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

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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?

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