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Cancel Culture and the Whitefield Option


Our world has become rife with cancel culture. This refers simply to that environment in which someone who deviates from the zeitgeist gets pounced upon, denounced and shut out of polite society. If you are of a high enough profile, you can get banned from social media within mere hours just for saying a biological fact like "men can't get pregnant". One of the common threads in all cancel culture is the complete lack of grace. No one is allowed to misspeak, or differ, or express an unpopular opinion without losing everything. Even when the mob forces an apology, usually the damage is already done and there is no coming back from it.

We as Christians see this in the world and we can rightly critique it, but what about us? Are we prone to this similar kind of cancel culture mentality among ourselves? Sadly, I think the answer is yes. And it is one of the most disheartening and frustrating things to see. Believers can be quick to jump on certain bandwagons and affix to themselves and other believers all sorts of labels. It is no longer enough to be a Christian. One has to have a label attached for their eschatology, ecclesiology, soteriology, biblical theology, cultural posture, apologetic framework, etc. So, you meet Joe who is an evangelical, reformed, Arminian, amillennial, Van-Tillian, hyper-galactic Klingon. Okay, so that would be a little extreme and incoherent. But you get the point! The problem with this type of thing is the endless division that it creates by isolating Christians into smaller and smaller ghettoes. Not to mention the pride of man that this can stoke. One feels that he has the corner market on the whole truth and will quickly dismiss someone who differs.

To put some flesh on this, I am talking about how Christians, online especially, will cancel those from other corners of evangelicalism based on the smallest of differences. They will throw out MacArthur because of his eschatology, or look with a squint-eye at Piper because of his cultural engagement, or write off Wilson based on what they heard from a blogger. The effect of this is to endlessly narrow oneself into a corner. To reject your brothers and sisters based on any and every point of difference. In the end we shrink not just our circles but our souls. We become ungracious, uncharitable, endlessly suspicious, and divisive. Last I checked none of those qualities are fruits of the spirit or expressions of Christian love.

So, what should we do instead? What I am advocating for I'd like to call the Whitefield option. You may have heard of the Benedict option, but this is a little different. You may well know that George Whitefield was the great evangelist of the 18th Century. He was arguably the main human agent, used by the Lord of course, behind the Great Awakening in America and the great revival in Britain. But he wasn't the only one labouring for Christ. John and Charles Wesley were his companions at Oxford and also fellow labourers for the Lord in this great revival. And yet they were Christians of a very different stripe. Whitefield was a firm Calvinist while the Wesley's were Arminian. And this caused no small disturbance between them and among their respective followers. In fact, early on Whitefield went on a trip to America and left his congregations in John Wesley's charge. Thereupon Wesley took the opportunity to preach a series of sermons against predestination, essentially against Whitefield's teaching. And this was just the first of many divisive and harsh actions that John Wesley engaged in. Whitefield's response was from the very first always eminently gracious. Yes, he asked Wesley to desist. Yes, he would teach the truth and oppose error. But Whitefield always addressed Wesley as a brother. He signed his letters to him, "yours most affectionately in Christ Jesus, G.W." He always affirmed his love for Wesley, his debt to him as a friend, and his continued prayers for him.

Some of Whitefield's people wished that he would fight back. But Whitefield insisted that he would continue to treat them with kindness and with friendship. Whitefield did not soften his message or grow wobbly in his own convictions, he continued to hold them strong. But at the same time, he refused to fight with his brothers. He wrote, "I would love all that love the Lord Jesus, though they differ with me in some points".

You see Whitefield didn't just believe and teach the doctrines of grace, he lived them. God's grace had made him gracious. Sovereign mercy had made him merciful. He learned how to pay it forward. What an oxymoron to be a harsh and bitter Calvinist. To have been forgiven much by sheer grace and then to shake down those who disappoint you a little. We can learn a thing or two from Whitefield. You see, I think one of the secrets to his graciousness was his humility. He had been humbled by the Saviour. And therefore, he was not concerned with building his own brand or his own kingdom. He was just happy to serve the Lord.

Whitefield didn't try to wrestle the people back from Wesley to his own movement and consolidate it, instead he set out to be the servant of all. He said things like:

"Let the name of Whitefield perish, but Christ be glorified."

He had taken the words of 1 Corinthians to heart. Where Paul chastises the Corinthians for giving way to a divisive party spirit.

"Each one of you says, "I follow Paul," or "I follow Apollos," or "I follow Cephas," or "I follow Christ." 13 Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?...

4 For when one says, "I follow Paul," and another, "I follow Apollos," are you not being merely human? 5 What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each. 6 I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. 7 So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. (1 Corinthians 1:12-13; 3:5-7).

Whitefield takes these words and applies them in his day, saying:

"But what is Calvin, or what is Luther? Let us look above names and parties; let Jesus be our all in all – So that He is preached… I care not who is uppermost. I know my place… even to be the servant of all."

Now if Whitefield could treat Wesley with such graciousness and humility, can't we do the same? Especially when dealing with disagreements of lesser magnitude? Why are we so quick to cancel and divide?

Consider Paul's shocking words in Philippians. Apparently, some men were preaching out of selfish and twisted motives, with animosity towards Paul. And what does Paul say?

18 What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice. (Philippians 1:18)

George Whitefield and the Apostle Paul had this same humility about themselves and this same fixation on the gospel of Jesus Christ. It led them to not get bogged down in clashes but to stay focused on the job at hand. They would not tear down the work of gospel proclamation, even if it was done by those who hated them, and even if it was done imperfectly.

We must learn this lesson. The mission before us should draw our attention. We must not get distracted and divided through endless debates and infighting. In any war one of the greatest dangers is friendly fire. The air support drops the bombs right on their own army. The soldier fires his rifle before noting the colour of the uniform. It is sad and it is discouraging because it is so wasteful. Energy that could be spent fighting enemies is spent fighting friends. Energy that could have been spent building up is used to tear down our own work. How frustrating! When we see such divisiveness in our own ranks, we should suspect that the work of the enemy is at play. For it is he who came only to steal and kill and destroy (John 10:10). We must take care to guard ourselves against divisiveness, party-spirit, factionalism, and all forms of friendly fire.

We are on the winning team; we should act like it. C.S. Lewis in The Horse and His Boy describes the Narnian Kings and Queens in contrast to the Calormenes, as they walk through Tashbaan:

"Instead of being grave and mysterious like most Calormenes, they walked with a swing and let their arms and shoulders go free, and chatted and laughed. One was whistling. You could see that they were ready to be friends with anyone who was friendly, and didn't give a fig for anyone who wasn't. Shasta thought he had never seen anything so lovely in his life."

This is what I am getting at. This spirit of graciousness, friendliness, and joy – it is lovely. And it is what is missing in so much of reformed evangelicalism right now. So, my modest proposal, this Whitefield option, is to save our ammo for our enemies, to save our anathemas for those who truly teach a false gospel, to be friends to all who are friendly, and to keep our focus on our gospel mission. 

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Sunday, 19 May 2024