In Part 4, I shared that Culture Wars are about more than competing views on issues: they quickly become battles to establish, defend or attack identity. When we view others through the lens of Culture War, we move away from Kingdom Culture and our incentive to see people through the eyes of Jesus and lay down our lives for them rapidly declines. It becomes all too easy to turn from Christian Disciple into Culture Warrior. I mentioned that Culture Wars rarely end – or else they take decades or longer to conclude. The danger thus lies in the reality that we may well miss – forever miss – the opportunity to extend the Gospel to others if we do not highly value them. The problem is that Culture Wars do not encourage us to value those on the other side: we are encouraged to view them as our enemy. When we participate in this realm, we are far removed from the Kingdom Culture that Christ preached and thus far from the heart of Jesus. Much of our culture is searching for identity: an identity that works. Identities that don’t work tend to be discarded. Other times, people work hard to redeem an unappealing identity into one that is once again attractive. Given the amount of work it takes to turn something negative into something positive across a society, the path of least resistance is to abandon old identities and introduce new ones that don’t carry the old baggage. In light of this, it is quite impressive that the gay community has fought to hold on to the term Queer (discussed in Part 4). Given that the term carried such a negative connotation for so long – and still does to many today – it is quite interesting that it has survived. Sure, there are newer identity labels like LGBT+ but the term Queer is thriving more than ever. This has been no small fete. As I concluded my last post, I promised to bring the Culture War of identity closer to home and evaluate how we – the evangelical world – handle our own terms of identity. So let’s get started: who are we? Two generations ago, it was OK to be fundamentalist. I have not heard anyone ascribe that label to their own faith in over a decade. One generation ago, it was OK to be Baptist. There are still plenty of Baptists but over the past decade you’ve likely noticed the scores of Baptist churches abandoning their denominational identity for names like Meadow Brook, CrossWinds, Fresh Spring, New Beginnings and Whispering Willow.
I suppose fundamentalists became Baptists who then became evangelicals. Yet over the past several years the label evangelical has also come under increased attack – now this label is at risk to being abandoned if it cannot be reclaimed. Many believe that we have earned the negative connotations attached to the term evangelical by the way we have conducted ourselves: by what we’ve done and said to others. In their view, we have tried to moralize, demean and attack others and thus have rightly earned the identity of moral guardian wanna-be’s. If not for this widespread impression throughout our culture, I think many Christians would be quite comfortable with the term evangelical. But because we have – as a Christian community – so aggressively engaged in a Culture War setting ourselves up “against” others based upon what they say and do, many Christians who once ran from fundamentalist and Baptist are now running away from the evangelical label. In a sense, such people are saying, We are Whispering Willow Christians. I have to give them credit – it sure sounds more peaceful than what evangelical has come to mean to many in our culture. As a side note, we have to hand it to the gay community. We’ve run from our Christian identity labels faster and more often than they have their labels. In other words, they’ve worked harder to transform their negative labels into positive ones. We are stewards of the majestic glorious Kingdom of God, and yet they have – in many respects – been more sold-out to stewarding their identity than we have our evangelical identity. I am becoming more and more conspicuously convinced that we are what we do. You’ve heard that it was said that perception is reality – if that is true, then widespread perception is widespread reality and the widespread perception is that evangelicals are a bad lot. That may not be your impression of the evangelical church but many see us this way and we have to wrestle with this reality: who are we? If this is all just about persecution of Christians, may we never run from “who” we are! How dare we abandon our identity if God has truly given it to us. But we do run; and we do abandon our self-proclaimed identities: we invent new terms to describe ourselves in an effort to outrun our poor reputation – over and over again. The fact that we run so fast from terms like Baptist and evangelical leads me to three conclusions: first, it is an admission of sorts that we have indeed been unwise stewards of our Christian identity; second, it makes me think we better start changing “what” we say and do or else we’ll just run from label to label to label without ever learning; and third, it indicates that we don’t really believe that such terms accurately (or adequately) identify who we truly are. If they did, we would have the energy to defend our labels and work hard to redefine what it means to be Baptist or evangelical. Instead, others pinpoint our hypocrisy and just like the online dater, we run to establish a brand new online profile in order to outrun our damaged identity. A bit of good news: many evangelical churches and leaders are working very hard to reclaim the positives of being evangelical by focusing on doing more of what Jesus called us to do. How? You guessed it: by living out Kingdom Culture: giving food to the hungry, water to the thirsty, clothes to the naked, freedom to the enslaved, relief for AIDS orphans, micro-enterprise for the poor and other such global justice missions. In this respect, there is a strong effort underway not to abandon but rather to radically redefine what it means to be an evangelical. Recently, there have been innumerable secular media reports positively noting this development: the secular world appears enthused to see the church look like Jesus! Imagine that… Unfortunately, there is a whole other side that we need to look at: the Culture War over identity is not just the church versus secular society; it rages inside the church as well. The next term we will consider is Emergent. Some fundamentalists who became Baptists who became evangelicals now identify as Emergent Christians. I suspect that many readers do not even know what an Emergent Christian is. But within the evangelical world, it is one big Culture War. In fact, I’ve linked the word Emergent to one view of the movement and the word Christian to the other view of the movement. You can quickly get a feel for the battle over this identity.
