In Colossians 2:8 Paul warned the Colossians Christians not to be taken captive by unbelieving ways of thinking (philosophies) nor by “the stoicheia (στοιχεῖα) of the world.” The noun stoicheia is usually translated with something like “elemental principles” or the like. That is a possibility but it leaves unanswered the question, what are the elemental principles? Sometimes it is argued that it is a reference to the principles of physics or natural science. There is a good case to be made, however, by analogy with his use of the same term in Galatians 4:3, 8 in a similar context, that by it he simply means “law”and specifically, in this case, natural law. The study of physics does teach us something about the existence of natural laws. If we drop a coin from a height it will do what it does, in the ordinary providence of God, by nature. According to the traditional Reformed understanding of Scripture, God instituted a law in the garden, which we call in the Belgic Confession (Art. 14) “the commandment of life.” Just a few years after that, Reformed theologians began calling the “commandment of life” a “covenant of works,” which nomenclature was adopted by the British Reformed at Westminster (WCF 7.2; 19.1, 6).
The essence of the covenant of works is the promise of life on condition of “perfect and personal obedience.” In the words of our Lord Jesus, “Do this and live” (Luke 10:28). The same law God gave to Adam is written upon the conscience of every human being, testifying to him that he is under personal obligation to perform perfect obedience to the natural, moral law which is inscribed on his conscience. Paul discusses this at length from Romans 1:18–2:15. The traditional Reformed explanation of this passage was that the same law God gave to Adam before the fall is substantially the same law revealed at Sinai and the same law revealed in nature.
In this space I have argued that apart from the covenant of grace administered in Christ’s visible, true church there is only a covenant of works. In that communion, where redeemed sinners gather together for worship and fellowship, grace predominates. The law is preached in its various uses and the gospel is announced and made visible in the sacraments. Life, however, apart from the administration of the covenant of grace, apart from God’s free acceptance of believers by grace alone, through faith alone, for Christ’s sake alone, is a covenant of works—not for acceptance with God but for life in this world.
This is a hard truth but it is necessary to accept it. Our job is a covenant of works, not for salvation but for continued employment. If one refuses to show up to work on time or to do one’s job satisfactorily, one will lose one’s job and find one’s self on the unemployment line. That is a kind of covenant of works. Citizens are obligated to obey the secular law upon pain of punishment should we break the civil covenant with have with each other by breaking the secular (civil or criminal) law. The relations between nations is a covenant of works. Nations are friends so long as there is a mutually beneficial relationship. It is a transactional relationship. This is why allied nations continue to spy on each other.
Social media is another covenant of works. This was reinforced recently when, after a trip, I saw that our AirBnB host had posted a review of us, the paying guests. This was my first experience with AirBnB. Typically, I stay in hotels, where I as the paying customer, might review the hotel but would not expect to be reviewed. It is not so on social media. What if he did not like the way we washed the dishes? What if we left a crumb on the kitchen table? Because I could not see the review until I posted one of my own, I wondered whether we had passed the test. Would our host give us bad marks and thus make it harder for us to stay at another AirBnB? I had a little test anxiety. We passed the test but it was a reminder that we might not have passed. We were in a covenant of works, do this and live, as it were, to rent again.
Indeed, the number of arenas in which we live in a kind of covenant of works seems to be growing. Clients have been rating businesses via Yelp and other apps for a few years. Now, seeking to even the playing field, businesses are rating their clients. Sometimes it seems like a digital version of Hobbes’ “war of all against all.”
One of the players on Villanova’s NCAA championship men’s basketball team had to delete his Twitter account after users began re-posting his tweets from 10 years ago, when he was 13. Kevin Williamson is just the latest to get a job, which displeased a certain segment of the population only to have his social media history used against him, thus ending, after only one column, his job with that heroic bastion of free thought and speech The Atlantic. In 2014, a public relations executive was fired from her job for her attempt to be hip and ironic. She tweeted before she left the USA for Africa and was fired before her plane touched down. A couple of men were photographed by another passenger after they made a jokes to each other that she did not like. One of them lost his job and she received threats for “outing” them. This and other such cases are listed here.
What does it all mean?
- Social media is all fun and games until it is not. Someone’s feelings may get hurt and you may lose your job. It is a fallen world and people can be petty and viscous. This is why we cannot have nice things. If you are going to play on social media, understand the risks.
- The terms of the social media covenant of works are ever-changing and unwritten. Twitter and Facebook regularly delete or silence users whose only offense is to irritate an employee of a social media giant.
- Those who have influence over your life and career may or may not participate or understand how social media works. They may be sensitive to even a little criticism. See the editor of The Atlantic who cut loose Williamson after just a few days of criticism. That was all. Nothing actually happened in the physical world. As far as I know no advertisers pulled their support. If your boss is as sensitive as the editor of The Atlantic you might want to re-think your social media use.
- Social media is easily de-contextualized and distorted. In the nature of social media thoughts are published quickly and without a lot of explanation. Even the new, expansive Twitter is still only 280 characters. Threads can only go so long. So, it is easy to screenshot a Facebook comment or a Tweet and create a false or misleading impression.
- Social media is easy to use impulsively. Users forget that they are not talking only to their friends. Comments may be seen by and forwarded to or republished by anyone. What we might say to a few close friends may not be what we would say to the whole world.
- Perhaps most importantly, the essentially legal nature of social media is yet another witness to the natural, moral law, to the existence of the “do this and live” principle in the world. The Reformed call that principle a “covenant of works.”
Social media may witness to and teach us the greatness of our sin and misery but the good news is that there is a covenant of grace for sinners. That covenant of grace is that God says to sinners (e.g., to Abraham, who lied repeatedly), “I will be your God and your children’s God” and “the offspring of the woman will crush the head of the serpent.” Jesus, the Savior promised in the covenant of grace, and his benefits (free salvation) are not conditioned upon our perfect and personal obedience but upon his. He met the terms of the covenant of works for all his people. He and his benefits are received freely, through faith (resting, trusting, receiving) in Christ alone for salvation from judgment and for righteousness with God.
May the Lord who justifies and sanctifies sinners grant to us who believe wisdom to negotiate our new media environment.