Win the Culture War, Lose the Soul – Who Gives the Labels?

In the Intrusive Word, Willimon tells the story of Duke Chapel holding a panel discussion on “The Church and Homosexuality” where a student came up to him after the discussion, told him he was a “baptized Episcopalian” and asked why there weren’t any homosexuals on the panel. Willimon asked him why that would matter. His response was “I have a right to define myself, to name the significance of my own experience as a gay person.”

Willimon writes,

“It seemed to me that, if his first designation of himself (‘I am a baptized Episopalian’) meant anything, it meant that he definitely was not to ‘define’ himself. I knew that his church was quite explicit in its service of baptism that the church was telling him who he was, not using the conventional labels of the wider culture, labels based upon gender, class, race, or sexual orientation, but rather on the basis of the gospel. He was someone, in baptism, named, claimed, chosen, called. His name was ‘Christian.'” (p39)

I am becoming more and more convinced that Willimon is a gutsy guy who isn’t going to pull any punches. This was probably easier to say in 1994 than it would be to say in 2012. The question is not whether or not it is easy or hard to say from the perspective of how people will respond to it…the question is, is this truth? His point is that church and the gospel should be defining these things over culture. It is not up to the world to define us by worldly categories and worldly ways of looking at things. Things in our society have changed since he wrote this in 1994. In 2003 the Episcopal church ordained their first openly gay, non-celibate clergy. That complicates things a bit further when there is diverse opinion on these issues within the denominations so that it depends on whose teaching on these matters you are going to go by. It becomes clearer and clearer that scripture defines this and the church should be taking every effort to conform to a biblical view on these things. Of course, there is even disagreement on what that would be.

I appreciate what Willimon is saying here. I think we have co-opted our faith, syncretized it and blended it with the labels, definitions and categories of the world that it is hardly recognizable who Christians even are any more. This is not just true when it comes to homosexuality. This is true is more areas of our lives than we would like to admit.

Later Willimon talks about the differences between evangelism and apologetics. He says,

“That’s why the gospel never asks for mere intellectual agreement. The gospel call is for conversion, detoxification, rebirth. The gospel cannot be mapped onto experiences that are already there, as if the gospel can be easily transposed onto the culture of the high-bourgeois narcissism. Apologetics is never as radical as evangelism because apologetics concedes too much intellectual territory to the enemy before the battle begins, adopting the culture’s self definition as the appropriate means of describing our condition. So we begin with  existentialism, or self-esteem, or Marxism, or some other culturally approved category of thought and attempt to work back toward a defense of the Gospel. I agree with Karl Barth that these homiletical tactics will not work because the gospel requires a severe epistemological reorientation. Our preaching to the unbaptized must aim for conversion rather than mere agreement, evangelism rather than apologetics.” (p.40)

Do you agree? In our discussions on faith with non-believers are we starting in the right place and aiming toward the right goal? How far do we allow the world to define our lives? Should our desires define us? Should our skin color define us? Should the Gospel and our creator define us and what do we do when the labels of the world don’t jive with the labels of our Lord? Who gives the labels and which labels are biblically acceptable and which are not?


About mattdabbs
I am a minister, husband, and father. My wife and I live and minister in Saint Petersburg, Florida. My primary ministry responsibilities include: small groups, 20s and 30s, involvement, and adult education.

6 Responses to Win the Culture War, Lose the Soul – Who Gives the Labels?

  1. I don’t believe I’ve ever described myself as a Christian heterosexual.

    For that matter, I din’t think I’ve ever described myself as a baptized church-a-Christer. (I guess that would be redundant.)

    I don’t see any need to be categorized, labeled or defined by anyone other than Whom I follow.

    Except the Census Bureau, I guess. It’s their job and you can’t stop ’em.

    • mattdabbs says:

      People have such a need to feel they are defined by all manner of things. They take those categories and reorient their lives around them…often even using categories that are contradictory. Regardless of all of that Jesus certainly calls us to completely reorient our lives around his death, burial and resurrection and nothing else.

  2. kurt bennett says:

    Great post Matt!

    Of course the Lord’s labels are the only ones that matter in the end.

    I think the debate about homosexuality is really just a starting point. We always need to bring the discussion back to Christ and the question: Is He the ultimate in your life? That’s where we can make inroads into men’s hearts.

    • mattdabbs says:

      You are so right…it is all just a starting point that points to a deeper issue. What does it mean to be a Christian? Do our desires define us or does Christ define us? What should resurrected living look like in the life of a disciple of Jesus Christ? How much have we bought into worldly ways of looking at life?

  3. Who we are is defined by whose we are.

    For this reason I bow the knee before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named. (Eph 3:14-15, ESV)

    Our identity is found in the Father. Elsewhere, Paul said

    From now on, therefore, we regard no one according to the flesh. Even though we once regarded Christ according to the flesh, we regard him thus no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.

    To “regard no one according to the flesh” would certainly include regarding people according to fleshly categories – such as Jew or Gentile, bond or free, male or female. Those categories that Paul said in Galatians 3:27 are done away in Christ include race, economic status, and gender. To these we can add nationality, education, and social status – or any other “division” by which the human race is sub-divided by men. In Christ, we are all one.

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