Of all the wonderful things the internet has given us, there have been a few that make me wonder if it’s all worth it. One of those negatives is what has come to be known as “cancel culture.” Cancel culture is that thing you hear of in the news where the internet mob gets a hold of some wrong action or social media post and does everything in their power to ruin that person’s life.
When they find one such person, they want blood. They work to get people fired from their jobs. They try to get the person’s friends and family to shun them. They want their target buried to the point where they can never come back. No amount of apologizing can ever save a person once they’ve been canceled.
The first instance I can remember involved a woman named Justine Sacco. She posted a couple of admittedly offensive, racist tweets while getting on a plane to Africa. By the time the plane landed, hundreds of thousands of people had banded together to get Sacco fired from her job. This all occurred in 2015, and since that time canceling has entered our vernacular and become a regular part of internet life.
Unfortunately, the church had a cancel culture long before the Twitter rage mob ever got a hold of Sacco.
For decades faithful Christians have been canceled over all kinds of things. The online mob stands ready to leap to action any time someone takes the wrong side on the Holy Spirit, heaven vs. renewed creation, whether drinking alcohol is a sin, or what holidays a person celebrates, or any other number of issues. Ironically, I’ll probably have some people canceling me over this article.
I’ve had people try to contact my congregation and demand I be fired over an article I wrote. I’ve had people pay for Facebook advertising to warn people that I’m a false teacher. My experiences pale in comparison to what others have dealt with, though. Some have been fired from ministry jobs, losing their ability to provide for their family over a slight difference of opinion. Some have had longtime friends turn on them seemingly overnight. Some have had it made clear to them that they are no longer welcome in buildings and events they use to frequent.
How can this be so when unity is one of the most emphasized attributes of the New Testament church? How is it remotely Christlike to cancel people without discussing your differences and giving them a chance to explain themselves? Where is grace when the slightest misstep is enough to instantly cut ties with each other?
Two considerations should be made:
First, when the time comes to take a firm, unwavering stand, it must still be done in love. And, despite what some claim, just because you’ve told the truth it doesn’t make you inherently loving (as 1 Corinthians 13:1 teaches us). Canceling someone is anything but loving.
Second, we have to be careful where we draw the line. Every Christian makes a distinction between non-negotiables and secondary matters. If we make everything (or 99.9% of everything) a non-negotiable, our standard is that there is no room to be wrong about anything. Matthew 7:2 must be kept in mind – our standard is the standard that will be used against us. If you’ve ever changed your mind on even the slightest thing, that “holding a single wrong belief makes one a false teacher” standard should be a chilling thought. We must always have the humility to be able to say “I could be wrong.”
Yes, there is such a thing as a false teacher, but we should use the term with extreme caution. Someone who disagrees with me is not automatically a false teacher. Someone who is wrong about something is not automatically a false teacher (see Apollos in Acts 18). The New Testament saves the term for those who teach foundational errors like works based salvation or denial of Christ’s deity. Additionally, we’re told that a false teacher will be known by their fruits (Matthew 7:15-20). Their character will show that they are not obedient, Spirit-led people.
That distinction in Matthew 7 is key. Jesus starts by teaching us to be very careful in our judging. However, He then tells us how to judge. So, if you’re reading this and asking, “how do we distinguish between a brother who is sincere but wrong and someone who is actually a false teacher?” just read Matthew 7. The first section teaches us to give grace to those who are mistaken. The later section teaches us to beware of those who are clearly false teachers by their fruits. The problem with cancel culture is there is never room for the grace that gives us time to determine the difference.
So, the next time somebody writes or says something that seems wrong to you, hit the brakes before throwing out the “false teacher” term. Before you cut someone out of your life, ask if they are truly in the wrong, or if you simply have a difference of opinion. If you’re one of those people who actively tries to harm those who disagree with you in any way, repent of your pride and spirit of division. Leave the canceling to our corrupt, graceless, Godless culture.
Three little words that might seem harmless to you but are so damaging to your preacher:
“People are saying…”
Sentences that start this way (or similar ways, like “I’ve been hearing some talk around the congregation that…”) are often used to introduce some criticism of the preacher or a desire for a change.
- “People are saying your sermons are too long.”
- “Some folks have a problem with your wife and/or kids.”
- “People are saying you don’t do enough visiting.”
- “People are really upset with you over what you said about…”
But regardless of the specific message, the general message of “People are saying…” is always one of two things. Either:
- There is criticism and complaining about the preacher going on in the church, and nobody who feels that way is willing to step up and address it with him lovingly, or
- The person bringing the complaint is using “people” as a cover for him/herself. Beyond that, they’re making the dishonest implication that the problem is more widespread than it actually is in an attempt to give validity to their criticism.
While I’m sure there are plenty of occurrences of #1, it’s pretty well established in preacher circles that 90% of the time when somebody says “People are saying,” it’s the latter. That kind of dishonesty, especially toward each other, has no place in the church.
Here are 4 reasons why I hope you’ll never use a “People are saying” criticism:
First and foremost, it’s unbiblical. The Bible offers plenty of advice for dealing with interpersonal conflicts (Matthew 5, 18), disagreements, and differences of opinion (Romans 14). At no point does it say, “Talk behind somebody’s back and hope it gets back to them through a third party” or “Share a criticism that you have by blaming it on other people.” Above all, the command to “love your neighbor as yourself” simply prohibits this kind of veiled criticism.
