The Oxford English Dictionary has just announced its latest list of words that will be added to its next June 2015 edition. Evidently there are over 500 new words and phrases that have been identified – and defined – this quarter. What I’m always intrigued by is “who gets to decide these definitions?” Who decides where the boundaries fall? What meaning is “right” and what is “wrong”? The same could be said for many of the labels and words that we use within the Christian tradition. One thing I realise is that there is a growing number of “dictionaries” currently in use throughout the Church. These competing editions can depend on geography, and increasingly reflect the language used by each “tribe”- to the point that their use is now a staunch litmus test of tribal membership. Take the word “evangelical”.
This has quite different perceptions depending, for instance, on which side of the Atlantic you are based. It can also have either a positive or a pejorative meaning depending on which church tradition or tribe you are from. Some see evangelicalism as the only form of true Christianity; others see it as a tribe to be avoided at all costs, given what is perceived as having “narrow, judgemental and exclusive tendencies”. These differences do not cause a problem as long as the members of each tribe are in general agreement. But what happens when members of the same tribe seek to apply different definitions to the same word? Who then decides? I am a staunch evangelical. I have been all my life. To be more accurate, I am a fully signed up charismatic evangelical, who is passionate about practising the gifts of the Spirit. Even now, when in the eyes of many I have committed the “unforgiveable sin” of having been in a gay relationship, I still see myself as an ardent evangelical. It is the tribe to which I belong, and the tent in which Christ has placed me.
This will make many readers shift uncomfortably in their seats, and others wonder why on earth I would want to be associated with a group that is regarded as being “out to disown me”. You see, I am an evangelical for the same reason that others see themselves as evangelicals – I have an extremely high regard for scripture, I believe passionately in the importance of a personal relationship with Jesus Christ and am ultimately committed to giving my life to spreading the gospel. So what is all the fuss about? The answer is that many do not believe that my life bears witness to this fact. They believe that I can’t possibly have a “high regard of scripture” if I’m prepared to enter into a relationship with another woman. They probably also believe, but wouldn’t say to my face, that I can’t possibly be having a deep personal relationship with Jesus Christ as otherwise I would “know” this is wrong. I should be heavily convicted by the Holy Spirit, as they themselves feel convicted – that it is sinful. As to sharing the gospel, well they are deeply concerned that I am leading others astray by sharing a false gospel, and as such they perceive me as a false prophet.
They believe this is what St Paul mentioned would happen in the End Times, and which Jesus himself warned us to guard against. But if this was true – why then do I see so much fruit in my life? As Jesus said, “Do people pick grapes from thorn-bushes or figs from thistles? Likewise, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit” (Matthew 7). Why does God continue to answer my prayers? Why do I see his power constantly at work in my life; his voice whispering in my inner ear; his healing power touching the lives of people who have been deeply hurt and broken by a Church that has shunned them. I know that some of you will be tempted to stop reading at this point. Please don’t. My plea is that you engage with those who hold views similar to my own and ask them why they hold such a high regard of scripture. Challenge them that if they, like I, believe “that Scripture cannot be set aside” (John 10:35) then how do they reconcile what God is saying through his word? How do they interpret those verses? And then please ask yourself, why do you believe what you do? How long have you spent studying it all? How do you reconcile the fact that the gospel that you believe should be preached is clearly causing so much pain and misery, and is hampering the spread of the gospel?
Please be warned though that to do this requires an open heart and mind – and perhaps most importantly a humble spirit. We need to let go of our fears and trust that God himself will defend his Gospel. We need to release ourselves from the burden of feeling that we are a remnant charged with taking “a last stand”. I passionately believe that God is shaping and moulding us all through this, so that ultimately a re-envisioned Church will arise that is fit for purpose in the 21st century. After all, isn’t that what this is all about? That God’s Kingdom comes and that his will is done? On earth – today, right now – as it is in Heaven? Where by the way sexuality will no longer be an issue!
Published in Church of England Newspaper