A "Canceled" Synod?
Our culture’s practice of “canceling” expressions and purveyors of disagreeable ideas is publicly, almost universally, decried. At the same time, personal participation in cancel culture is almost universally denied. We all oppose it in principle, and none of us wants to think we’re guilty of it in practice! Thus, given the insidious nature of self-deceit, we who decry “cancel culture” the loudest may be its most clandestine operatives, precisely because we’re so convinced that we oppose it.
Though it’s found particularly politicized and punitive form in contemporary Western society, the ethical root of cancel culture runs back to the Garden of Eden, to our first parents’ refusal to hear and heed the word of the Lord (Genesis 3). The suppression of undesirable truth is essential to the sinful nature; it’s the engine of idolatry. Our refusal to listen, our silencing of humbling truth before it even has the chance to speak to us, is the basic condition of fallen humanity (Romans 1:18ff). The Satanic posture of heart behind cancel culture continues in our time to denigrate God’s self-revelation in the world and in the Word, and therefore to dehumanize God's image-bearers. Cancel culture is especially damaging when perpetrated by people brought forth by the word of truth (James 1:18), when new creations promote the ancient evils of the Enemy. In future GenRef articles, I’m hoping to focus in more detail on “when cancel culture comes to church.” Suffice it to say for now, cancel culture is already here.
In general terms, and looking first to the logs blocking clear vision within my own evangelical and reformed theological world (Matthew 7:5), cancel culture is operational in the revisionist history we employ to exonerate our heroes of the past and to slander our foes in the present. It’s active in our refusal to hear out and engage sincere doctrinal and ethical questions while claiming to be a church semper reformanda, always reforming. It’s present when we refuse to hear truth from sources we find suspect, sanctifying suspicion rather than committing to the longsuffering work of spiritual discernment (John 7:24). Cancel culture is powerful among us when we not only ignore the cry of outsiders seeking justice but rebuke them for finding help from ideologies we oppose (and refuse to carefully research). It’s palpable when we’re doubly deaf to the pained pleas for help from insiders whose complaints threaten the ill-conceived peace which affords us popularity and power. Cancel culture tries to conceal the truth when the church’s supposed shalom is really a sham.
Confessional churches are especially vulnerable to the conceit of fancying ourselves fighters on the frontlines of doctrinal combat while we neglect the weightier matters of the law, thus calling into question our entire theoretical and practical understanding of spiritual warfare (James 4; 2 Corinthians 10:4-5). Our failure to practice Christian ethics while vying for Christian doctrine also calls into question the reality of our grasp of biblical truth and the inherently connected nature of biblical commandments (Matthew 22:37-40; James 2:10). Doctrinal deviance is revealed when, in our rush to defend biblical orthodoxy, we trample underfoot the fruit of the Spirit (2 Timothy 3:16; Galatians 5; 1 John 4). Faith and life, belief and practice, are inseparable; cancel culture in the church separates what God has joined together and feels spiritually justified for doing so.
Canceling is particularly cutting in the body of Christ when we turn away brothers and sisters who have words of healing pain to speak to us (Proverbs 27:6; Psalm 141:5). We conjure all kinds of ostensibly godly reasons to avoid giving them a humble hearing, effectively sealing ourselves off from all but the counsel which affirms us and our actions – that’s the very stuff of cancel culture. Cancel culture has us captive when we prefer that fractured friendships remain broken (Matthew 5:23-24) and when we forget or flat out refuse to pray for those with whom we’re at odds. It’s unnervingly easy to practice such pernicious habits of the heart and to continue on with life quite confident that we’re keeping the faith in good conscience. It's shocking how selective we can be when it comes to following the whole of our Lord's loving law, how we effectively cancel the commands we find inconvenient to keep, how we preemptively silence the counsel which could awaken us as to that sinful selectivity. And that leads me to my primary purpose in this post: a request for prayer.
