Mark D. Roberts

Mark D. Roberts


Privacy and God: From Facebook to a Biblical Theology of Privacy

posted by Mark D. Roberts

Facebook has been all over in the news this week. It made the cover of TIME, for example, with the story “How Facebook is Redefining Privacy.” This article chronicles the astronomical rise of Facebook as well as the privacy crises it has engendered. (Photo: my dog enjoyed the TIME article)

time-sandy-facebook-5.jpgFacebook even managed to get a letter from four U.S. Senators (Schumer, Franken, Bennet, Begich), who, presumably, had so little to do that they took the time to write to Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook. In this epistle the senators complained about Facebook’s privacy policy and said they “look forward to the FTC examining this issue.”

Then, on Wednesday of this past week, Facebook announced the roll out of simplified privacy controls. Soon it will be easier for Facebook members to limit what is known about them. Senator Charles Schumer, one of the original letter writers, was quick to praise Facebook: “This is a significant first step that Facebook deserves credit for.”

I’m sure we’ll be hearing much more about privacy on Facebook in the days to come, as both U.S. Senators and ordinary citizens evaluate the new privacy tools. Of course this is just one small piece of a much larger and important conversation about privacy in the age of the Internet and social media.

But, near as I can tell, one part of that conversation has been largely missing. So far, there has been little theological reflection on the whole notion of privacy. Psychologists, sociologists, politicians, business leaders, and pundits have weighed in about privacy. But theologians, biblical scholars, and pastors have been mostly keeping their thoughts private, so to speak. (I did find, ironically enough, a Facebook discussion on the topic: What is a biblical theology of privacy? But it’s more than two years old, with only 11 posts, and not much theological reflection.)

So, I’ve decided to do some thinking on this issue, working towards a biblical theology of privacy. I have lots of questions swirling around in my mind, such as: Is privacy important from a theological point of view? Does the Bible have anything to say about privacy? Is privacy good, theologically speaking? Is it bad? Is it neutral? Should Christians be concerned about preserving privacy? Or should we be glad that things are becoming less private than they might have been a few years ago? What does God have to do with privacy . . . and privacy with God?

Today I’m launching this series on privacy and God. I will pick it up again on Tuesday, after Memorial Day is over. In the meanwhile, I’d be interested in any thoughts you might have on God and privacy. If you’re willing to share them publicly, please leave a comment below. Or you can tweet your ideas, using the Twitter hashtag #privacyandgod. (Remember, your tweets will be forever archived in the Library of Congress. No joke.) If you want your thoughts to remain private, send me an email.

One closing thought. Privacy certainly isn’t something we get to experience in our relationship with God, at least not in the sense that our lives are hidden from God. We know that “the Lord looks on the heart” (1 Sam 16:7). Moreover, we read in Hebrews 4:12-13:

Indeed, the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And before him no creature is hidden, but all are naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account.

Not much privacy here!



  • Harold Hein

    Dear Brother Roberts: some random thoughts about privacy and God: Martin Luther had this to say in his Small Catechism: “Before God we should plead guilty of all sins” (my comment: no privacy there),”even of those which we do not know’ (my comment: how private is that?), “but before the pastor we should confess those sins only which we know and feel in our hearts” (my comment: what was private becomes known to another)
    Then in James 5:16 the implication is that we ought to confess before our brothers our sins, even secret, private sins.
    In Gen. 12 Abraham was saying, “keep this private, Sarah, that you are my wife. Don’t let anyone know”.
    We know how that turned out!
    In Genesis 3:4-5 one could say that the devil tempts man to believe that God is keeping something ‘private and secret” from Adam and Eve. So they want to get in on the secret, and lo and behold, what happens!
    God privately makes a covenant with Abraham, but it has promise of spreading like wildfire, or like the number of stars in the sky. (Gen. 12:4-6)
    Then there was Sarah, who wanted to get in on the secret conversation that Abraham had with
    gthe three visitors, Gen.18……She later repeated her laughter every time she called out, “Isaac!”
    These are just some instant thoughts that came to me. probably nothing to do with a theology of privacy. . . . . thanks for your blog. Harold Hein

  • Mark D. Roberts

    Harold: Some great thoughts and reference to biblical passages. Thanks!

  • Chris Z

    Privacy
    I read the first couple paragraphs of your article on privacy and then decided to write out a few thoughts of my own before reading the rest of the article.
    Us and God
    Privacy with respect to us and God is a no brainer as you have pointed out in Hebrews 4:12-13. The first verse that came to my mind was Luke 12:3:
    “Accordingly, whatever you have said in the dark will be heard in the light, and what you have whispered in the inner rooms will be proclaimed upon the housetops.” NASB
    Ouch. There is no privacy really when it comes to man, God, and sin.
    Us and the World
    Privacy in the sense of us and the world is different; at least from an evangelical standpoint. We are supposed to go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation (Mark 16:15). Facebook is a world-wide phenomenon with a world-wide following. There seems to be some Biblical endorsement for evangelization using life experiences and relationships (Matthew 5: 16). Therefore; Facebook, being such an effective social networking media could also serve as an effective tool by which Christians can live their lives “in such a way” as to shine the light of Christ to nonbelieving friends. The commonsense and Biblical guidelines that apply to face-to-face evangelization of “friends” in the neighborhood, apartment or dorm room, apply for effective communication on Facebook. Facebook Christians should not get preachy, should avoid arguments (2Timothy 2:20), and not get into situations of throwing their pearls before swine (Matthew 7:6).
    Us and the Church
    The Christian church today does not fellowship enough. If Facebook is a way to get the body of Christ to let each other know what is going on for purposes of encouragement, prayer, and just the basic spiritual necessity of godly fellowship, then I believe Facebook is very appropriate. Of course nothing can beat face-to-face meetings in homes and public places. Privacy is an issue when Facebook friend connections are not monitored, coupled with the revelation of inappropriate information. I just don’t see privacy being a Biblical issue unless one steps into areas of sin such as gossiping, stalking, and other social sins that have been around long before the digital electronic age. Other common sense privacy issues run more along the lines of personal protection rather than theological protocol—such as telling friends you will be on a trip (vulnerability for theft) or revealing personal information that may offend or upset others.
    All in all, I believe the Holy Spirit uses all sorts of electronic media today including Facebook. Privacy seems to be more of a personal discretion issue rather than a theological tenet.

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