Serious Public Error Requires Public Correction
In my last column, I wrote about how Alistair Begg’s comments urging a Christian to attend a transgender “wedding” (though only if those at the ceremony understood one’s moral opposition to transgenderism and homosexuality) were not only wrong, but rightly met with public censure. Many have since come to Begg’s defense. Peter Heck, writing at Not the Bee, insists that the episode is “cancel culture come to Christendom.” Russell Moore agrees, claiming in an article at Christianity Today that the response to Begg shows conservative evangelical Christians to have succumbed to political correctness. Others have argued similarly.
Cancel culture is indeed an evil thing. I would define it as the attempt to hurt, humiliate, and destroy someone who voices an opinion outside of what is culturally acceptable. It usually includes attempts to get people fired and to prevent them from finding future employment; it is an endeavor to cast them out of civilized society forever. In theory, nothing prevents conservatives and Christians from participating in their own version of cancel culture, but for the most part they don’t, and rightly so. Christians will have enemies in this life, but they don’t treat their enemies the way the world does, even when they legitimately resist the evil attacks of those enemies (self-defense, just war, etc.).
I am sure that social media users can find examples of people trying to humiliate and sinfully harm Begg, rather than simply correct his erroneous support for attending gay or trans “weddings,” but for the most part, I have only seen forthright, yet biblically proportionate responses. Ligonier Ministries, for example, responded like this:
Ligonier has paused airing Truth for Life on RefNet in light of recent comments from Dr. Alistair Begg advising a Christian to attend the “wedding” of a transgender person. What has been stated publicly is erroneous and harmful to the Christian witness. While Christians are called to love their neighbors (including transgender persons), we are to do so without compromising what God has commanded. Attendance at such an event celebrates and affirms sin (Rom. 1:26–27; Eph. 5:3–21).
Such statements are not giving in to cancel culture. Far from it. This kind of response is absolutely necessary. What Begg said is not the mere opinion of a private Christian, not even the opinion of an unknown pastor within the confines of his own church (which itself would be bad enough). They are the words of a leader in Christ’s church who has millions of listeners and followers the world over. Serious public error like this must be met with public confrontation.
Galatians 2:11–14 provides a biblical example of why such public confrontation is necessary:
But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. For before certain men came from James, he was eating with the Gentiles; but when they came he drew back and separated himself, fearing the circumcision party. And the rest of the Jews acted hypocritically along with him, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy. But when I saw that their conduct was not in step with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas before them all, “If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you force the Gentiles to live like Jews?”
The context of this passage is Paul’s ministry in the city of Antioch in the Roman province of Syria. Peter (Cephas) also came to minister in Antioch and it seems that nearly upon his arrival Paul was compelled to “oppose him face to face, because he stood condemned.” Not only this, but Paul had to rebuke Peter “before them all,” that is, publicly, before the entire church. In short, Peter knew that, in light of Christ’s redemptive work, the food laws of the Old Testament were no longer binding on Christians because Christ had fulfilled them (see Mark 7:14–23; Acts 10). Nonetheless, Peter acted as if this was not the case by withdrawing from table fellowship with Gentile Christians. The message—without a word being spoken—was loud and clear: faith in Jesus Christ is not sufficient to save these Gentiles. They must take the yoke of the law upon themselves as well.
What Peter did was not merely a private error. He was leading many to fall into the same sin, even men like Barnabas. Paul had no choice. It would not be sufficient to rebuke Peter in private. To do so would be to abandon the rest of the church to the pernicious effects of Peter’s hypocrisy.
In 1 Timothy 5:19–20 Paul teaches why some sins, especially those of leaders in Christ’s church, must be corrected in public:
Do not admit a charge against an elder except on the evidence of two or three witnesses. As for those who persist in sin, rebuke them in the presence of all, so that the rest may stand in fear.
The situation with Pastor Begg is not identical, in that 1 Timothy 5 is describing the formal process of church discipline against elders, but the same principle as in Galatians 2 is still evident: public error by leaders in the church, the kind of error that will lead the rest of the church to follow suit, must be rebuked “in the presence of all, so that the rest may stand in fear.” The goal, again, is not (as in cancel culture) to hurt, humiliate, or destroy, but first and foremost, to prevent error from spreading and hurting many others.
I have encountered a good number of faithful Christians who think the response to Begg has been too harsh. Some of this stems from the fact that many Christians today equate argument and correction with unbiblical unkindness. But I think another factor is causing this reaction as well. It is the notion that the issue of whether to attend a so-called LGBT wedding is merely a minor cultural-war squabble, rather than a gospel issue, and should therefore not be treated as an issue for Christians to divide over. It seems that many do not think it touches on the grand themes of Christian theology, and therefore does not deserve biblical censure.
This, however, is a grave mistake. Anthropology, the doctrine of the human person, is thoroughly theological. The Bible defines what it means to be a human, what human nature in the image of God is, and how and why humans must therefore live in a certain way, a way that is in accord with the nature God has given us. As Joe Rigney put it recently at American Reformer: “Beneath our battles over manhood, womanhood, the family, and sexuality is the fundamental question: who is God?”
Anthropology is no minor issue in Christian theology. It is also the main pressure point for Christian churches today. In the early church, the most disputed points of theology had to do with the Trinity and the divine and human natures of Christ. In the sixteenth century, the battle was centered on the nature of salvation. Today the fight is about the human person. Attacks on faithful Christian anthropology may be somewhat unique in Christian history in that they initially came primarily from outside the church, though the heresies of the culture are quickly spreading in the church as well.
Christians cannot allow unbiblical notions of kindness to prevent them from standing firm in public against the spread of false and harmful views of the human person. I have no doubt Begg meant well. He was trying to figure out how to avoid turning non-Christians away from Christ through self-righteous moral posturing. But, unfortunately, his attempt to do so led him to undermine the very means God uses to draw sinners to himself: a confrontation with their sin. “Through the law,” the apostle Paul writes in Romans 3:20, “comes knowledge of sin.” “If it had not been for the law,” he writes in Romans 7:7, “I would not have known sin.” What sinners need most is to be shown their true condition before God. Repentance comes in no other way. How much more is this the case when those being thus confronted know that the person confronting them loves them. We must trust God enough to use his means to accomplish his ends, and not turn to our own vain reasoning to reach the lost.
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