This coming week, the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America meets for its annual (though called off last year) Synod. This year’s assembly features a compressed schedule stretched thin over an abundance of work, much of it profoundly complicated and extremely sensitive. There is much to celebrate in the Lord's work among us, and hopefully we will have time - make time - to do just that. At the same time, elders will arrive this year beset by unusually severe stresses and strains; there are fractured relationships, lapsed if not lost friendships among us. As in so many other denominations and social organizations in general, the tensions among us have been exacerbated by – or better put, exposed by – the social, political, and cultural tensions of our times. We RPCNA elders are leaders in one part of Christ’s church commonly seeking his glory, yet on some of the most substantial matters before us, we are deeply divided about how to practically pursue that eternal good in our day. We are sinful men, entirely susceptible to self-deceit in the service of the Savior. The danger of such to Christ's body is especially acute this year because many individual members and whole congregations in our fellowship are hurting; they are therefore watching all the more carefully as their elders meet to deliberate painful matters directly affecting them. So please pray for good, hard, self-effacing, Spirit-led work by leaders to the blessing and benefit of laity.
In God’s providence, and by his grace, we teaching and ruling elders have opportunity to show the fruit of the Spirit in the midst of a culture, and especially an evangelical and reformed church culture, which is reaping the bitter harvest of past and present sin. We have opportunity to humble ourselves under the mighty hand of God, to repent of our individual and corporate idolatries, to forge anew the bond of peace and work toward reconciliations which reveal the presence and work of the Spirit among us (Psalm 133). We have such a blessed opportunity to do work that could hearten some deeply disheartened souls in Christ's church. As those who are called to a higher degree of accountability before the Lord and to give an account to him of our shepherding work (James 3; Hebrews 13:17), the way we interact with one another formally and informally this year will be particularly telling as to the true spiritual status of our denomination (Revelation 1:20ff).
Because being the church is essentially about being united to Christ, our active, practical love for one another – or lack thereof – indicates the true condition of our practical relationship to the Lord (Matthew 25:40). As undershepherds seeking to serve the Good Shepherd and to be examples of the faith to the flock (1 Peter 5; 1 Timothy 4:12), we have opportunity to love one another, not least – and perhaps most – by listening to one another. It is significant and instructive that just prior to the command to truly hear God’s word by obeying it, James calls us to a general posture of listening to others (James 1:19-26). Dietrich Bonhoeffer helps us see the connection as well as the cost of disobedience.
Bonhoeffer's little book, Life Together, is a huge help in considering what the Christian community already is because of and in Jesus Christ, and how this reality can and must be realized in practice among us. Bonhoeffer reminds us that believers never have im-mediate contact with one another. Rather, all our thoughts and words and actions toward one another are in, through, by, because of, and for the sake of Christ our Mediator. Thus, Bonhoeffer emphasizes, listening is the first duty believers owe to one another. He warns, “Christians who can no longer listen to one another will soon no longer be listening to God either . . . The death of spiritual life starts here, and in the end there is nothing left but empty spiritual chatter and clerical condescension which chokes on pious words.” – Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together and Prayerbook of the Biblein Dieterich Bonhoeffer Works, Volume 5 (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1996, p.98)
Please pray that the cancel-culture-esque conditions Bonhoeffer describes above would not be present at much less define this year’s Synodical proceedings. Please pray that where such Satanically inspired conditions presently exist among elders, that even prior to our meeting in a few days there will be efforts toward reconciliation in the one who so soundly defeated the Devil (Matthew 4; Hebrews 2; Revelation 1). Please pray for soft hearts as we have hard conversations. Please pray for me in that regard, as someone who is writing a blog about being willing to be confronted! I've appreciated fellow believers who have over time, including the very recent past, taken me aside to show me how what I thought was right behavior was lacking in righteousness. I can't imagine that more of those conversations are not ahead of me; please pray for my receptivity.
Please pray especially for those church members most immediately and personally affected by decisions reached, or delayed, during our deliberations. Please pray that by God’s abundant grace we elders would lead by example in carrying out sincerely, from the heart, the fundamental duties of Christian love in all their painstaking, freeing particularities (1 Peter 1:22; Romans 13:9). While last year's Synod was canceled due to Covid-19, please pray that the good that may come from this year's Synod would not be canceled due to any false way of faith and life among us elders. Please pray that our life together as the Synod of the RPCNA, and the consequences for the congregants and churches in our charge, would bear powerful witness to the reality and reign of the risen Christ, the Prince of Peace.