Calvin on Cancel Culture

I spend a lot of time bashing Calvin for being a shithead, so when he’s right about something, in the spirit of goodwill and charity, I want to spend just as much time talking about how great it is. In Book 4, Chapter 1, of the Institutes of the Christian Religion, Calvin talks about the two churches. There is the external church, made up of those who are baptised and who profess to follow Christ, and there is the true church, made up of the subset within that group who are “by the sanctification of the Spirit true members of Christ” (4.1.7). I’m just gonna let Calvin take it from here:

“For it may happen in practice that those whom we deem not altogether worthy of the fellowship of believers, we yet ought to treat as brethren, and regard as believers, on account of the common consent of the church in tolerating and bearing with them in the body of Christ. Such persons we do not approve by our suffrage as members of the church, but we leave them the place which they hold among the people of God until they are legitimately deprived of it” (4.1.9).

Calvin’s a little bit antsy about the extent to which we should accept people with different doctrinal beliefs – he talks about keeping fellowship only with churches that “retain sound and unimpaired that doctrine in which the safety of piety consists” (4.1.12). It’s the sort of thing you imagine ending up as a bit of a political football – where’s the line between core non-negotiable doctrine and debatable extras? Who gets to define that? Regardless, when it comes to people’s behaviour, Calvin doesn’t leave that wiggle room available:

“Our indulgence ought to extend much farther in tolerating imperfection of conduct … there have always been persons who, imbued with a false persuasion of absolute holiness, as if they had already become a kind of aerial spirit, spurn the society of all in whom they see that something human still remains … If the Lord declares that the church will labour under the defect of being burdened with a multitude of wicked until the day of judgement, it is in vain to look for a church altogether free from blemish” (4.1.13).

“If it were unlawful to communicate with the unworthy, Paul would certainly have ordered us to take heed that there were no individual in the whole body by whose impurity we might be defiled, but now that he only requires each to examine himself, he shows that it does no harm to us though some who are unworthy present themselves along with us” (4.1.15).

In other words, you shouldn’t quit the church just because it’s full of shitheads. That’s a feature, not a bug. Everybody’s learning, nobody’s perfect – and yeah, Calvin says, it’s true that sometimes shitheads get to stay within the church when they probably shouldn’t. “Even the openly wicked are not always excluded from the fellowship of the saints. This I admit to be a vice, and I have no wish to extenuate it” (s15). But even so, he doesn’t see that problem as a good enough reason to quit.

At this point, I want to reach back to the ContraPoints drama. I know, again, sorry – but it’s one that’s stuck with me. I think some of the mechanisms going on in there are really revealing about the nature and function of online spaces. If you’re not familiar, the abridged version is that ContraPoints had some guy do a voiceover in one of her videos, and some people think the guy is Bad, and because Contra had him on the channel she supports him and agrees with him and is Also Bad. I wrote a thing about it back here – in that instance I looked at it from a business and brand identity perspective, and concluded that yeah, given the landscape, it was a pretty obviously poor decision. I think that’s still true, but I also think that my earlier article accepts our current online landscape as a given and asks how businesses should act within that, rather than offering any critique or analysis of why the landscape is what it is and whether we want it to be something else. We might say that the earlier article was pragmatic, while this one’s maybe a little more aspirational.

So alright, let’s bring Calvin into play. On our most basic, rudimentary application of Calvin, we might say that everyone who’s complaining about ContraPoints needs to cut it out. There should be no cancelling, no excluding, no whatever – she’s got her flaws and we just have to shut up and accept it. Can’t quit the church of the left just because one figurehead made mistakes. Can’t push that figurehead out, either. It’s not allowed.

Well, okay, but surely we shouldn’t just allow bad behaviour to go unchallenged. Surely we need to be offering criticism. Calvin sort of agrees: “I deny not that it is the duty of a pious man to withdraw from all private intercourse with the wicked, and not entangle himself with them by any voluntary tie; but it is one thing to shun the society of the wicked, and another to renounce the communion of the church through hatred of them” (s15). It’s – you know it’s actually kinda difficult to apply this to the Contra thing in a straightforward way. In that quote, Calvin’s talking specifically about how you deal with shitheads in your church. His answer makes a lot of sense within those parameters: you go to church anyway, you focus on your own relationship with God, and then you don’t associate with those people in your private life. Church is the place for unity and fellowship, even with Bad people, and then your private life is, weirdly, what you’re meant to keep sacred and pure. But I’m not sure if that translates straight through to YouTube. For one, Contra isn’t just part of the congregation. In structural terms, she’d probably be more akin to a minister or something, right? She’s not someone praying on the pew next to you, she’s up the front teaching. And the question at hand is whether her teaching reflects proper Leftist doctrine. We’re returning to Calvin’s comment from the start of the article, about keeping fellowship only with churches that “retain sound and unimpaired that doctrine in which the safety of piety consists” (4.1.12). The community is debating the doctrine of including problematic people on your YouTube channel. Not only are they debating the specific details of the case, they’re also debating the importance of that doctrine. Is our leftist piety compromised by including problematic people in videos? Or can we let it slide? You can see how this becomes a political football.

Maybe that conversation becomes messy, then. Let’s leave it alone for now. Twitter can hash it out over the next few years, and we’ll check back in when they reach a conclusion. Is there anything else we can get from Calvin in the meantime? Maybe there’s a general point of conduct. Maybe, regardless of whether Contra has or hasn’t made mistakes, we’re best to maintain a united front. When we’re all together in the church of the left, that’s the place for fellowship and unity. The wolves are at the door. It’s not safe to be segmenting out into factions. In your own private life, however, withdraw from intercourse (lol) with the wicked. If you don’t like this YouTuber or that, just stop watching their shit and move on. Shun the society of the wicked, but do not renounce the communion of the church. There’s an interesting idea in there about the difference between your personal connections and the wider umbrella of leftism. You know, I chat with a lot of people who’re good on one issue but not great on others. They’ll be concerned with the climate crisis, but also pretty sure that we can capitalist our way out of it. Or they’ll accept gay people but still be suspicious of trans people. I’m not saying everybody has to go out and do the work of bringing those people further along. But I do wonder about the space given to entry-level leftism. I appreciate that it might seem a little tone-deaf to be worrying about the spaces given to people who are still kinda bigoted when their bigotry is actively making life harder for others. But is there not some kind of strategic segmentation that we can carry out here? Put the entry-level lot in quarantine, give them some handlers, make sure they don’t piss on the couches, and check in every six to twelve months to see how they’re coming along. Or, as Calvin says, paraphrasing Augustine, “to the pious and placid his advice is, mercifully to correct what they can, and to bear patiently with what they cannot correct, in love lamenting and mourning until God either reform or correct, or at the harvest root up the tares, and scatter the chaff” (s16). It’s not a perfect plan, but maybe it’s a place to start.

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