It’s controlling and manipulative. What can a preacher do when he receives this kind of criticism? He can’t go talk to the anonymous “people” and explain his side of the story, so he’s left with only two options: comply, or ignore it. But if he ignores it, he has no idea how many “people” are behind the complaint. He doesn’t know if it’s one malcontent or an issue big enough that it could cost him his job. So, he feels enormous pressure to comply.
Whether intentional or not, that’s the position the person who brings the criticism is putting him in, and it’s not fair. The most stressful, painful times of my ministry have been the long, sleepless nights kept up wondering how many of my brothers and sisters truly were unhappy with me as much as I had been led to believe by a “people are saying…” critic. Don’t do this to your preacher.
It’s discouraging. It lets the preacher know that some of his fellow Christians (or at least one of them) have a problem with him, and they didn’t love him enough to talk to him about it. The core message is “You have to listen to the problems I have with you, and I don’t have to give any reasoning, listen to your side of the story, or answer any of your objections.”It’s already hard enough on preachers that we often feel like employed outsiders, and faceless criticism just exacerbates that problem. Remember your preacher is a person, too. Customers leave anonymous reviews. Brothers confront one another in love.
It facilitates gossip. What the critic is telling the preacher is, “There’s gossip going on about you, I was party to it, and I’m a pipeline for it.” If a brother or sister comes to you with a complaint about another brother or sister, it’s your job to shut it down and let the grumbler know that they can either go talk to the person they’re criticizing or keep it to themselves. Listening to them and passing on their complaints anonymously simply legitimizes their gossip and helps it keep spreading.
If you feel the criticism is legitimate, offer to go with them and share the concerns. If they won’t talk to the preacher but want to keep undermining him by talking about him behind his back, their sin needs to be confronted and exposed. It should be unthinkable to us that a church be torn asunder by gossip circles and back door politicking. The New Testament makes it abundantly clear that the unity of the church is critically important to our Lord, and it should be just as important to us.
That’s really what this comes down to, and why it’s so important. The unity of the church and the minister’s ability to be effective are at stake. I don’t think anyone wants to sacrifice either of those things to get their point across.
Naturally, the preacher isn’t above criticism and needs gentle correction from time to time just as anyone else. But how that is accomplished makes a huge difference. When the time comes to offer constructive criticism, please remember to offer it with love. Keep in mind how much of a tough spot it puts the preacher in to hear “people are saying” rather than hearing it directly. And, above all, don’t let gossip have its way in the church.
Over the last couple of years I’ve found myself repeatedly coming back to a single question: “Shouldn’t church be more?” In his recently released Letters to the Church, Francis Chan answers definitively – yes, yes it should. (Buy your copy here.)
In Letters, Chan asks challenging questions of churches that are worthy of serious reflection and consideration. At the heart of it all is a plea to put God back in His proper place in the church, where our only concern is pleasing Him rather than pleasing people or getting our own way. Because of this high view of God and the driving belief that church can be so much more if we submit to the Lord’s guidance, I’m of the opinion that every church leader (or member, for that matter) can benefit from reading Letters. Grab a copy and dig in for a thoughtful, challenging, heartening read.
Here are 10 of the quotes from the book that have weighed heavily on my mind since reading it.
- “The older I get, the more aware I am that the end is near. There is no time to care about what I want in the Church. There’s no time to worry about what others are looking for in a church. I will be facing Him soon, so I have to stay focused on His desires.” (p.28)
- “For decades church leaders like myself have lost sight of the powerful mystery inherent in the Church and have instead run to other methods to keep people interested. In all honesty, we have trained you to become addicted to lesser things. We have cheapened something sacred, and we must repent.” (p.44)
- “We’re not doing people any favors by pretending they are the center of the universe. Either people will be awed by the sacred or they will not. If the sacred is not enough, then it is clear that the Spirit has not done a work in their lives. If the sheep don’t hear His voice, let them walk away. Don’t call out with your own voice.” (p.53)
- “We have come up with countless strategies to reach the lost when God promises that unity is the method that will work.” (p.80)
- “Do our actions show that we expect supernatural contributions from every member of the body?” (p.90) and “If we give up on the goal of having all members exercise their spiritual gifts, we are destined for perpetual immaturity.” (p.92)
- “No team puts up with players who refuse to contribute. No army puts up with soldiers who don’t carry their own weight. Why do churches continue to put up with Christians who refuse to serve? Why don’t we treat selfishness as a sin that needs to be confronted?” (p.97)
- “Prayer is not merely a task of ministry; it is a gauge that exposes our hearts’ condition. It unveils our pride, showing us whether or not we believe we are powerless apart from God.” (p.113)
- “We need to return to a God-centered theology rather than a human-centered theology, and we need to be willing to flip some tables and suffer for it along the way.” (p.140)
- “Should we consider that placing people in comfortable classrooms and auditoriums for years may not be the best way to train fearless leaders?” (p.165)
- “It should not feel out of the ordinary, harsh, or inappropriate to call the Church to change. Nor should we imagine that our unique expression of Church is the only one God sanctions. Instead, we should be constantly seeking renewal, being ready at any moment to discard the elements of Church that lead us away from God’s heart rather than toward it.” (p.190)
For my book review of “Letters to the Church,” check out episode 1 of the “Too Many Books” podcast, a book review show I co-host on Strong Church.
To buy “Letters to the Church” on Amazon, go here.
Francis Chan, Letters to the Church, Colorado Springs: David C Cook, 2018.