Gone with the wings: Christianity, cancel culture, and Presbyterianism in Australia

Conservative Christians have enjoyed expressing outrage at Gone With The Wind being cancelled this week; and by that I mean ‘cancelled cancelled’ not ‘not renewed;’ the classic movie was removed from HBO’s streaming service for depicting racism (now, I think we could all do with a little more literacy when it comes to what stories do and don’t do; that description is not prescription is an important lesson we all need to learn when approaching texts, so that, for example, we don’t adopt King David’s sexual ethic from the pages of the Old Testament).

Conservative Christians have also enjoyed being outraged at woke Twitter’s attempts to cancel J.K Rowling this week too.

We love to hate it when “cancel culture” reveals the unforgiving nature of those who are not us; of course, we wouldn’t remove books when authors are revealed to not live up to our moral standards, or, you know, indulge in a little cancelling of Harry Potter ourselves (when it comes to Christian school libraries).

But, as the world around us seems to be losing its mind, cancelling people and things we love right and centre (and sometimes even on the left), we can breathe a sigh of relief and thank God we’re not like those sinners. Loudly. In 140 characters or less (I know it’s now 280 characters on Twitter… believe me).

But while the world is pushing hard on conservative Christianity (and by this I mean both politically conservative Christianity and theologically conservative Christianity) we’re pretty hard running our own internal cancel culture; circling the wagons and drawing boundary lines and cancelling all those who fail to line up neatly within the corral. Leaving them to either be picked off by the world, or to find shelter

I’ll give some examples on this in the context of my own denomination and tradition below, but what has prompted this post is the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals and the cancelation of Aimee Byrd.

Aimee Byrd had her wings clipped… or, the Alliance chopped off it’s wings and is now going to hit the ground with a pretty hard thud…

Stephen McAlpine was at his very best on this earlier today and you should read his offering for an Aussie response on the specifics of this particular case.

I’ve got some pretty strong sympathies with Aimee Byrd, theologically, I’m more than halfway through Recovering From Biblical Manhood and Womanhood and have found it both enlightening, invigorating, and a useful diagnosis not just of the particularities of the American church, but the western church and our obsession with parsing questions about maleness and femaleness through the prism of ‘authority’ and position (or role) in church communities (and how far one should expand that beyond church communities ala the Centre for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood). I share her concerns about the model of the Trinity used to prop up a particular vision of male/female relationships. I think co-operation and listening and mutuality and love are at the heart of a dynamic way of participating as equals in the body of Christ, and also that there are created differences between men and women and systemic differences in a fallen world exhibiting the patterns of curse (ala ‘the patriarchy’) that give men and women submitting to the Lordship of Jesus different responsibilities when living together in Christian community (the church) and family (marriage). I think our traditional structures, especially those built without critically reflecting on how much of the world is infecting our view of authority (especially positional authority rather than the authority that comes from maturity in Christ) and leadership, and how much we’ve normalised the pattern of curse rather than Jesus and his redemption and new creation of us as divine image bearers transformed into his image. I think we’ve lacked both imagination about how we might structure our communities around the dynamic of the Gospel (and the dynamic nature of love within the Trinity, see Philippians 2 and Ephesians 5), and a solid sense of the imago dei (image of God) as a vocation we participate in in the world, a doing through relationships with God and one another, not simply some inherent value connected to our being.

So I’m here for her critique.

I’m here to listen.

And I think, like many other women who are harnessing the platform offered by the Internet, just as Paul harnessed Roman road networks and the epistle, and Luther the Printing Press, Aimee Byrd has done a fantastic job inviting us to listen to her voice as she’s sought to serve and reform the church.

Maybe you don’t have to be a teaching elder to be a reformer of the institutional church and its practices? I imagine it really helps to be speaking out as one with a voice that is going to get heard by virtue of the ‘yellow wall papery’/patriarchal status quo… but wouldn’t it be great if you didn’t have to be a bloke to say ‘this is wrong’ and be heard?

Maybe we blokes shouldn’t get our marching orders from the example of the Disciples on resurrection Sunday who laughed off the testimony of the women who came from Jesus’ tomb? Maybe the pattern we’re designed for ‘in the beginning’ is to listen to one another and work in partnership — and Eve’s sin wasn’t speaking but was folly (and maybe wisdom is personified as female for a reason in Proverbs). I think she also did a tremendous job narrowing the scope of her book to what the Gospel might invite us as laypeople — members of the body of Jesus — to share in while up front acknowledging that she wasn’t seeking to overturn how difference between men and women is something upheld by the New Testament even in the organisation of church communities.