Some see Emergent Christianity as a positive attribute of the Body of Christ growing into a new likeness of Jesus that speaks to this post-modern generation. Others see it as a heretical movement. I will not get into this debate. My point is simply to note that the spirit of Culture War can quickly move us past valid theological debate to the place where we pit people against people. In this case: Christians against Christians. How strikingly different all this is from the insights we gain from Christ. First, we already learned that our Savior teaches us that anyone who is in need or has yet to discover His love is not our enemy but our neighbor. Second, we learned that even if someone claims to be our enemy, Jesus calls us to love them and to return good for evil. Third, we learned that we are to love God first and because of His love we are to love others just as we love ourselves. Fourth and finally, Jesus commands us to love one another. Jesus says that others will know that we are His disciples “if” we love one another. Put another way: people will know our true identity – who we are – “if” we love our enemies and love one another. So what will be the perception of others – what will they know about us – if we fail to love them? And what will be the perception of others – what will they know about who we are – if we fail to love one another? According to Jesus, they will know that what we say and what we do does not match our online profile: they will know that we have doctored up our identity; they will know that the Jesus they sense to be true is far different than the Jesus we reflect. Jesus goes to great lengths to warn us about this tendency of religious people to misrepresent His identity: He does so in the same sermon in which He commands us to love our enemies. Jesus says, Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. By their fruit you will recognize them. (Matthew 7:15-27) Jesus is saying – you will know them not by “who” they claim to be but by what they say and do. There it is! Right from the lips of Jesus, He is in effect saying: you are what you do. The mistake we often make is to assume that somehow we are favored – we are special – we are chosen – we are right – all the time – and so we can simply “tell” others who we are. The sense is that our words and actions are invisible – behind the veil of “who” we claim to be.
Upon this sandy foundation, we build a fragile, self-proclaimed identity of our own making that is destined to collapse when the rain comes. Sure enough, God promises that everything hidden will be revealed. When we venture away from Kingdom Culture, our true identity will be unveiled. Sadly, it often gets revealed as something less than “who” people know Christ to be: we become known by our fruits; we are what we do. We need a new lens in which to view just “who” God is and “what” work He is doing:
Kingdom Culture is resilient: with or without us, it forcefully advances to take hold of mankind for the sake of God’s great love for His creation. With…or without us.
Kingdom Culture is demanding: it never favors one man or one group over another and God never allows one segment of Christianity to redefine the Kingdom according to what they want it to be; it is forever and ever HIS glorious Kingdom.
Kingdom Culture is unyielding: there is NO negotiation and there is NO favoritism and there is NO time to play Culture War games inside or outside the church; this Kingdom urgently calls us to preach Christ crucified and to lay down our lives for those our Father desperately desires to save.
Kingdom Culture is commanding: it calls us to drastically commit our lives to win people to Jesus and stop pushing them away; we are in grave danger when we position ourselves against others who do sinful things.
Kingdom Culture is coming on earth as it is in Heaven and we choose to either join Christ on His mission in His identity or by default we work against His mission and against who He is.
I admit that I am regularly tempted away from the Great Commission toward the many Great Distractions of our day. Yet Christ deliberately and unyieldingly demands that we – the Body of Christ – remember who we are. We are not Culture Warriors: we are Christian Disciples. Our battle is not against people who do sinful things: the real battle is to reconcile others to God’s great love prior to judgment day. If all people do is clean up “this” or “that” sin but don’t know Christ, they are still without a Savior. Jesus teaches, I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. (John 14) In light of this eternal reality, our top priority is to plug wholly into Kingdom Culture so that the world around us might see accurate reflections of the God who calls them – as He called us – home to the Cross. So when others look at us, what fruits do they see? Who are we? Jesus says, A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them. Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive our demons and perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers! (Matthew 7:18-23) We must note that Jesus does not say, Many who lived sinful lifestyles will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord.’ Rather, He is suggesting that many people who identify as Christians will say, ‘Lord, Lord.’ Jesus radically confronts those of us who call Him our King:
Are you doing the will of my Father in heaven? You are what you do. What are you doing? Who are you?
My friends, it is dangerous to lose who Christ is: when we do, we lose our own identity. When we lose our identity, we have a lot of time and energy to tear others down – inside and outside the church – while falsely identifying ourselves as His “shepherds.” Yet when self-proclaimed “shepherds” send the sheep scattering, Jesus says we will know them by their fruit: we will know them by what they do. True shepherds call out to the prodigals of our day because of God’s great love for those who are lost; they do not push them away from God.
That lost people do and say sinful things and narrowly or incompletely define their identity around areas of sin is of no surprise to God. We’ve now seen that we in the church do the same thing. From heaven’s view, God watches all of us do this every day. God is NOT shocked by the ways of this world. Paul was not shocked either: he taught, I have written to you in this letter not to associate with sexually immoral people. But listen to me very carefully – I am NOT at all speaking about the people of this world! In that case, you’d have to leave this world! (1 Corinthians 5:9-13) God will not be mocked. He will not be fooled. He will not show favoritism. We are either for Him or against Him. We either work for Kingdom Culture or work against it. We either abide in Him or else we abide in ourselves. We either reflect the love of Christ or we reflect false images of false christs. Who are we? This is THE single most important question for evangelicals to answer at this very hour in church history: because when this world draws to a close and we stand before the King of Kings, He will know who we were in this life. This makes me want to get Jesus right: I want to hear Him say, Well done, good and faithful servant. Servant!
That’s it! Who are we? We are servants of the Most High God charged with living out Kingdom Culture so that prodigals around us can find their true identity in and be reconciled to Jesus Christ. That’s who we are…Now that we know who we are, what should we do?
Join me next time and we’ll take a look at this question.
May His Kingdom Come on Earth as it is in Heaven, Bill I am making final preparations for an upcoming ministry trip to East Africa. I look forward to continuing this series in the coming months. Thanks for reading. This series on Kingdom Culture is not an attack on Christians involved in political processes. Rather, it seeks to cultivate a ‘voice’ of the Gospel that is unencumbered by political identities and initiatives so that Christ’s Kingdom Culture can shine brightly into our world.