Excommunication, a Culture of Correction

The idea that a person can be “cancelled”is the new “excommunication” around! Social media has given rise to a new way of shunning or social boycotting or “cancelling” an individual or group who has acted or spoken questionably or controversially. A “woke”mob can shun anyone they dislike!

Such cancelling is not so novel. In any honour- and shame-based culture, such as ours, we will find a clear delineation between what kind of actions are acceptable or not. Violation of cultural norms amounts to the risk of being ostracized or cancelled.

Perceptively, the approach of ‘cancel culture’ is like drawing a line in the sand. The unstable nature of our societal landscape based on relativism and subjectivism lends to this imagery. Relativism affirms that there is no real right and no real wrong in one’s beliefs. Yet everyone is desperately afraid of being judged. Thus, without objective truth, the only two options this kind of culture has are to tolerate and celebrate all behaviour or to condemn behaviour that they dislike. However, there are no limits to what can be a “cancellable” offence. Generally, it does not stop at pointing out evil or even merely unpopular ideas and behaviours. Instead, it sometimes targets and condemns people as well.

As Christians, we have our own ‘shunning’ or ‘disfellowship’ or ‘excommunication’–refusal to eat or sit with; or communicate with someone for a corrective purpose. However, unlike the cancel culture, we regard certain behaviour as good and virtuous and do not condemn individuals.

The first instance of the correction culture is found in Paul’s writing to the Corinthians. He describes the situation of a member of the Church who was living in an unhealthy relationship with his father’s wife. Paul was shocked that his fellow Christians knew about this and tolerated this scandalous behaviour. Because of the believing community’s lack of courage to confront, Paul instructed the local Church to treat the man “as an unbeliever” so that he would realize his sin, repent of his choice and be reconciled with the Church. This is the first description of something like “excommunication” in the life of the Church.

Correction culture works on the edge of the inside. The highlight of Paul’s instruction to the community is to “treat him as an unbeliever”. This didn’t mean preventing the man from going about his work; or slandering him in the larger community. It simply meant that he was not to participate in the life of the community. Some sort of working on the edge of the inside. Paul’s entire objective was to strengthen faith.

Secondly, it is a culture of grace and forgiveness. The man was not merely being punished or cancelled, he was being taught. The goal of treating him this way was to make him turn from an evil action and return to the community. The early Christian community could do this because it appealed to an objective standard (and not merely their own preference) and offered mercy that could fully restore the man to grace. This is the remedy to our brokenness and failure mercy and grace. A world without God cannot offer what it does not have. Let us build a correction culture of grace around us.

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