If you haven’t been in college recently, you might not have heard of a recent trend on college campuses called “cancel culture.” Many colleges and universities invite people from all walks of life to speak at various functions. Some are as simple as a campus club meeting to something as big a convocation, or something as regular as a symposium. Historically, the academic world was welcoming of points of view that differed from the institution. Today, however, cancel culture is more the norm. When a club, organization, or faculty invite a speaker who is widely opposed by the student body or among the faculty, it is common for these groups to petition or pressure the dean, chancellor, or board of trustees to cancel the speaking engagement. Even if this is not familiar to you, you likely have heard of boycotts and strikes. They come from the same foundation. Those who support and perpetuate cancel culture often, though snidely, point to Christianity as the fountainhead. They aren’t too far off base.
Though proponents of cancel culture, strikes, and boycotts, point to Christian doctrine, they often do so with a misunderstanding of the biblical teaching. They are right, Christianity is both the fountainhead and perfecter of a form of cancel culture. In the church world, this is often lumped under the doctrine of church discipline or church censures. I want to focus on the discipline part and save the censures for another day.
Matthew 18:15-18 records Jesus’ own words and teaching on His vision for church discipline. The context is a brother, meaning a fellow believer, who has sinned against another believer. This is how we know Jesus is telling us about church discipline. He tells us first to approach this brotherly privately and “show him his fault.” When believers sin (because we all do) and that sin affects another believer, it is appropriate for a private and gentle reproach. If faith is genuine with both parties, then the offender will repent and be welcomed back as a brother or sister in faith. If, however, there is no repentance, Christ Himself tells us that bringing another, perhaps more mature Christian, into the conversation will help the sinner see his sins. If that doesn’t work, it becomes necessary to bring that sin before the whole church, with hope that the collective wisdom will prevail. If it does not, Christ pointedly says, “Let him be to you as a Gentile and tax collector.”
Paul picks up on this and in I Corinthians 5:11 admonishes believers “not to associate with any so-called brother if he is an immoral person…” This is where many cancel culture proponents point and this is how far they might be tracking with me. They point to passages like this and Romans 16:17 suggesting Paul is teaching the church to cancel on non-believers. They see church discipline as a form of retribution against sinners and a casting of judgement, which Christ elsewhere says, “Let him without sin cast the first stone.” (John 8:7) They completely miss the point.
Biblically speaking, yes, the admonition is for faithful Christians not to associate with unrepentant believers. One is for the unity and purity of the church, because those who are unrepentant in their sins will want to seek approval of them and then will want others to do the same. This, of course, will lead any church to schism. Second is for the discipline of the sinner. If that person truly is a Christian and for a time has fallen into this or that sin, then excommunication (the theological word for Jesus’ command to treat them like a Gentile) is not to make the pastor feel superior, but for the sinner to be humbled before God. By being put outside the church, the sinning believer is left at the whim and will of Satan. When he sees that, like the Prodigal Son, he will return to the faith given to him by the Holy Spirit.
Do Christians “cancel” on sinners? Yes. But not for the same reason as proponents of cancel culture. Their rational is vindictive and selfish. The Biblical call to discipline is for restoration and reconciliation.