Internet Rule Number One: Don’t Argue Online!

5 May, 2024

By the Rev’d Hilary Willett

Season: The Sixth Sunday of Easter

Readings: Acts 10:44-48 | 1 John 5:1-6 | John 15:9-17

Today, I would like to start this sermon with a question: What is the most important rule about the internet? It may appear that this is a subjective question, and the answer depends very much on the person asking. I disagree. There is absolutely a correct answer to this question, and I defy anyone who says otherwise. 😉

Any thoughts?

The correct answer is, “Don’t engage in arguments online!” The reason for this is that there is a lot of potential to misunderstand people when online. Everyone has different contexts and different ways of articulating meaning, and we don’t usually see people’s faces online. This can mean that we sometimes forget we are talking to a real person and get caught up in our own position. This convoluted cocktail usually means that arguments don’t end well online.

And guess who didn’t obey the most important rule of the internet this week? Me!

To be fair, I have never been very good at following this rule. I often enjoy a good debate, and occasionally, I can be a little impulsive. So when someone writes online that Aucklanders have the best rugby team in New Zealand, of course, I have to point out that Cantabrians are clearly the best. Because, c’mon, they are!

Now, generally, I am a little better these days. I am usually able to point out to my impulsive self that this won’t end well. And usually, my impulsive self listens. But on Monday, I slipped up. I found myself in an argument. Even worse, the argument was with other Christians!

Let me explain. A friend of mine recently said that they had noticed that due to Christianity, they had internalised some negative views about anger. That anger was bad rather than a necessary and sometimes very healthy emotion. Very quickly, Christians responded, saying they found this view discriminatory. One said they’d never experienced this and claimed my friend was reactive. Another said not all Christians were like this and implied that this is just propaganda.

Now, I happen to know that my friend is a thoughtful kind of person. I haven’t found them to be reactive or discriminatory. But more importantly, I was a little uncomfortable with how people were responding. It was so defensive! So I responded to these Christians, asking why they were reacting so strongly to someone who was honestly describing their experience of church. Surely we want to know the truth about how people feel when they meet Christians so that we can be a healthy place?

Usually, when I make a comment like this, I don’t really get much feedback. Another problem with online arguments is they can feel very vulnerable and a bit like speaking into the void. And I want to be clear, my comment was unremarkable. It wasn’t eloquent. It was short, contained grammar errors (grammar is not my strong suit), and was grumpy. If God requires stirring and articulate treatises to change the world, this comment was a very poor contribution! However, rather surprisingly, several people liked the comment, and one person asked to become my friend. A very unexpected response. Initially, I’ll admit it, I felt rather proud of myself. Clearly, I was the next Augustine or C. S. Lewis! Unfortunately, my curiosity continued to investigate the situation. I’ve now come to the conclusion, very sadly for my ego, that other people responding the way they did had little to do with me. I’ll come back to this.

Today, in our gospel reading, we are invited into love—love that we can dwell in, love that completes joy, love that reflects God’s love (John 15:11). This love is specific; it is not a “friendship” love or passionate desire.[1] This is “agape,” a selfless love that seeks the good of the other person.[2] It thinks about others first, lets go of personal agendas, and tries to understand. It does not dominate or attempt to “win” over others.[3] It listens.

In verse thirteen, we are told that “lay[ing] down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13) is the greatest kind of love, a clear reference to Christ’s death on the cross. But, in case we are tempted to think that we are only called to sacrifice for the people we get on with, Jesus makes it clear that his friends are everyone who does what he asks – i.e. to love. We are called to go and bear fruit, “fruit that will last” (v 16). This reference to “bearing fruit” is mentioned elsewhere in the gospels. In Matthew, Jesus says that we will know prophets by the fruit they bear (Matt 7:15-20), either for good or bad. But in John, it seems that all of his disciples are to bear good fruit (John 15:16).

What does that mean in today’s world? What does it mean to love people well today? My encounter online has made me think a bit. Why did I get the reaction I did? Perhaps it was just because I was arguing with other Christians and that the church isn’t all that popular in some circles. Maybe. But I suspect there is more to it than that. And I don’t think that this answer is easy for us.

I think that there have been a lot of people who have been hurt by the church. Hurt in the past. Hurt very recently. So when someone tells the other Christians to stop defending and listen, I think this is an important moment for a lot of people. Many of the people who have been injured by the church will not feel heard or understood. So, attempting to hear them and understand their story is crucial to validating them and their experiences.

Now I’m aware of a kind of temptation here. The temptation to distance ourselves from individuals involved in the wrong-doing. They are clearly “the wrong kinds of Christians.” It’s tempting to say that the churches who have been in the media recently for exploiting people, assaulting people, or even just saying unkind things are “not real Jesus followers.” By doing this, we are not complicit or responsible for making any changes. We are different from those terrible people over there, and we don’t abuse our power. We don’t exploit people or do such unkind things. But actually, every church has the potential to become a group that harms people. Because it is very easy to harm. It may be inadvertent, it probably is most of the time, but the problem is still there. And I think that perhaps the biggest reason we harm other people is because we stop actively engaging with people who are different from us.

Because it’s really easy not to love people who are different. It’s easy to see people over there, those people in that church, as the problems. That church just uses music to manipulate people. Or that church doesn’t wear vestments. Or that church is on the journey we are on. We are very ready to think the worst of the people over there and absolve ourselves from needing to change anything about ourselves in the process. Which means that when an injured person comes along, needing to talk, needing to be heard, instead of listening with love, we defend ourselves: “Well, that’s not me! My church isn’t like that!”

But, the problem is, this doesn’t actually help anyone. When we defend like this, the wounded person is still left hurt and unheard. And sometimes, people who have been injured by the church need to be told by the church that this wasn’t okay.

The Christians who leapt to the defence of Christianity online were very quick to write off a perspective that they were not comfortable with. I’m seeing this more and more in Christian circles: Christians describing people who have been injured by the church as “problems”. In many ways, we fall into the trap that we so often see in online spaces. We forget we are talking with people and start describing challenging individuals as issues to resolve. We become defensive, some of us believing that we need to protect God’s honour. But did God defend God’s honour? Did Jesus defend his honour to Pilate? Or did he die for the world he loves, accused and condemned?

But, the issue of people who have been wounded by the church is not going away in a hurry. And we need to work out a way of responding that reflects the love of God. And personally, I don’t think the answer is to defend ourselves. I think that we need to listen. We need to listen to the people who have been wounded by the church and say we are sorry that this happened to them. We need to listen enough to change the structures of our church and make it safer. We need to listen enough to learn. We need to listen enough to love, as God listened and loved us.

Jesus loved us. He didn’t see us as problems. He didn’t defend himself or ignore our pain. He listened, and he loved, and he died. We abide in this love. Today, I’d like to invite us to do the same. To share that kind of love that makes space for difference and listens.


Cunningham, David S. “John 15:9-17: Theological Perspective.” In Feasting on the Word: Year B: Lent through Eastertide, edited by David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, Kindle., 2:1166–70. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008.

[1] David S. Cunningham, “John 15:9-17: Theological Perspective,” in Feasting on the Word: Year B: Lent through Eastertide, ed. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, Kindle, vol. 2 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 1168.

[2] Cunningham, 1168.

[3] Cunningham, 1168.

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