This article first appeared in the Christian Research Journal, volume 44, number 2 (2021). For further information or to subscribe to the Christian Research Journal please click here.
Christians have two seemingly contradictory mandates. On the one hand, we are called to “live peaceably with all men” (Rom. 12:18), to be peacemakers (Matt. 5:9), and to avoid offense whenever possible (2 Cor. 6:3). Yet we are also called to preach the gospel to non-believers (Mark 16:15) and make disciples (Matt. 28:19–20), giving the full counsel of God to believers in our churches and Christian institutions (Acts 20:27; Titus 2:15). The cancel culture, with its emphasis on silencing viewpoints it finds offensive or dangerous, is pressuring the modern church to stop expressing essential biblical positions on marriage, sexuality, gender, abortion, justice, the exclusivity of Christ as the only means to salvation, and humanity’s inherently sinful nature. This demand for Christian silence indicates the culture’s attempt to tell the church which sins we may condemn and which ones need to be revised from the category of “sinful” to the category of “acceptable.” Certain doctrinal issues, of course, are not essential to the preaching of the gospel nor to the building up of believers. We can “agree to disagree,” for example, on such issues as the meaning of the Millennium or eternal security. But when the culture tells us to either change our positions on essential doctrines or refrain from teaching them in our churches or speaking of them in public, then a polite but clear refusal is called for. In such a case, we could do worse than to take a cue from Peter and the apostles who, when forbidden to teach or preach in the name of Jesus, famously replied, “We ought to obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29; see also 4:19–20).
Peter and John were in a bind. While heading to the temple for prayer, they encountered a lame man, and Peter was moved to command him to walk in the name of Jesus. Healed and rejoicing, the man created quite a scene at Solomon’s porch, drawing a crowd and giving the disciples an opportunity to explain how the healing happened, and who made it happen (Acts 3).
Many came to Christ on the spot, and the Sanhedrin were none too pleased. They had Peter and John imprisoned, conferred among themselves, then decided to forbid any further speaking or teaching in the name of Jesus. These early church leaders had a decision to make: comply or defy?
By complying, they might show a commitment to “live peaceably with all men” (Rom. 12:18)1 through cooperation with Jewish authority and the Roman law keeping that authority in place. Surely, they did not want the newly formed church to be viewed as a bunch of troublemakers, and when it came to Christian living, wasn’t it enough to love their neighbor and do good works? Perhaps, then, keeping quiet about offensive doctrines was the better option.
But what if those doctrines were essential? Who would have been born again if Peter had kept silent after the healing, and how would the crowd who had witnessed it come to believe in the One who had made it happen, if the offensive gospel hadn’t been preached? Their desire to keep peace had to be weighed against their mandate to preach the Good News and to make disciples (Matt. 28:19–20; Mark 16:15).
Besides, they had violated no Roman law or Hebrew custom by praying for the lame man or by preaching afterwards. The man had a right to ask alms of worshippers; Peter and John had the right to pray for his healing; God had the right to answer. No rudeness or inappropriate behavior was demonstrated. Nor was it out of line for Peter to teach or preach in that location, since it was customary for religious leaders to do so. As journalist Paul Kroll points out in his Studies in the Book of Acts: “The colonnades or porticos were busy places. Religious teachers debated and taught their pupils in its shade (Luke 2:46; 19:47; John 10:23). Merchants and money changers conducted business there (Luke 19:45; John 2:14–16). The early church met and taught there (Acts 2:46, 5:12, 42).”2
Considering the merits and drawbacks of both options, we shouldn’t be surprised at what Peter and John chose when Peter uttered the phrase repeated over the centuries by believers who have been put on the spot: “Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you more than to God, you judge. For we cannot but speak the things which we have seen and heard” (Acts 4:19–20).
When “Nice” Isn’t
“Good” does not always mean “nice,” and the believer who makes niceness his primary goal is in danger of becoming what I call a “caver.” That’s especially true since the meaning of “nice” shifts so often. The word used to mean polite and warm, a combination of friendliness and respect, but not anymore. Today, niceness isn’t just about attitude, it’s about positions. More to the point, it is about holding the “right” positions and openly rejecting the “wrong” ones, right and wrong being defined by the cultural influencers (Big Tech, political leaders, mainstream media, university professors, Hollywood content creators, etc.). The cancel culture, with its emphasis on silencing viewpoints it finds offensive or dangerous,3 is pressuring the modern church to stop expressing essential biblical positions on marriage, sexuality, gender, abortion, justice, the exclusivity of Christ as the only means to salvation, and humanity’s inherently sinful nature. This demand for Christian silence indicates the culture’s attempt to tell the church which sins we may condemn, and which ones need to be revised from the category of “sinful” to the category of “acceptable.” If you ignore their influence by holding on to unacceptable views, then no matter how kindly you express them, no matter how careful your wording, no matter how soft your tone, you cannot wear the “nice” hat. Besides, too much niceness doesn’t have impact. It’s hard for people to respect, much less take seriously, anyone who’s trying so hard to be nice that he compromises his beliefs for the sake of getting along.
