There’s an App for That” – When Social Media Identity Overshadows Identity in Christ

“There’s an App for That” – When Social Media Identity Overshadows Identity in Christ
by Marie Notcheva ©
This article first appeared on Biblical Counseling for Women on February 25, 2016. 

Several years ago, while interviewing girls for her book, Lies Young Women Believe, author Nancy Leigh Demoss noted a budding problem: Christian teens, even girls active in their churches, freely admitted to being a different person online than they were in front of adults, Christian friends, and youth leaders. Many admitted to saying and doing things on social media (which was still in its early stages) that they would never do in person, and also to using such platforms to hide behind a “false self.”

This tendency should not surprise us, as social networking exists first and foremost, for the promotion and glorification of “self.” Filters on photography apps allow anyone to present a flawless image, or to get on a virtual soapbox and make himself heard. But the electronic manipulation of one’s desired image is especially disconcerting when young Christ-followers fall into this trap. It runs counter to everything they’ve been taught about authenticity on youth retreats, in church and at home. Resting in their position in Christ should breed contentment, transparency and security in being loved for who they are; not insecurity and a craving for authenticity, attention and superficial acceptance.

Right?

The Obscuring of Identity

Unfortunately, as convenient as it may be, electronic technology has stifled young people’s expression of self-identity. Instead, it encourages them to construct a façade based on the answer to the question, “How can I ensure that others view me positively?” Jim Taylor writes in Psychology Today: “The goal for children in their use of technology, whether Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, or text messaging, becomes how they can curry acceptance, popularity, status, and by extension, self-esteem. Self-awareness and self-expression give way to a preoccupation with what others think, impression management, and self-promotion.”

In 2007, Christine Rosen wrote in The New Atlantis, “Does this technology, with its constant demands to collect (friends and status), and perform (by marketing ourselves), in some ways undermine our ability to attain what it promises—a surer sense of who we are and where we belong? The Delphic oracle’s guidance was know thyself. Today, in the world of online social networks, the oracle’s advice might be show thyself.[1]

Teens, children and even adults promote the identities online they would like to have or want people to see. No matter how inaccurate or wildly absurd a statement, picture or “secret confession,” there is an app designed to display it to the world as gospel truth. Through what is deemed acceptable or desirable on social media, impressionable teens lose the distinction between public and private self. Rather than reflecting their own individuality, social media “becomes rather a means of acceptance and status among others who reside in their digital communities.” Yet, in children’s extensive efforts to be “liked….by manipulating their persona, they come to believe that they’re not worthy of being liked—an expression of affection, in the original sense of the word—for the person that they really are.” [i]

Christian teens are by no means immune to this pitfall, and need to be taught how to apply the Gospel to a habit they may not even realize they have.

How Does the Gospel Speak to Insecurity?

Promoting a certain image, whether purposely or not, speaks to a deeper heart issue: insecurity, or what the Bible calls fear of man and a snare (Proverbs 29:25). The desire to win approval is not new, but the ability to interact with all of one’s acquaintances simultaneously in a 24/7 digital community has greatly increased approval-seeking and preoccupation with self. This is a spiritual problem for many reasons: It can inhibit evangelism; it gives license to pride (in one’s achievements, appearance, etc.); and it encourages lying to gain approval. It also hinders fellowship. Seeing social media for what it has become in their life (a trap which leads to acceptance-seeking) is the first step toward overcoming insecurity. The “online self” is created when approval of others is an idol, although many young people may not realize it.

Gaining a biblical view of the character of God is the next step in exchanging fear of man for fear of God. Truly knowing Him and His grace instills a desire to please the Father and care what He thinks; not a craven fear of failure or a sense of defeat. As Ed Welch writes, feeding the ‘gorilla’ of people’s opinions will never lead to peace. Therefore, through personal reading of the Word and fellowship with Christian peers (in Bible study, social activities etc.), young people struggling with media-induced insecurity gradually learn to drop their masks and embrace their true identities in Christ.

Lastly, whether as part of the formal counseling process or in standard discipleship, believers struggling with the twin sins of approval-seeking and people-pleasing need to be taught to love and serve others, not see them as masters. Rather than being preoccupied with others’ view of us, resting in Christ’s unconditional love, even in our imperfection, frees us up to love others without need of reciprocation.

To be sure, renewing the mind influenced by interactive media—a powerful tool—is an ongoing process. It would be difficult to overstate the importance of peer approval and popularity to teens, especially in a digital world where it is so publically and objectively meted out. The struggle doesn’t disappear by simply reciting a “Sinner’s Prayer” or committing to spend more time reading the Bible (and less online). Nevertheless, as believers train their minds to take unbiblical thoughts captive (What am I attempting to gain by this post? Why do I want to post this sensual ‘selfie?’), the process of putting off fear of man, approval-craving and temptation to cultivate a false self has already begun. Subsequently, learning to embrace God’s view of him—as a dearly-loved, redeemed child—enables the insecure young believer to drop the bondage of an “online identity” and fully enjoy his true identity in Christ.

