The Rise of Christian Cancel Culture: Scandals, Heresy Hunters, and What We’re Known For
My 5-year-old and I were having a discussion about tar on the way to school one morning (I know, a deeply compelling topic of conversation). He’d seen tar on the cracks of the asphalt down the country road outside of our home, and asked what it was and how it was used. The conversation seemed to be going great as I recounted some of the popular usages for tar throughout the ages. That is, until I mentioned the practice of “tarring and feathering.”
In retrospect, sharing the details and history of such a barbaric practice with your 5-year-old is probably not the wisest choice. He listened in horror as I described how mobs would often issue the sentence of being covered in hot tar and feathers as a form of publicly shaming someone who had committed a socially unacceptable offense.
He thought about it for a moment and asked, “Dad, they don’t do that to people anymore…do they?”
“No buddy, they don’t do that anymore,” I assured him.
I could see him thinking in his car seat in the back seat of my truck. “Well, what do they do to people who’ve done somethin’ bad like that now?”
I thought about my answer for a bit. What is the modern equivalent to “tarring and feathering”?
A Modern Equivalent to Tarring and Feathering
Cancel culture or call-out culture is a decidedly postmodern form of social ostracism in which someone is thrust out of social or professional circles–whether it be online, on social media, or in person. The recipient of the ostracism is said to have been “canceled.” Cancellations are typically issued to a celebrity or public figure that has done or said something offensive. The public backlash is typically fueled by political progressives that call for the effective end of the victim’s career or a diminishing of their social currency through things like boycotts of their work or disciplinary action from their employer.
Conservative Christians have typically been vocal in their opposition to cancel culture from the secular world. In June 2012, Dan Cathy, CEO of the restaurant chain Chick-fil-A, made a series of public comments that seemed to be opposed to same-sex marriage. Shortly thereafter, cries were made by activists for Chick-fil-A to be “canceled” via protests, boycotts, and demands for other business partners to sever ties with the restaurant chain. Conservative Christians responded by defending and strongly supporting Chick-fil-A, while dismissing the boycotts and protests as unwarranted accusations of bigotry and homophobia directed at the restaurant simply because of the CEO’s commitment to biblical values and principles.
Christians encouraged each other to eat at Chick-fil-A’s all across the country in a show of solidarity against the calls to “cancel” the restaurant, as sales skyrocketed 12 percent nationwide even in spite of boycotts and protests.
While we as Christians seem opposed to the idea of other Christians being “canceled” and publicly slandered by the secular world, for whatever reason, often we are not the least bit hesitant about publicly slandering and “canceling” our own. We’re very hard on the secular world when they misrepresent and defame Christian leaders, but we seem to give ourselves ample license to do so whenever we find areas of disagreement with our own.
Could it be that we are just as guilty (if not more so) in participating in the call-out and cancel culture that we appear so vehemently against?
Christian Cancel Culture
The headline is far too common: prominent Christian pastor, evangelist, or leader caught in an affair, financial indiscretion, double life, or leadership failure–leaving countless wounded, confused, hurt, angry, and almost everyone questioning, “How did this happen? Why did this happen? And why didn’t we see it coming?” The anger is justified. The confusion merited. The questions fair. That leader is responsible for their sinful, duplicitous decisions and should be held accountable.
And then…there’s the world of the internet, where hot takes regarding any leader’s moral failings abound via tweets, YouTube videos, and all manner of online content. Commentary is offered and blame is cast on everyone and everything. Everything regarding the leader and their ministry is churned up, questioned, and called into scrutiny–every sermon ever preached, every book ever written–even their own salvation and relationship with Christ. After they have been thoroughly scrutinized, gutted, examined, blamed, and called out, that figure and all of their contributions to the church at large are decisively and forever “canceled” in a terminal act of judgment–never again to be known for anything other than their failures and sin.
But leaders, churches, and ministries aren’t just “canceled” online due to moral failures, financial indiscretions, or publicized scandals.