But we do want to get along with co-workers, social media friends, kids at school, and family members — and there is nothing wrong in that. In most cases, actually, it’s commendable. First, as noted, it is biblical. “As much as depends on you,” Paul wrote, “live peaceably with all men” (Rom. 12:18). The Proverbs commend deescalating an argument with kindness by advising, “a soft answer turns away wrath” (Prov. 15:1). We should show friendliness to others in order to gain friends (Prov. 18:24). Jesus had Peter fish for a coin to pay taxes to avoid offending people (Matt. 17:27). And Paul circumcised Timothy to ensure better relations with Jewish citizens (Acts 16:1–5). Getting along, then, has biblical precedent. Besides which, the friendly respect Christians show to non-Christians — evidenced in our tone, humor, and affection — not only honors our God but sweetens our message. People are more receptive to truth when they have first been shown consideration.
Second, it’s human. As social creatures, we are, and should be, inclined to connect. Every aspect of life works better when we’re getting along, recognizing and respecting differences. The efficiency of the office, the athletic team, the classroom, or the church staff has much to do with how well the people involved treat each other, a point so basic it hardly needs to be made. Except it does need to be made because it has been largely forgotten, and that’s bad news for all of us. It cannot end well for a civilization without civility, a fact many of us are more than a little worried about.
That’s probably why there was such widespread delight in the fall of 2019 when Ellen DeGeneres tweeted a defense of her friendliness toward former President George W. Bush, after someone snapped a shot of her and her partner seated with the Bushes at a Dallas Cowboys game.4 The sight of a lesbian icon enjoying a ballgame with a conservative Republican president was encouraging to millions of Americans grown weary of the culture wars, and wearier still with the partisan refusal by too many citizens and leaders to see the value of unity and the virtue of friendliness being extended across the aisle. Getting along is a worthy goal and a healthy desire.
To Cave or to Save?
But caving is neither worthy nor healthy. To cave is not just to get along. It is to value getting along above all else, even at the expense of honesty, integrity, or higher loyalties. Caving happens when a need for approval or an aversion to conflict or a fear of consequence overrides convictions based on clear teachings in Scripture. Caving is inevitable when the fear of man takes over, a fear which, as Proverbs 29:25 observes, “brings a snare.” And that snare has been making public appearances lately as high-profile Christians have shown more and more reluctance to give straight answers on biblical truths they know will raise controversy.
Now some issues can bear some hemming and hawing. If I were asked on national television where I stood on the pretribulation rapture of the church or the question of eternal security, I would allow myself enough leeway to say, “Well, here’s my position, but there’s a variety of opinions on this, and there’s room for disagreement since these aren’t doctrinal essentials.”
But some issues — the divinity of Christ, the definition of marriage, or the sanctity of preborn life, for example — may be a little scary to talk about, but they are also essential. When asked about these, there is no room for the steward of truth to be coy. Sadly, though, coyness is an option too often taken. When Hillsong’s former (removed from the pastorate) New York City pastor Carl Lentz, for example, was a guest on the popular women’s show The View, host Joy Behar asked whether his church considered abortion a sin. He responded: “Um, that’s the kind of conversation we would have finding out your story, where you’re from, what you believe…I mean, God’s the judge, people have to live to their own convictions.”5 In fairness to Lentz, on another occasion he openly condemned a New York law making it legal to terminate an unborn child up to the last day of pregnancy. He not only criticized the law, he called it “shameful and demonic,”6 though he wasn’t on The View when he said that. Yet, while holding deep convictions on preborn life, he seemed to have found those convictions too hot to state plainly amidst The View’s pro-choice, feminist environment.