[1] “Media’s Externalization of Kids’ Self-Identity”, Psychology Today, October 11, 2012.

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Biblical Womenhood: Breaking Molds and Building Each Other Up

This article originally appeared on the Biblical Counseling for Women site on February 18, 2016. I do not think any other article I have ever written has stirred up the poop-storm of controversy this one has, eloquently making my point for me. My harshest critics were utterly incapable of explaining what, specifically, they disagreed with on biblical grounds. Emotional reactions and passive-aggressive non-responses from my detractors only served to better prove my point.  
Sometimes women themselves are afraid to think critically, and question whether all they’ve taught as being “biblical” truly is. How complicated legalism makes following Christ, when He has given so many and varied giftings to His daughters! 
Biblical Womanhood: Breaking Molds and Building Each Other Up

If you are an American* evangelical woman over the age of 30, chances are you have encountered at least some of the following:

  • Surprise that you cannot attend a mid-week ladies’ Bible study, because you’re at work at that time;
  • Disappointment from others that you don’t home school your children;
  • Mild feelings of inferiority because you do not bake your own bread (you tried….and failed);
  • Frustration at the poor exegesis in Bible study materials marketed to women;
  • Your husband being cornered by several men at a social gathering, who are grilling him on why he “lets” his wife work outside the home;
  • Nagging guilt because you rarely get home from work in time to drive your children to AWANA or Youth Group.

Stop the Guilt! It’s Not Biblical

Maybe you’ve even wondered at times about a “wardrobe makeover,” to better reflect how ‘biblical womanhood’ is portrayed in Christian magazines. As Elyse Fitzpatrick writes in her excellent book, Good News for Weary Women, “Many of the practices we Christian women pressure ourselves (and each other) to uphold are unnecessary and burdensome.” While drafting this article, I came across an online magazine called, Keepers at Home.  Dedicated to the idea that holy = cooking/sewing/cleaning, the site sells a Little Keepers at Home handbook “so that girls ages 4 to 6, can begin to be little keepers and future Christian homemakers!” (Emphasis mine.) Really? Do we really want to send our daughters the message that being a follower of Jesus essentially means cooking well and doing craft projects? Of course, some women love homeschooling their children, baking, and teaching Sunday School – and are good at it! These are great activities, and women who enjoy them should be encouraged.

But so should the women who don’t.

“Biblical womanhood” is an ambiguous catch-phrase which has gained popularity in recent years, often subjectively interpreted to mean “stay-at-home, homeschooling mom who sews and bakes.” As I mentioned in last week’s post, the resurgence of extreme patriarchal thought and overly-conservative gender roles is probably more in response to radical feminism than to the spirit of the Scriptures. What Christian women need to realize is that following Christ does not limit them strictly to homemaking duties, but rather frees them to embrace the unique gifts, abilities and calling He has placed on their lives. As author Sarah Bessey writes, “A man is most truly “helped” when a woman is walking in the fullness of her anointing and gifts and intelligence and strength, not when she reduces herself out of a misguided attempt at righteousness.”

‘Biblical Womanhood’ Takes Many Different Forms

To be sure, no serious student of Scripture would deny the God-ordained gender roles He has established. Nature itself, as well as both the Old and New Testament, inform us of responsibilities (including child-rearing; care of household; and spousal support). Candidly, I am a complementarian and am not arguing that women should seek to usurp their husbands, or fill a man’s role. But what is often instilled in evangelical women is that their gifts and abilities should be channeled only  into homemaking, and to seek to use them elsewhere does not honor God. This leads to needless guilt, which comes out both in the counseling room and in private. One source of depression among Christian women is feeling unable to live up to the expectations of being a perfectly ‘submissive wife’ and perfect homemaker.

This is a heavy burden to carry, but for a woman with a college degree it can be devastating – she may even be conditioned to feel guilt for having a career. Using the fine mind God has given her is a way of glorifying Him; and women need to be told this. The world needs more Christian women in medicine; in the hard sciences; and in other fields. Far from being unbiblical, God is greatly honored when His daughters work up to their highest potential. A woman can only serve God with joy if she is doing what she loves; and if she loves computer science more than doing crafts at women’s conferences, she has the freedom in Christ to pursue it. (My oldest daughter, 19, is a freshman at a secular university majoring in chemical engineering. Not only is she preparing academically for a very worthy career, but also, due to the discernment and critical thinking skills she has developed, she is able to discern the anti-God bias and unbiblical worldview inherent in any university). This is as valid a model of “biblical womanhood” as is learning any homemaking skills I have taught her.

