We all have become familiar with cancel culture in the media, entertainment, and academia. People who take unpopular positions are banished from social media and school campuses. Speakers who are deemed to be on the wrong side are shouted down. Heroes from the past are not spared as their statues are torn down and their names removed from buildings named in their honor because of things they said or did decades or even centuries ago.
Cancel culture has also come to evangelical Christianity as both contemporary and historical figures are judged to be unworthy because they said or did something deemed to be oppressive or incorrect. Former allies are persona non grata. What once were close personal friendships have been severed.
There Is a Proper Biblical Judgment to Be Made
Part of our being in God’s image is that we are offended by what we deem to be unjust, and we make judgments. Sometimes judgment is necessary and good. The church is called to confront those who are guilty of gross immorality or error and to put them out of the church if they are unrepentant (Matt. 18:15-20; 1 Cor. 5). Spiritual leaders must be of exceptional character (1 Tim. 3:1-7), and if they fail to live up to the biblical standard they are to be confronted and if necessary, removed (1 Tim. 5:19-21). James gives a special warning that those who teach “will be judged with greater strictness” (James 3:1).
We Also Are Warned against Improper Judgment
Because of our proud sinfulness, judgment is spiritually dangerous. We can easily get it wrong. Jesus warns, “Judge not, that you be not judged” (Matt. 7:1). James also admonishes us against improper judgment:
“Do not speak evil against one another, brothers. The one who speaks against a brother or judges his brother, speaks evil against the law and judges the law. But if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but a judge. There is only one lawgiver and judge, He who is able to save and to destroy. But who are you to judge your neighbor?” (James 4:11-12).
Culture can be careless, uncharitable, and harsh. Statements of an opponent are taken out of context and given the most negative (or uncharitable) reading possible. Some relentlessly seek to take down those whom they deem to have taken the wrong side of the narrative. Even when clarifications are offered or apologies made, the self-appointed judges are not satisfied. Ironically, some who claim to be protecting the oppressed are extremely unfair and hurtful to the people they attack.
Hebrews 11 Remembers the Good Works of Flawed Believers
Hebrews 11 is known as the “Hall of Faith,” in which the great exploits of Old Testament believers, “men of old [who] gained approval” (Heb. 11:2), are celebrated. One amazing thing about this passage is that it records all of their great deeds while making no mention of their great sins. Abraham had slaves, committed adultery with his slave Hagar, and twice put the purity of his wife at risk. Noah got drunk. Moses killed a man in anger. David stole Uriah’s wife and then had him killed. Then there is Samson! What I take away from this is that God graciously remembers and celebrates His people’s acts of faith and forgets their sins (remembers them no more Heb. 8:12; Jer. 31:34). This is all because of the gospel.
Applying Hebrews 11 to Our Flawed Leaders
I believe that we need to make a distinction between those who are of bad character and commit heinous sin and those whose character is fundamentally sound and yet have fallen short in certain things which they have said and done. I apply this principle both to historic and contemporary figures.
Some have pointed out the sins and flaws of our heroes of church history. Calvin apparently approved of the execution of the heretic Servetus. Luther wrote things that sound anti-Semitic. Whitefield owned slaves. I believe that we can grieve over their sins and errors while still thanking God for how He used them and benefiting from the biblical insights of their writings. While not excusing their transgressions, we can also recognize that they were influenced by the age and circumstances in which they lived. I believe that the same principle can be applied to the founding fathers of our nation, whose accomplishments and principles can be admired despite their flaws.
I apply the same principle to our present age. In recent days some have condemned and sought to cancel the founder of the biblical counseling movement (and the movement itself) because of a statement he made decades ago about abuse. I believe that one can disagree with what he said without repudiating his legacy, rejecting the rest of his teaching, and vilifying all who follow in his footsteps.
Another example is when respected Christian leaders, churches, and organizations may have used what we believe to be poor judgment in something they said or did.1I am not referring to an organization or its leaders being guilty of personal egregious sin. I believe that it is possible to conclude that they were wrong without completely condemning their ministry while also insisting that all respectable people totally disassociate themselves from it. Ironically, a form of fundamentalist secondary separation is being practiced by the cancel culture.
As we see how God looks at the works of faith of flawed Old Testament saints in Hebrews 11, we can appreciate the good works God is doing through flawed saints today. We should be careful before we judge and cancel such brothers and sisters.
A distinction needs to be made between evil men who have a pattern of bad behavior and those whose lives are characterized by piety and good works and yet have, in isolated cases, fallen short (sinned) in what they have said and done.
We who see the problems of how cancel culture affects those with whom we sympathize also need to ensure that we do not wrongly create our own cancel counterculture in which we become harsh and uncharitable. We should be humbled and thankful that God mercifully recognizes our works of faith and does not remember our sins and failures (Jer. 31:34).
Questions for Reflection
- Have you ever felt canceled by others? How did God help you through this experience?
- Have you ever been guilty of improperly judging/writing off/canceling someone?
- How can we distinguish biblically between a situation in which someone’s sin/error means that we should show them grace versus someone from whom we should separate ourselves?
- 1I am not referring to an organization or its leaders being guilty of personal egregious sin.