When Grammy-award-winning Christian singer Lauren Daigle was in a similar situation on another topic, she waivered from fidelity to biblical teaching. Asked during a radio interview if she considered homosexuality a sin, she replied:
I can’t honestly answer on that. In a sense, I have too many people that I love that…are homosexual. I don’t know. I actually had a conversation with someone last night about it. I can’t say one way or the other. I’m not God. So when people ask questions like that…that’s what my go-to is. I just say read the Bible and find out for yourself. And when you find out let me know because I’m learning, too.7
One wonders if we are not letting the world tell us which sins to condemn and which ones not to touch. Imagine, for example, Joy Behar asking Lentz if his church considered sexism a sin, then imagine him saying, in response: Um, that’s the kind of conversation we would have finding out your story, where you’re from, what you believe…I mean, God’s the Judge, people have to live to their own convictions. Or imagine Daigle, in response to a question of whether racism is a sin: I can’t honestly answer on that. In a sense, I have too many people that I love that…are racist. I don’t know. I actually had a conversation with someone last night about it. I can’t say one way or the other. I’m not God. So when people ask questions like that…that’s what my go-to is. I just say read the Bible and find out for yourself. And when you find out let me know because I’m learning, too.
Unthinkable? Only because we are saluting, more than we probably know, our culture’s hierarchy and catalogue of sins. Some are heinous and demand outrage, others are minimal, and others are…well, they are no longer sins at all. Hence some cave, not only by refusing clarity when it is called for, but by accepting the world’s counsel on which sins we may openly classify and which practitioners of sin we must openly pacify. In short, we are faced with a choice between being a light to the culture or being an echo of the culture.
A Reason for Reform
Nobody needs to tell me how easy it is to cave under the hot lights, atop the hot seat, before a national audience. Your mental committee assesses the situation and argues, “Let’s be liked; let’s be nice; let’s look good,” then votes for concession. It’s wrong but understandable. Having endured my share of hostile secular interviews, I’ve been there, and I know. So did Peter, who, to his everlasting regret, caved when he denied knowing Jesus (Luke 22:54–62). In contrast, to his shorter-lived regret, poor Moses raved when he struck the rock God told him to merely speak to, costing him his life and entrance into the Promised Land (Num. 20:10–12).
But understandable as both extremes are, they can be avoided, and they must. Our ability to fulfill the Great Commission depends on it. Remember Jesus’ final instructions: “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all
things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matt. 28:19–20). That’s a mandate to preach the gospel and make converts, then to teach those converts the Word and make disciples. To preach the gospel, we have to speak the truth about man’s sinful state and his need for salvation, the promise Jesus made as the only way to the Father, and the eternal consequences for rejecting His offer. To make disciples, we must instruct them in sound doctrine, which is, according to Paul, profitable for “instruction in righteousness” (2 Tim. 3:16). That instruction includes teaching the truth about marriage, the sanctity of life, sexuality, gender, and what personal responsibility means and entails. If we allow cancel culture to keep us from teaching these basics, we’ll cancel our own ability to fulfill our commission.
Tim Keller acknowledged this very thing, warning against removing key doctrinal points, while underscoring the absurdity of professing the faith and dismantling it at the same time:
If something is truly integral to a body of thought, you can’t remove it without destabilizing the whole thing. A religion can’t be whatever we desire it to be. If I’m a member of the board of Greenpeace and I come out and say climate change is a hoax, they will ask me to resign. I could call them narrow-minded, but they would rightly say that there have to be some boundaries for dissent or you couldn’t have a cohesive, integrated organization. And they’d be right. It’s the same with any religious faith.8
Without adherence to Scripture, we’ll never have a cohesive, integrated church. If all Scripture really is inspired of God, meant to be used by His servants to teach and correct (2 Tim. 3:16), and if, by knowing it and using it properly, women and men of God become mature and equipped for every good work (3:17), then surely we are mandated to know, express, and when necessary defend all of Scripture. Refuse that mandate by acknowledging only some of the Bible but avoiding some of it as well, and you cripple the impact of its whole by minimizing the sacred imperatives in its parts. It has been well said that:
If I profess with the loudest voice and clearest exposition every portion of the truth of God except precisely that little point which the world and the devil are at the moment attacking, I am not confessing Christ, however boldly I may be professing Christ. Where the battle rages, there the loyalty of the soldier is proved. And to be steady on all the battle fields besides is merely flight and disgrace if he flinches at that point.9 (emphasis added)
What we’re facing, then, is nothing short of a need for reform in the hope of revival. The church fit to respond with grace and truth to the cancel culture will be one that is reformed by a return to basics and revived by a fresh wind. Members of that church will hold a biblical worldview, judging truth versus error and right versus wrong by Scripture. Studying the Word privately and collectively, they will have the discernment needed to make those judgments. They will teach sound doctrine to all ages, and they won’t shy away from talking about hot-button issues to their youth because they’ll know the culture wants to make its case to their children, so they’ll want to make their case first. That’s why they will talk openly, from a biblical perspective, about the issues raised in this article and other issues prominent in their time and place.