If one so chooses to follow the white rabbit down into the seedy underbelly of the so-called “discernment ministry” blog world, they will find a plethora of content directed toward leaders, churches, and ministries said to be guilty of all manner of heresies and false teaching.
Granted, some of this content warning others of false teaching is merited (and sadly, necessary). Popular pastors, churches, and ministries who have embraced theologies that flatly contradict the plain teachings of Scripture (e.g., the deity and exclusiveness of Christ, the necessity of the atonement, the reality of miracles and the resurrection, biblical sexuality, the infallibility of Scripture, etc.) have rightly earned such scrutiny and people should be warned to steer clear of such teachings.
But that’s only a small part of what’s considered “heresy” according to online heresy hunters. What have been historically understood to be minor doctrinal disagreements between varying factions of Bible-believing Christians are amplified into major theological schisms. Sound bites from certain teachers are dissected, scrutinized, taken out of context, and sensationalized. Implications are then built, and labels are cast haphazardly.
Other churches, pastors, or Christians that have connections with a culpable party and don’t join the outrage can be treated as guilty by association. Not only are the heretics themselves “canceled,” but so are any parties remotely connected with anything related to these so-called heretics. Cancellations are issued liberally, and with great self-righteous gusto.
But is this how it’s supposed to work?
When a leader fails us, are we to decisively, publicly and finally “cancel” them and all their contributions to the kingdom? When a leader sadly begins to teach errant or questionable theology, is the appropriate platform for warning others primarily to be online blogs, Youtube videos, or social media posts?
If we don’t “cancel,” the person, does that mean we are justifying and excusing sin or condoning false teaching? Is another response possible which recognizes error but seeks also redemption? What are we to do with our questions, confusion, hurt, disappointment, and anger? Is there any hope of redemption or any road back for a leader who’s fallen or a teacher who has erred in their theology?
The Unkindest Cut of All
I’ve got a confession: I’m part of the problem. For years I’ve been magnetized to the YouTube videos of heresy hunters that get posted with obnoxious captions in all capital letters that say things like, “FALSE TEACHING AT ______ CHURCH,” or “PASTOR ______, WOLF IN SHEEP’S CLOTHING!!”
I know it’s clickbait. But who can resist clicking on a link with a title like that?
And so I’ve watched the videos filled with sound bites from other pastors, speakers, or ministry leaders saying something that certainly sounds theologically questionable or doctrinally sketchy. The sound bites are then interspersed with commentary about how wrong that person is as labels are enthusiastically cast and other Christians are encouraged to boycott, stay away from, warn, and speak out against anything this particular leader would ever be involved in or stand for.
Often the warnings seem justified because the teachings heard on the sound bites are 100% unbiblical and heretical. But the approach always seems a bit too heavy-handed.
It’s almost as if the one issuing the “warning” enjoys it a little too much.
Call it what you want, but essentially from content like this there goes out a call for that pastor, writer, church, and ministry to be “canceled” with the same kind of familiar, self-righteous gusto that virtue-signaling political progressives often practice. And content like this usually goes viral quickly because it always feel good to be on the side that is calling for the cancellation. After all, it kind of feels like the other side completely deserves it.
That is, until the call goes out for you to be “canceled.” That’s when the rules to the game change completely.
As a pastor I have faced my fair share of criticism. Some of it has been in person. Much of it has been online, and most of it has been from folks who have walked away either from the church or from the Christian faith. But there’s one unique bit of criticism that cuts deeper than the rest.
It was shortly after we reopened our church’s in-person gatherings after the COVID-19 lockdown in our state. During the lockdown, we had put together a livestream team so that we could broadcast our in-person gatherings over social media and YouTube for any in our congregation that felt more comfortable staying at home. Our first weekend back was a tremendous success. We had great numbers at our in-person gatherings and good numbers of people watching online.
