FORT WORTH, Texas (BP) -- Social networking -- few things have so defined and shaped our culture. From Facebook to Twitter to Pinterest, it seems like everyone who is anyone has one, if not multiple, ways to stay connected. Whether it is looking at pictures of family celebrations, grandparents keeping up with grandchildren, businesses and ministries promoting themselves or reminiscing about old friends and flames, social media is today's yellow pages, white pages, yearbook, family album and party line -- all rolled up in one.
Through them the Gospel has been proclaimed, many a woman has been mentored, and relationships have been strengthened. Conversely, social media sites offer a method of connection that tickles our desire for instant gratification and provides a glimpse into the lives of others, often leading to damaging and destructive consequences.
The American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers has been in the news in the past couple of years, highlighting the use of Facebook as either a cause of infidelity and subsequent divorce or as a way to build a case for divorce. While reports are mixed as to whether social media is playing an increasing role in marital infidelity and divorce, it is clear that this new way of connecting with people can be used for good and for bad.
Whether it's reconnecting with an ex-boyfriend, private interaction with a co-worker, or making personal info about your life open to an acquaintance, sites like Facebook offer daily opportunities for a downward spiral.
As Christians who seek to follow after God's own heart and want to protect our marriages and our families, we must determine our personal boundaries when it comes to social networking. Only if we place hedges of protection and accountability around us are we guarded.
1. Scripture is clear that "As a man thinks in his heart, so is he." (Proverbs 23:7). Jesus brings this in to real-world living when he says, "But I say to you that whoever looks at a woman to lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart." (Matthew 5:28). He further expounds in Matthew 15 that all words, actions and deeds flow from what is already in the heart. If we begin to wonder what our lives would have been like "if only," we open the door to emotional infidelity. If we fantasize, visualize or imagine what it would be like to be with someone else, we have been unfaithful to the covenant marriage relationship. For women especially, emotional affairs happen long before any physical boundaries are crossed.
2. Ephesians 5 instructs wives not only to submit to their husbands but also to respect their husbands. For many men, respect is the strongest love language around. Comparing your husband to other men, even if he does not know about it, is a form of disrespect. Disrespect will begin to lay fault lines in the foundation of any marriage.
There are ways to use social networking for good and keep a hedge of protection in place. First and foremost, you and your husband should covenant together that you will do all that you can to protect your marriage from anything that could come in to steal, kill and destroy it. This includes innocent things like Facebook and Twitter.
We must remember that no marriage is so safe that we can let our guard down.
Based on the commitment to protect your marriage and family, consider these practical suggestions to help you live that out:
1. Use the Internet in public. It is good practice for your family to make Internet access on a computer placed in a public part of the home, such as the living room or kitchen. Using the computer in more private areas such as a study or bedroom can easily provide an opening where temptation can seep.
2. Joint account. Create a joint account with your spouse or, at the very least, make sure you know each other's password. Yes, you both trust each other; yet this simple accountability can often be all that is needed to make us stop and consider our actions. Once one person has something to hide, only trouble can follow.
3. Mutual friending. Do not friend anyone of the opposite sex that is not also a friend of your spouse's. If a friend of yours requests to be a Facebook friend, only accept the invitation if your spouse is friends as well. Single gals, consider this when you friend-request a married man. If a married man sends you a friend request, check if you're friends with his wife. If not, be sure to take the initiative of accountability and friend-request her, or just decline the married man's request.
4. Make yourself unavailable. Keep logged off in the online chat arena. In order to do online chat, even with your girlfriends, you have to make yourself available or "online." This opens the door for men to initiate online chat with you, which is never appropriate, and can provide for some awkward situations. The solution is never to be available for online chat.
5. Unplug. If you find yourself still struggling with boundaries and getting too close to the line, just deactivate your account. Maybe it is time for a little old fashioned face-to-face time with your husband, your children and your friends, rather than electronic words on a screen.
Perhaps after reading this, you realize that you've gone outside the boundaries of wisdom in social networking. What if you have already crossed the line?
1. God heals and redeems. We serve a God who loves us with an everlasting love. Admit to Him that this is a desire that you have and its enticement is strong. Confess that love for Him is better and that you place this desire at His throne. Ask Him to forgive you, to cleanse you and to restore the damage that you have done to yourself and the relationships around you. Then take the steps necessary to guard your heart and mind from future indiscretions.
2. Find an accountability partner. Enlist someone who can be a true accountability partner for you, who can ask the tough questions about your Internet use, your marriage and your relationships. Find someone to whom you can be completely transparent and who will challenge you to take steps towards holiness rather than helping you figure out how close to the line you can be.
3. Disconnect from all social media sites. If someone is an alcoholic, he cannot have access to alcohol. If someone is a drug addict, she better do all she can to limit access to drugs. While you might be saying, "But I am not addicted to Facebook!" if you cannot control your use of social media, you are, at some level, addicted. Pull the plug and remove what is causing you to stumble.
Social media is a great way to stay connected to friends and family. Through a tweet of 140 characters we can give encouragement to a discouraged friend. Through pictures posted on Facebook we can relive the fond memories of a recent celebration. However, social media can also be a gateway to destructive behavior that tears down and separates. It all depends on the user.
Terri Stovall is dean of women's programs at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. She co-authored the book "Women Leading Women." This column first appeared at BiblicalWoman.org, a blog of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas.