Over the past few years, “cancel culture” has been on the rise. Merriam-Webster online defines the cultural phenomenon as “the practice or tendency of engaging in mass canceling [rejecting someone because they’ve offended you] as a way of expressing disapproval and exerting social pressure.”
A quick online search reveals that the concept of “cancelling” became prominent around 2015. Several years later, Jonah Engel Bromwich of the New York Times described cancelling as the “total disinvestment in something (anything).” During the past few years, musicians, actors, pastors and politicians have all fallen victim to cancel culture. Everyday people are not immune; even I have felt canceled by certain people for expressing my personal opinions on various issues.
Sadly, Christ-followers show up on both sides of cancel culture. I’ve heard Christians express offense at being canceled by the world, but I have also watched music, books, films and initiatives created by believers be disparaged, picked apart, and “cancelled” by fellow Christians. I have witnessed individuals who truly love Jesus and are seeking to build His kingdom be dismissed or expelled from the fold for associating with the wrong person or movement, or for saying the wrong thing.
Not long ago, a friend I admire was pleading with her online followers to stop attacking a creative project a friend of hers had masterminded. It was receiving backlash in some Christian circles, and while certain individuals gave thoughtful and valid critiques, others just piled on, recklessly deriding the artist’s talent, motives and even her faith. “I am heartbroken for my friend,” the woman wrote. “I have seen her heart. She has spent hours in prayer over this. She desires people come to Christ through it.”
My friend’s words highlighted the tendency we have to attack fellow believers instead of trusting that God may be leading them to build His kingdom in ways we don’t understand.
Many of us are familiar with Jesus’ parable about the speck and the plank found in Matthew 7:3-5. It is a passage Christians often point to when they want to be permissive of the sin of others. “See, we’re not supposed to judge,” they’ll say. “Remove the plank from your own eye before nitpicking about the speck in your brother’s eye.”
But we shouldn’t miss Jesus’ point: Sometimes in our own humanity and sinful condition, we can’t see clearly enough to make the right judgment. And the wrong judgment at the wrong time can cause severe damage to the body of Christ. There is a time to admonish those in our faith family. But Jesus directed us to do it one on one or in small groups, not by blasting our criticism publicly.
Had Jesus been walking the earth in today’s age of social media, I am almost certain He would have been canceled. Imagine the tweets:
“Just saw that rabbi hanging out with prostitutes and sinners. Guess it’s true what they say: ‘Nothing good comes from Nazareth.’”
“Jesus just violated the fourth commandment by healing on the Sabbath. Who does he think he is — God?! #notabovethelaw”
“Simon told me Jesus let a woman wash his feet with her hair. And we let this guy teach in our synagogue?”
Three things to consider before you cancel
As I’ve observed Christians cancel one another over everything from political views to entertainment choices, I have also seen the devastation it can cause. Here are three reasons I think Christians should pause before “cancelling” a fellow believer:
We have a higher calling. One of the main issues I see with cancel culture taking hold among believers is that criticizing our own becomes a distraction to the real work of preaching the gospel and building the Church. Even worse, our ungracious infighting can deter unbelievers from wanting to join us. After all, Jesus tells us the world will know we are His disciples by our love for other Christians. But if we’re consumed with calling them out and shutting them down, love gets lost in the crossfire.
When the gospel was exploding during the time of Paul, the apostle seemed largely unconcerned with those who were “doing it wrong.” In fact, while in prison he said some people were preaching the gospel out of good will and others out of envy and rivalry, but the important thing is that the gospel was being preached! Listen to his take: “The former proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely but thinking to afflict me in my imprisonment. What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice.” (Philippians 1:17-18)
Our purpose as given by Christ himself is to, “Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation.” Spending time pointing fingers at those with the same mission hinders the work God seeks to do through a global network of united believers.
We have a limited vantage point. Going back to Jesus’ parable in Matthew, no human, regardless of how smart he or she is, can know how God is working or who He is using to accomplish His purposes. After all, he used a donkey to show Balaam he was on the wrong path. We must always remember that God’s ways are higher than our own. Consider the words of Isaiah 55:8-9: “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the Lord. “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”
I remember my uncle giving me a Christian book that because of its questionable theology I would never recommend to anyone — yet God had used it to draw him to saving faith. I’m not suggesting we throw our standards of truth out the window. Paul cautioned Timothy and Titus to protect sound doctrine in the church — and this is something we should strive to do — but he also issued strict warnings to those stirring up division among believers (Titus 3:10). In fact, after warning a divisive person twice, Paul says you are to have nothing more to do with him!
We are bound by the principles of love and unity. As I said above, the Bible is clear about upholding sound doctrine and teaching, which means there will be times when as a Christian I must signal an alarm about a harmful resource or ideology. The question becomes: How should I do that? The words of 1 Corinthians 16:13-14 display this balance: “Be watchful, stand firm in the faith, act like men, be strong. Let all that you do be done in love.” We are to stand firm while also allowing love to be our primary motivation.
Admonishment of a fellow believer should be done in a spirit of love for the purpose of reconciliation to God and one another. The act of cancelling ends the conversation; it “disinvests” instead of offering loving correction.
In 1 Corinthians 1:10 Paul challenges believers, saying, “I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment.” In another passage, we are told we have been given “the ministry of reconciliation.” Neither of these principles jive with cancelling those in the faith with whom we disagree.
A better way
Our world abounds with divisions. Cancelling those who fail to meet our standards or don’t do things the way we think they ought to be done has become commonplace even among believers. Often, I think we become critics — or crusaders — without fully thinking through the damage we are doing to a person’s spiritual walk, their ministry, and the cause of Christ.
Instead of working in tandem with other Christians to preach the gospel and invite those who don’t know Christ into an abundant life characterized by love and unity, we waste our time and energy attacking our co-laborers and creating further division. The next time you’re tempted to cancel someone, consider the potential consequences of such an action, and ask the Lord if your conviction and energies might be better used elsewhere.
Copyright 2022 Suzanne Hadley Gosselin. All Rights Reserved.