I preached a message from Matthew 12 and encouraged our congregation to walk in Christ-like love and humility towards others in the room as we shone the light of Jesus to a broken and hurting world that desperately needed His love.
The next morning, my student pastor came into my office with a very simple request: “Don’t read the most recent comment on our YouTube channel.”
So, as any neurotic, insecure pastor like myself knows, you must immediately respond to a request like that by doing the exact opposite of what you’re told. I went to our YouTube channel and looked for the comment I was forbidden to read.
Surely nothing I said could’ve been misunderstood or misinterpreted as heretical or unorthodox. Everything I said seemed to be right out of Scripture and in alignment with what I was teaching. How could anybody find something wrong with a message straight from Scripture?
As I sat reading the comment, I felt a pit in my stomach. My face grew hot and I could hear my pulse in my ears. I sat shaking my head in disbelief as I read the labels that were given to me by my accuser. Comments I’d made during my teaching were ripped from their context and scrutinized. Implications about me and my doctrinal stances were made, and the call was issued for my cancellation. The call read something like, “The last thing we need right now is another pastor like you.”
There it was. The call out. The cancellation notice. And it hurt a lot more than I thought it would.
So why did this bit of criticism cut deeper than the rest?
Because it was from someone who claimed to be a brother in Christ. It cut deeper because it was a public accusation and call for the totality of my ministry to be dismissed based on a misunderstanding of one comment. And even though I reached out to the anonymous person so we could get a cup of coffee and I could explain myself (he never took me up on it; big surprise there), the damage had been done. The label he’d given me (that I didn’t feel I deserved) was out there for the world to see.
If Christianity in North America is to survive the rapidly changing cultural landscape where atheism, agnosticism, and universalism are skyrocketing while biblical Christianity simultaneously is on the decline, I believe we must re-examine this practice of publicly cancelling and calling out other Christians we disagree with in the way that we’re doing it now. I believe there must be a better way.
The unbelieving world must find our practice of calling out, cancelling, and kicking other Christians while they’re down absurd and ridiculous. And like a snake eating its own tail, we have made ourselves increasingly more irrelevant as we become more preoccupied with in-house arguments than we are with the message of the gospel of the kingdom.
Like a snake eating its own tail, we have made ourselves increasingly more irrelevant as we become more preoccupied with in-house arguments than the gospel of the kingdom.
Abhor what is Evil, Hold Fast to What is Good
Romans 12:9 tells us to
“Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good.”
We’re told as Christians that we must “abhor” (to detest, hate, loathe, and despise) what is evil. There is a way in which we should be decidedly against certain things that are evil. The abortion holocaust that claimed the lives of 862,300 unborn children in our nation just this last year is evil and we should despise it. We are to loathe and hate things like domestic violence, the opioid epidemic, pornography, sexual assaults, and fatherlessness.
Tampering with God’s Word and denying biblical truth is also evil. So we are to detest the way in which many distort, downplay, and twist biblical truth to fit their own desires and passions (2 Peter 3:16). There is certainly a time and place for us as Christians to call that which is evil “evil.” And yes, some of that might even involve publicly making statements about what is evil.
But listen very carefully: we’re also told to hold fast to what is good.
In other words, we’re not simply to be known for what we’re against. We’re also to be known for what we are for.
It’s so much easier to sit back behind a keyboard or a cell phone, listen to sound bites from popular pastors, and pick apart all that is wrong with Christianity and the North American church. It’s so much more difficult to be in the messes of others’ lives loving and working alongside them in their brokenness to embrace the promises of King Jesus and intentionally live out His mission. It’s so easy to point out that the Church as a whole is broken. But oh how backbreakingly difficult it is to spend your life trying to make it better.
It’s so easy to publicly critique, criticize, and slander the well-known pastor or Christian leader who succumbed to a moral failure or was unfaithful to his wife. It’s so much harder to walk with him and his family through a process of biblical restoration and wholeness. It’s also a lot easier to criticize a pastor for his moral failure than it is to take safeguards to protect our own purity.