The Balancing Act

A well-known celebrity pastor spoke at a conference several years ago on biblically-prescribed gender roles, and categorically claimed that women who pursue careers are outside of God’s will (ie sinning). His entire message was based on Titus 2:5, but he did not touch on the fact that the home can be “kept” by delegating some responsibilities, as the Proverbs 31 woman did. He cited an encounter he’d had with two female students at a Christian university who challenged his view. A law student and a medical student, they insisted they would be as good at motherhood as they would be at their perspective careers. “No you won’t,” the pastor rebutted. “The average physician or attorney works 60 hours per week. You will not be raising your children; you will be paying someone else to raise them.”

While the pastor’s point had some validity – most careers do demand long days and on-call status – it was his black-and-white thinking (and painting all career women everywhere as ‘outside of God’s will’) that was wrong. What he seemed to miss is that there are times and seasons; flexibility of schedules at certain points in careers; options to take unpaid leave. Doctors and lawyers, who are well-paid and will always have job security, have the option of cutting back on their hours during child-bearing years. One of the godliest women I know is a family physician in England. Having recently become a mother, she still practices medicine while raising her own child and being active in her church (where her husband is a deacon). Even after maternity leave ends, it is possible to pursue a career without becoming derelict in one’s duties as a mother.

Embracing Our God-Given Identity

What, then, is ‘biblical womanhood’? (Is it possible to read that phrase without an image of a long dress and head covering coming to mind?) It should be possible. Biblical womanhood means a woman, heart sold out to her King, pursuing the life He ordained for her, and her alone, to live. It means cultivating the passions and talents He has uniquely gifted her with. It means being a leader like Deborah; a businesswoman like Lydia; an instructor of her children like Lois and Eunice; and being actively engaged in charitable work like Dorcas. It can mean staying home and teaching her children full-time, if that’s her calling; it can mean becoming a nuclear physicist or isolating the cancer genome if that is the passion God has instilled in her heart. Just as there are “many members of the Body” (1 Cor. 12:12), there are many individual versions of womanhood that fall well within God’s blessing. Living up to their personal and academic potential to the glory of God is a message girls and women in the evangelical church desperately need to hear. Shake off others’ expectations (no matter how “holy” they may sound); and embrace who you – and only you – were meant to be in Christ. This is true ‘biblical womanhood’!

 

*Home schooling is illegal in most countries, and women electing not to be employed is not an economic option in most of the world. Even among conservative Christians, the expectation in the Western world is that women will receive higher education and pursue careers commensurate with men.

The Hi-jacking of Ephesians 5:22

The-Hijacking

 

A young woman in a Bible study read the following passage from the book of Ephesians: “Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands.” (Ephesians 5:22-24). “I don’t like that,” she said. “It makes me uncomfortable.”

Young lady, I don’t like it either when words are given new connotations that God never intended; when verses are wrenched out of context and used to justify selfish desires. And it definitely makes me uncomfortable when well-meaning Christians use “proof texts” to subjugate those weaker than themselves, or dismiss another human made in the image of God as inferior. This was never how marriage was designed. We need to see the beauty of the whole passage; what it means to submit to one another out of love and respect; and what God actually intended when He established the pattern of loving male leadership in the family (and in the Church).

The book of Ephesians is an outline of demonstrating Christ-like love in different relationships. Paul opens by exhorting the believers to avoid all forms of sexual immorality and indecent behavior, then zooms in on the nuclear family. After entrusting women to the authority of their husbands in the above passage, the Apostle then turns to the husbands and spends three times as much space commanding them to “love their wives as Christ loved the Church”. Neither a battle cry for feminism nor a return to draconian male-dominance, the entire passage simply reinforces Paul’s original plea for all to “walk in love”.

A Proof-Text for ‘Control Issues’?

In the 1991 thriller “Sleeping with the Enemy”, Julia Roberts plays a wife who flees a man so controlling that he lectured her for bathroom towels being hung unevenly, and berated her for spices not lined up symmetrically in the pantry. Although he never physically abused her, the woman was so brow-beaten by his excessive control that she lived in constant fear and humiliation. This is an exaggerated picture of how non-Christians view biblical submission. Unfortunately, even among believers, the sin nature has sometimes distorted God’s intention for submission and authority.

What often seems to be the case is that this passage is pulled out of context to force women into an unbiblical form of “submission” rooted not in sacrificial love, but rather in an egocentric desire for control. Verse 22 is often quoted as a conversation-stopper when wills collide, but verse 25 is often ignored. However inconvenient and embarrassing it may be, spiritual abuse is real – and is often rooted in an unbiblical application of Ephesians 5:22-24.

