whether we seek to present only our best side, or share practically everything, warts and all, interactions over social media can create a false sense of a person which can in turn undermine relationships. We may envy the ‘airbrushed’ image presented, or assume friends are doing well when they are in need, or simply never progress beyond the trivial. It can also lead to dangerous and hurtful situations as people post what they are doing or thinking virtually in the moment without thinking through the implications of their communication. Social media is not the only place that we might act impulsively, but it is a very public one. It is important that we exercise wisdom in what and why we share through social media. We do not perform merely to several hundred friends, but before the God who sees all that we do and calls us to be faithful.
The rise of social media gives reason to reflect on the nature and purpose of face to face communication. In light of this we may critique our society’s obsession with social media, in order to use these available tools well, for the growth of the gospel, and in ways that help us flee from sin.
Human beings are created for relationship as embodied communicators. We have seen that as the Father, Son and Spirit are in perfect relationship, they display perfect relationship. Humans are unable to replicate these relationships; nevertheless, through the atonement and the Spirit our relationships are shaped toward the kingdom.
Social media offers many ways to be in touch with others: those seen often, those hardly ever seen, or even never seen. Engaging with social media offers many opportunities for expressing relationship that transcend our physical limitations, whether due to distance, disability, or time. God has made us as embodied communicators, but in a broken world of difficulty and disability, social media can be regarded as another medium for expressing relationship where there are limitations to the ideal. For those whose voice is limited, physically or socially, social media can be an effective way of expressing relationship. For someone who is housebound, it may be useful in diminishing loneliness and provide an avenue for re-establishing social contacts. It is a tool that allows family members separated by distance to have more contact. Indeed its benefit is not limited to aiding relationships that would otherwise be difficult. It is a fun and interesting field of communication, which is able to facilitate stimulating discussions, sharing of information and expression of care.
For all this good, it must not be forgotten that social media facilitates mediated relationship. Discernment in its use is important. The internet, the locus of much social media, is a peculiar combination of intimacy and anonymity. It maintains an illusion of privacy while being at the same time public and visible. It is in a state of flux, constantly changing, bearing the illusion of impermanence, but much of it is enduring. The things we post seem fleeting but a record of them exists and is increasingly more accessible.
While arguing that face to face is best, we must still grapple with how to use the good tools available to us for mediated relationship. As we seek to critique the habits that have quickly become norms it is worth reflecting on these questions: What face are we seeking to show to others in our social media profile or interactions—is it only about putting our best self forward? How is our need to feel caught up on social media influencing how much time we spend using it? Much of what has been discussed will relate to people generally, not just to the Christian. However, Christians have a calling to pursue fellowship and unity—loving as God has loved us in Christ. Are we conscious of who might be ‘listening/looking/reading’ in on our blog, Facebook conversations or Twitter feed? We can easily forget that readers who are beyond our tribal boundaries might be listening in. It will be particularly important for church leaders, and those who have grown up not knowing a time without social media, to consider how these tools can be used well in pursuing relationship. As social media becomes an assumed field of communication (which for younger generations is already the case) it will be important to continue to reflect on how issues of cyber bullying and deception can be avoided—and not only in obvious cases. Thought also needs to be given to image-crafting, as people share only their well-presented moments. As social media moves from a novel form of communication to a staple, greater understanding and critique is needed to guide Christians using it as they seek to honour Christ and flee from sin. How can Christians be gracious, empathic and even hospitable as they engage with the world through social media?
Ultimately we look forward to a time when our flawed relationships will be replaced by perfected ones, and we will stand before God and see Him face to face.
Now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known (1 Cor 13:12).
 Tim Challies, The next story: life and faith after the digital explosion (Zondervan, 2011).
 Jesse Rice, The church of Facebook: how the hyperconnected are redefining community (David C. Cook, 2009), p141.
 Dr Archibald Hart and Sylvia Hart Frejd, The Digital Invasion: How Technology Is Shaping You and Your Relationships (Baker Publishing Group, 2013), pp25f.
 E.g. Ex 3:6, Lev 26:17, Num 16:22, Dt 5:4, Ps 11:7, Isa 8:17, Mat 17:6, 1 Thess 2:17.
 Michael P Jensen, ‘Introduction to Theological Anthropology’, presented at the CT460 Theological Anthropology Lecture, Moore Theological College Sydney. Unpublished, 2013.
 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together (HarperOne, 1954), p78.
 kai stoma pros stoma lalēsai (2 John 1:12); kai stoma pros stoma lalēsomen (3 John 1:14).
 tote de prosōpon pros prosōpon (1 Cor 13:12).
 For instance Acts 15:36, Rom 1:11, 2 Cor 7:7, Phil 4:1, 1 Thess 3:1,5, 2 Tim 1:4; and reciprocally 2 Cor 9:14, Phil 2:26, 1 Thess 3:6
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