Members of that church will not leave evangelism to fulltime evangelists. They will share their testimonies whenever and wherever they can, wisely and respectfully. They will bring unsaved friends and loved ones to church, encouraging them to continue coming and praying regularly for their hearts to be reached. They will disciple new believers and strengthen mature ones because they’ll recognize and exercise the benefits of body ministry (Rom. 12:4–8). That’s the reformed church kneeling together in an upper room, waiting on God, and receiving a fresh wind to revive them and send them out in power. That’s the church with a state-of-the-art sling to face the giant’s threat, a body of believers knowing and living the truth, and thereby fit to teach it, express it, defend it.
A battle over truth is raging, not just over the nature of truth, but the right to speak it, as well. And it is not a secondary teaching or opinion under attack but teachings fundamental to our understanding of Christian living. So we can rave, giving such offense that we cause our own silencing. Or we can cave, avoiding all offense and inviting our own silencing. Either way, if we become complicit with the cancel culture in its goal to silence our voice on vital but unpopular doctrine, then we’ll set a precedent by which the church says to the world, “We hereby give you permission to dictate to us which truths we may speak and which truths we must avoid.” In so doing, the church will abdicate her role as the light of the world, and the world will assume its role as the light of the church.10
Joe Dallas is the Founder of CloudFire Ministries in Tustin, California, and is the author of nine books on sexuality from a biblical perspective. He is also a public speaker and biblical counselor, and a contributing writer to the Christian Research Journal. His book Christians in a Cancel Culture (Harvest House Publishers) was released in August 2021.
All Scripture quotations are from NKJV.
Paul Kroll, Studies in the Book of Acts (Grace Communion International, 1995, 2012), https://learn.gcs.edu/mod/book/view.php?id=4475&chapterid=58.
The Cambridge Dictionary describes cancel culture as “a way of behaving in a society or group, especially on social media, in which it is common to completely reject and stop supporting someone because they have said or done something that offends you.” “Cancel Culture,” Cambridge Dictionary (Cambridge University Press, 2020), https://dictionary.cambridge.org/us/dictionary/english/cancel-culture.
“Ellen DeGeneres Defends Friendship with George W. Bush,” CNN, October 8, 2019, http://www.cnn.com/videos/entertainment/2019/10/08/ellen-degeneres-george-w-bush-at-nflgame-orig-vstop-bdk.cnn.
“Hillsong Pastor Carl Lentz on Justin Bieber, Church’s Stance on Politics, Social Issues | The View,” posted October 30, 2017, time mark 3:00, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gvufo8DTJRk.
Steve Warren, “‘Shameful and Demonic’: Hillsong NYC Pastor Speaks Out Against New NY Abortion Law,” CBN News, January 29, 2019, www1.cbn.com/cbnnews/us/2019/january/shameful-and-demonic-hillsong-nyc-pastor-speaks-out-against-new-ny-abortionlaw.
Steve Warren, “Christian Singer Lauren Daigle on Homosexuality: ‘I Can’t Say One Way or the Other. I’m Not God,’” CBN News, December 3, 2018, www1.cbn.com/cbnnews/2018/december/christian-singer-lauren-daigle-on-homosexuality-i-cant-say-one-way-orthe-other-im-not-god. “Lauren Daigle Doesn’t Know If Homosexuality Is a Sin,” The Domenick Nati Show, posted November 30, 2018, time mark 8:20, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rXKHm_KPw6o.
Nicholas Kristof, “Am I a Christian, Pastor Timothy Keller?,” New York Times, December 23, 2016, https://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/23/opinion/sunday/pastor-am-i-achristian.html.
Elizabeth Rundle Charles, The Chronicles of the Schoenberg Cotta Family (Thomas Nelson, 1864), as quoted in Carl Wieland, “Where the Battle Rages — A Case of Misattribution,” February 4, 2010, https://creation.com/battle-quote-not-luther.
This article is revised and excerpted from my (at time of original printing) forthcoming Christians in a Cancel Culture (Eugene, OR: Harvest House Publishers, 2021).
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