This is not to say, of course, that church-going men who autocratically rule their families are not “real Christians”. On the contrary. In an autocratic leadership, the person in charge has total authority and control over decision making. There are many committed Christian men who actually believe this is God’s will and model for family life, and are convinced it is their sacred responsibility to uphold the entire burden of doing, working, deciding – and even thinking. I have even seen an inflated sense of ‘patriarchy’ convince Christian husbands that their wives do not even have the right to think or make any decisions for the family, citing the principle of “submission” to rationalize their absolute power.

The Cycle of Abuse and Shame

This is not only poor exegesis, it is emotional abuse. A familial dictatorship is psychologically destructive, and is much more spiritually damaging to the woman than physical abuse. Here’s why:

  • Woman is being treated as second-class citizen at home; even if she holds academic degrees, may be subtly treated as of lower-intelligence;
  • Woman reads literature targeted towards Evangelical women, over-emphasizing “submission” in order to be a more ‘godly wife’;
  • Woman begins to believe abuse is her fault; feels guilty;
  • Woman gradually distances herself from God; feels she deserves the abuse and strives to be “better”.

While “mutual submission” is not biblical (the proverbial buck does need to stop somewhere, after all); the problem with over-emphasizing female “submission” is that when we lose sight of the heart-attitude Paul wants to instill – namely, sacrificial, agape love for one another – the true meaning of marriage is distorted. Everywhere in Scripture, we see Christ far more preoccupied with what’s going on inside the soul than with outward behavior, and marital interaction is no exception. Marriage is supposed to mirror the relationship of Christ and His Bride, the Church. When the sin nature twists surrender to another’s loving authority into a doormat theology, women suffer in silence; bitterness is fostered; abuse is legitimized; and those who slander Christianity gain more ammunition. (Last year’s Vision Forum sexual abuse scandal was a prime example of this dynamic).

“Did Your Husband Speak for You?”

Several years ago, my husband and I had a doctrinal question for the leadership of our church. In the course of events, I was dialoguing about it with another woman, who was part of a “family integrated” movement with a strong emphasis on male headship and a very strict interpretation of “biblical womanhood” (the subject of next week’s post). My husband, who is less theologically-interested than I, had delegated the discussion to me (as English is not his first language, and he knew I had good rapport with the counseling pastor). My friend was somewhat surprised that I, as a woman, would be “allowed” to “speak on my family’s behalf” to church leadership.

I was at first amused, then incredulous. As an adult in my forties, a certified biblical counselor with a college degree, having raised four children and written two books while holding a full-time career, I need permission from my husband to have a conversation with our pastor? Whether or not he had delegated the issue to me, have branches of American evangelicalism reverted so far back into medieval authoritarianism that a woman discussing theology with her pastor raises eyebrows? Where, exactly, is the biblical precedent for this?

If we return to the pages of the New Testament, we see that Jesus Himself held no such views of women having an inferior status. Several women travelled with Jesus and His disciples during His ministry, listened to His teaching and “provided for them out of their means.” (Luke 8:3, emphasis mine). We see the disciples surprised that Jesus would converse with a woman (John 4:27) and the dignity He afforded women that went far beyond the conventions of 1st Century Judea (John 8:11; Luke 7:48; Mark 14:6; etc.) And this does not even scratch the surface of the role women played in the Early Church.

The Pendulum Swing

Where, then, does the desire to return to an absolute patriarchy (with women forbidden a say in the family, or critical thinking, even if they have education) come from? It is possible that it is a knee-jerk reaction to the extremes of the feminist movement, which would deny the God-given differences (in nature and role) between men and women. This is a sociological explanation, and I believe it has some validity as liberalism has invaded the Church in the last three decades. However, it falls short and does not help us address the problem of spiritual abuse in the counseling room.

Love is not self-seeking, and it does not “lord it over” another individual – especially one perceived as weaker. Love protects, and it seeks the other’s best interest. While women are called to submit, it should never be done in slavish fear to an autocrat – but rather in joyful deference to the one she trusts above all else; who would lay down his life for her. When the call to ‘submit’ is wielded like a weapon, it is a sure sign that the follow-up verses on “loving [you] wife as Christ loved the Church” are not being obeyed. Christ never intimidates or threatens the Church; He encourages believers to use their gifts in His service; always heals; always protects.

While there are many causes of emotional abuse within Christian marriages, I believe that the misunderstanding and mis-use of this particular passage of Scripture is behind much of it. Women should not be conditioned either from the pulpit or by strong-willed men to think of themselves as “lesser”; but rather should be edified and uplifted by their true identity in Christ. One of the ways to break this stranglehold is to encourage the woman to develop and use her individual gifts and talents, not only within the family setting, but in the Church and culture as a whole. We will examine ways to do this, and break the stereotypical “biblical womanhood” myth in next week’s post.