Have we spent so much time criticizing, cancelling, and calling out what we’re against that we don’t even know what it is we’re for? What if Christianity in America started being known for what it’s for? What if words like “truth,” “love,” “obedience,” “mercy,” “kindness,” “grace,” and “forgiveness” came to people’s minds when they heard the word “Christian”?
It’s so easy to point out that the Church as a whole is broken. But oh how backbreakingly difficult it is to spend your life trying to make it better.
A Call for Graceful Discernment
There is a clear biblical precedent for the practice of identifying false teaching/teachers and warning other Christians of them. In many of the apostle Paul’s letters, he dedicated entire sections to warning his followers of false teaching, false teachers, and the deception they were guilty of spreading within the church. Often Paul would do this through calling them out by name.
So was Paul guilty of spreading “cancel culture”? No.
Look what he writes in 2 Timothy 2:23-25,
“…reject foolish and ignorant speculation, for you know that it breeds quarreling. And a servant of the Lord must not be quarrelsome, but must be kind to everyone…He must gently reprove those who oppose him, in the hope that God may grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth.”
Paul was certainly not timid in refuting error and false doctrine. But he also wasn’t a lover of controversy, drama, or sensationalism. And it doesn’t seem like he went out of his way to find heresy under every rock. His ministry primarily wasn’t about all that he was against–but what he was for. His life aim was the preaching of the gospel of the kingdom that would result in the obedience of faith among all the nations (Rom. 1:5).
I believe the Scriptures call us to be people of balance. We are to be discerning and watchful in our theology, but we’re also to be full of grace, gentleness, and kindness. I don’t believe that our default setting towards other believers, churches, or pastors (even those outside of our tribe) should be an attitude of suspicion, skepticism, contrarianism, and argumentativeness. That seems to be exactly what Paul was telling us not to be when he commands us to not be “quarrelsome.”
We’re also told to reject “foolish and ignorant speculation.”
There is a way in which Christian cancel culture participates in very judgmental, shallow, and pointless conjecture about not just the missteps of others, but the very intentions, motives, and heart behind the missteps. We often do a lot of speculating in our harsh and unkind judgments of others, claiming in our ignorance to know their reasons and motivations. But we don’t. And we can’t. Why? Because we’re not God. We see only the outward appearance, not the heart (1 Sam. 16:7).
We’re to be gentle and kind as we reprove anyone or any message who opposes or distorts the truth of the gospel. Why? “In the hope that God may grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth” (2 Tim. 2:25). Not so that that they’re irredeemably and permanently canceled without any hope of finding truth.
Listen. Arguments, call outs, and cancellation notices don’t win people into the kingdom. Arguments usually lose people, even if they’re won. Call outs and cancellations that are given liberally and carelessly lose their power and sway over time. If everything is heresy, then nothing is heresy. If everyone is a false teacher, then no one is a false teacher.
The greatest spiritual gift, Paul says, is not the ability to discern what’s truth or falsehood and call it out (1 Cor. 12:31). It’s Christ-like love (1 Cor. 13:1). Without Christ-like love, all of our discernment blogs and social media cancellation notices are nothing more than “resounding gongs or clanging cymbals” (1 Cor. 13:1).
Without Christ-like love, all of our discernment blogs and social media cancellation notices are nothing more than “resounding gongs or clanging cymbals.”
 Aja Romano, “Why We Can’t Stop Fighting About Cancel Culture, Vox, August 25, 2020, https://www.vox.com/culture/2019/12/30/20879720/what-is-cancel-culture-explained-history-debate.
 Joe Satran, “Chick-Fil-A Sales Soar Despite Bad PR.,” HuffPost, February 11, 2013, https://www.huffpost.com/entry/chick-fil-a-sales-2012_n_2590612.