Duck Dynasty and the Struggle Over Christianity

There is no such thing as Christianity.

I’ll repeat myself so you know I really meant to say it: there is no such thing as Christianity.

Instead what we have are reifications and definitions. As with all definitions, the various definitions offered of “Christian,” “Christianity,” and the like are exercises in limitation. That is, they necessarily draw boundaries to say what the thing is and what the thing is not.

The recent Duck Dynasty controversy has only made this truth more clear. Those in support of Phil Robertson have made claims that his expression is the “true” expression of Christianity because he simply shared the message of the Bible. Robertson is being lauded as a “hero” and as a good, Bible-believing Christian. Those who think that comparing homosexuality to bestiality is bad are “a bunch of anti-Christian, bigots” and “intolerant leftwing bullies.”

Many Christians who are opposed to Robertson’s views on homosexuality have argued that “true Christians” follow Jesus’ teachings on social justice and offer the reminder that we have no traditions of Jesus saying anything about homosexuality.

The argument goes back and forth and the shouting just gets louder. But homosexuality is simply the latest site of contestation over the identity “Christian” in this country.

Each side (or, more realistically, every side – since there are countless “sides”), though, has failed to see that they are fighting over who gets to offer a normative definition of “Christianity.” These definitions are always self-serving. I have never seen a definition offered that left its proponents on the outside looking in. In other words, the fight is necessarily contrastive, it necessarily pits “us” against “them.” But the end goal is not truth or piety, it is power. “We” are the “true Christians” while “they” are “backsliders” or “idolaters” or “non-Christians.” “We” possess the “truth” while they are only ever characterized by “falsehood.”

And yet this is far from new. Paul fought fiercely against the Jerusalem Church in the 1st century to define the terms under which Gentiles could enter into the fold. The Jerusalem Church and other “Judaizers” held that Gentiles needed to be circumcised and follow the whole Jewish law (i.e. become Jewish) before they could be a member of The Way. Paul held that circumcision was not necessary for Gentiles because of the promised made to Abraham in Genesis 12 and 15. We can fast forward a few years to the promulgation of the words “heresy” and “heretic” in the writings of Irenaeus and Epiphanius. They both engaged in projects to identify and define the “heretics.” The underlying struggle was again one of definitions and power.

Again, the same can be seen in the numerous theological controversies in the 4th and 5th centuries. Was Jesus fully God? Fully human? Both? Is there such a thing as the Trinity? If so, what is its nature? History teaches us that ultimately these decisions were made on the basis of who had the power. The views of those with the power and resources (e.g. access to the emperor, control of trade routes, etc.) won the day. Many will see this as a cynical look at the history of Christianity. Others will see it as heresy and blasphemy. And that’s okay.

My point is simply this: from the beginning, this movement that many today call Christianity and that many of its earliest adherents appear to have called The Way has been characterized by struggles over who gets to determine what is “right” and what is “wrong,” what is “true” and what is “false,” what is “orthodox” and what is “heresy,” what is “Christian” and what is not. And nothing has changed. While the battle lines have shifted some and the sites of contestation have moved, we are still fighting the same war. Everyone still believes and argues that it is their definition that is right while every other definition is wrong. And, as has been true throughout history, it is those with the power and the resources that are controlling the conversation.

All we have are definitions and reifications. There is no such thing as Christianity.

Thomas Whitley

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About the Author
Thomas Whitley holds a Master of Arts in Religion and a Master of Divinity from Gardner-Webb University. He is currently working on a PhD in Religions of Western Antiquity at Florida State University. He regularly writes on religion, technology, and politics at thomaswhitley.com.

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  • DickWilson

    “There is no such thing as Christianity.” “And that’s okay.” reminded me of the multiple ironies in Nietzsche’s line: “The very word ‘Christianity’ is a misunderstanding: in truth, there was only one Christian and he died on the cross.”
    It’s a good thing that the many “sides” claiming authority don’t have life-threatening power (or do they?) or anyone who “asks odd questions” would be at serious risk.
    Keep asking!

  • Steven Chaisson

    ALL I know that Paul chastised the new Christians in 1 Corinthians about judging the non Christians and not themselves, and Phil use that book to judge other people, not himself or those in his church.

  • Eric Minton

    This is a (mostly) tired discussion. Thanks for bringing some much needed freshness and prophetic insight to any conversation monopolizing “christianity” for the support of it’s own deification and power. well done, man.

  • frjohnmorris

    You have forgotten one very important thing. The Holy Spirit has guided the Church to distinguish between true teaching and heresy. We have the Holy Scriptures, the consensus of the Holy Fathers, and finally the dogmatic decisions of the 7 Ecumenical Councils. All of these manifestations of Holy Tradition are the work of the Holy Spirit as God has guided His people to maintain the Apostolic Faith against various heresies.

    • trytoseeitmyway

      But at least we know that “God’s mercy has no limits if he who asks for mercy does so in contrition and with a sincere heart.” So this can apply to any Christian.

  • Scottydog1756

    “History teaches us that ultimately these decisions were made on the basis of who had the power. The views of those with the power and resources (e.g. access to the emperor, control of trade routes, etc.) won the day.”
    Sorry, but this is just not true. St. Athanasius who championed Christianity against Arius suffered the rebuke of those in power. So did St. Cyril of Alexandria who took a beating for opposing Nestorius. There is such a thing as Christianity and it tends to outlast faddish derivations that are often popular at any given point, but become plainly heretical as time lends perspective to the issues of the day.

  • http://ephesians4-15.blogspot.ca/ Randy Gritter

    Christianity was defined by creeds and councils up until the reformation. From then on it was defined only by the bible and consensus about what the bible says. That consensus has been breaking down in the intervening centuries. It means less and less all the time but I would not say it means nothing.

    Catholicism continues to be defined by creeds and councils. If you want a religion that can say definitively what Christianity is you need to go there. No protestant church will claim to have the right to define the true Christian faith. If no one can define it then the definition gets watered down endlessly. Ultimately it is unworkable.

    • trytoseeitmyway

      “No protestant church will claim to have the right to define the true Christian faith.” That’s hilarious. Evangelicals often set themselves up as the arbiter of Christian. You even find people saying goofy things like, “I used to be Catholic but now I’m Christian.”

      • http://ephesians4-15.blogspot.ca/ Randy Gritter

        Actually it isn’t. Protestant Christianity is based on their personal interpretation of scripture. It might flow from a particular tradition but only because they feel that tradition is biblical. So if someone disagrees with them about what is biblical they have a problem. Either that person is unwilling or unable to see he is right about scripture or perhaps this is an unimportant doctrine. If neither of those makes sense then there is usually a lot of table pounding. Sola Scriptura says he can’t appeal to tradition or any church authority.

        • trytoseeitmyway

          Yes, I think it leads to a lot of table pounding. And name calling too, if it comes to that.

        • FA Miniter

          Not all Protestant Christianity is based on personal interpretation, at least if you include Anglicanism/Episcopaleans as Protestants. And Lutherans, though they are nearer the Baptist cliff, at least generally hold to something like the Augsburg Confession.

  • http://readingscripture.org Ron Henzel

    “Paul fought fiercely against the Jerusalem Church in the 1st century to define the terms under which Gentiles could enter into the fold.”

    Someone has failed to read the Book of Acts. I think his name is Thomas Whitley. And from this failure, all his other errors follow.

  • weehawken

    why then shouldn’t we call Dec 25 “Present Day” and just go skiing

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