But still.

Cancelled.

The ‘yellow wallpaper’ metaphor she used to describe the patriarchy and a failure to make space for women’s voices in church communities became a self fulfilling prophecy.

How many times do a group of unnamed, faceless men (those publishing the questions that Aimee Byrd decided not to answer before her passwords were changed) passive-aggressively playing orthodoxy police (or inquisition) get to silence and exclude the voices of women, while inviting us to repeat the mantra ‘the patriarchy is a marxist myth’ before they think we’ll believe it?

We don’t want to hear voices from the wings at the moment; voices from the margins who might call us to reform.

We, the conservative church, want to complain about cancel culture, and the world not making space for our voice when it disagrees with us, while practicing cancel culture in our own communities.

Now, obviously I think there are boundaries to what’s “Christian” and what isn’t (have you read my stuff on Israel Folau and modalism) — but maybe the answer for us at the moment isn’t to tighten the boundaries and eliminate the wings — those voices who might call us to keep reforming as we look to the words of Scripture — but to hold tightly to the centre. There’s a danger that in our own ‘cancel culture’ we’re setting out to define the boundaries in ways that make the church its own echo chamber.

See, this is part of a broader pattern; it’s not just Aimee Byrd getting her wings clipped. First they came for those in our midst who experience same sex attraction and affirm the Biblical definition of marriage and vision of sexuality (as limited to male and female), those who invited us to reform our views of sexual attraction and the language we used, and lots of us were not same sex attracted, so we didn’t care as the boundaries were tightened… then they came for those who wanted to affirm that “Black Lives Matter”…

You know the pattern.

If it’s not women speaking up about how a toxic culture with a problematic vision of male authority and masculinity is robbing the church of its ability to live the life we’re called to live together, it’ll be some other area where some at the margins of the church, holding the same centre, are asking us to listen.

But we don’t like listening to voices who challenge our uniquely true and right understanding of the boundaries of orthodoxy. We cancel. We exclude. We circle the wagons and create ‘coalitions’ and mark boundaries and replace liberty and grey with black and white new rules as we shore up our institutions.

I was excited about the opportunity for Aimee Byrd to be a conversation partner for my own denomination as we consider how to continue reforming our practice around partnership between men and women. We lack the imagination to have many women in the room when the courts of the church are meeting and deciding; when we could find ways to reform that do not occlude male eldership. It is not a crime to listen to the voice of women in business meetings, or even on issues of how we understand the Gospel (Aimee Byrd reminds us gently that it took her inviting a bloke to contribute a guest post on her blog before anyone took the Eternal Subordination of the Son (ESS) view of CBMW as serious and problematic). I was hoping that because of her obvious orthodoxy and attachment to both the Alliance, and the Mortification of Spin podcast, and her careful unpacking of some problematic theology and practice, that she might get a hearing — and it feels to me like a bunch of blokes in a backroom might have calculated that risk and sought to remove it from any serious consideration by wielding that big, rubber, ‘cancelled’ stamp.

But this will be another in a long line of issues where our denomination pushes for clarity around a big-R Reformed position, rather than taking the opportunity to be the church always reforming; a commitment to “Ecclesia semper reformanda est” is fundamentally a commitment to challenging the status quo; and perhaps the best way to truly challenge the status quo is to listen to voices from outside the status quo. Sure, people from the centre might one day realise that they’ve drawn the boundaries wrong, but it’s much more likely for people who hold a shared centre, who come together in dialogue, and listen to one another, to identify problems. The one way to guarantee that we will preserve or conserve ourselves from the hard task of reform is to cancel those who call us to do so…

Our denomination, The Presbyterian Church of Australia, is divided. We’re kidding ourselves if we pretend it’s not. It’s divided between those who want a pure, confessional, Reformed Church, who see a little thing we call ‘The Declaratory Statement’ as a loophole that allows the erosion of truth in the pursuit of liberty from a confessional standard, and those who want to keep using Scripture as our authority so that we question even the traditions of our own magisterium — the framers of the Westminster Confession. The beauty of the Presbyterian Church (and even the Confession itself) is the place it gives to liberty on non essentials.

God alone is Lord of the conscience, and hath left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men, which are, in anything, contrary to His Word, or beside it, in matters of faith or worship. So that to believe such doctrines, or to obey such commands out of conscience, is to betray true liberty of conscience: and the requiring of an implicit faith, and an absolute and blind obedience, is to destroy liberty of conscience, and reason also. — Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter 20.2

It’s a document that wants to hold the centre and allow questions from the margins… The ‘Reforming’ wing of our denomination is occasionally viewed by those big-R reformed types as a bunch of compromisers, who are going to pull us in the direction the social gospel/ecumenical movement of the Uniting Church took us in; but maybe a better way of seeing union is not that people wanted to expand the boundaries too far, but that the union was not built on shared convictions about a centre.

The thing about Aimee Byrd is that it’s quite clear, from her book, and her platform over the years, that she shares a theological centre with the Alliance. Her cancellation was absolutely an expression of a boundary marking syndrome; a clipping of the Alliance’s wings to move the fence in closer to the comfort zone of those faceless men. It was an act of anxiety; a failure of nerve.

These faceless men from the Alliance are not alone in leading from a place of anxiety. Anxious leadership (following Edwin Friedmann’s A Failure of Nerve) is displayed on a failure to manage simultaneous differentiation (knowing where your own boundaries are) and ongoing connection (especially with those you disagree with, and perhaps, especially, when they belong to the same system or community as you). Time after time  when contentious issues come up arguments are mounted not from careful exegesis, humility, and charity on areas of Liberty, but on the big-R Reformed position (and the Presbyterian Church of America’s recent paper on sexuality is an example of this, so too the fact that our denomination is even considering whether individual congregations and ministers, might, from good faith convictions, participate in an acknowledgment of country (a marker of respect and listening to Australia’s First Nations peoples), those who speak up against that position are viewed with a suspicion that the Reforming types can’t muster against the ‘Reformed.’ It’s easier in a conservative institution to maintain your location in group if your ‘sin’ looks more like the Pharisees than the theological progressives.

Sometimes that Reformed position gets up (especially with the spectre of ‘liberalism’ and the Uniting Church in the background), other times we remember that we’re at our best when we’re a broad church with a strong shared commitment to the centrality of the Gospel of Jesus, not a narrowing church that exists to eradicate grey with black and white rulings from the courts of the church. Sooner or later our eradication of liberty, the erosion of the Declaratory Statement and its intent, and the replacement of grey with black and white is going to lead us to clip our own wings, and cancel all sorts of people we might not see coming… and we keep bringing it on ourselves. Because we’re anxious, and we’re not well practiced in simultaneous differentiation and connection, or working together from a centre such that we’re comfortable acknowledging a plurality of faithfully Presbyterian views. The Reforming side has a bit to answer on this (myself included). Mea Culpa. I’m guilty of fighting fire with fire; of responding to polemics with polemics (whether about Acknowledgments of Country, or the idea that ‘women’s ministry in our denomination should focus on mothercraft, or how we should approach the same sex marriage debate); but it’s tricky not to do that when what’s at stake is your own cancellation. Just for the record, I don’t want those with opposing views to me on any of these issues — or how men and women might work together in our churches — to be cancelled; but I do want us to be holding on tightly to a centre: the Gospel, the “essential doctrines” contained in the WCF, including the concept of liberty, rather than circling the wagons. I want us all to be less anxious.

In uncertain times so many of us ministers want and keep asking for clarity from the Assembly on tricky conundrums (for example: on giving communion to kids, on whether conditional immortality is a legit view, on the one true understanding of the millennium in Revelation). We need to stop this or we’re going to end up cancelling each other, landing with a very small church exclusively containing the most hardcore Presbyterians we can find; and I like Presbyterians, but nobody wants that. We’re better off not asking for an authoritative ruling from those in the status quo, but genuinely listening to those who hold the same centre we do but feel marginalised. That doesn’t always mean agreement, but I wonder if it does always mean hospitality, generosity, and trying to keep those voices around. This means not seeking to ‘cancel’ those we disagree with.

We need to keep our wings, or we won’t be able to fly.

Let’s not cancel each other.

We can’t complain about the axing of Gone With the Wind, while at the same time saying “gone with the wings…”

Let’s keep listening, and keep reforming ourselves as we’re transformed together into the Body of Christ, the image of Jesus.

The author

Nathan runs St Eutychus. He loves Jesus. His wife. His daughter. His son. His other daughter. His dog. Coffee. And the Internet. He is the campus pastor at Creek Road South Bank, a graduate of Queensland Theological College (M. Div) and the Queensland University of Technology (B. Journ). He spent a significant portion of his pre-ministry-as-a-full-time-job life working in Public Relations, and now loves promoting Jesus in Brisbane and online. He can't believe how great it is that people pay him to talk and think about Jesus.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.