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The Insufficiency of Identity

The modern Western world gives incredible value to identity. Without an identity, you will not have peace. You will be either a mindless husk of a person, absorbing whatever happens to come down your gullet, or tossed by the winds of harsh modernity. Therefore, the path of “self-discovery” and finding an identity is deemed essential for all. However, this presents a problem for religious individuals (at least those who believe in a deity), since it does not necessarily include any external definition. Sure, the eventual joining of a social group – perhaps religious – is often the outcome of finding an identity. But the lack of external impetus is troubling, to say the least, since God, as an external actor, is off the table.

Instead of attempting to jettison the deep-seated idea, some modern Christians have taken “identity” by the horns. Instead of searching for an identity in sexuality, work, or something else, they propose to “find your identity in Christ.” After all, melding cultural jargon with a religious narrative is tempting. It keeps Christianity “relevant” in a seemingly secularizing world and gives an easy narrative for Christians to distinguish themselves. However, I believe that “finding your identity in Christ,” upon theological reflection, falls short. Instead, we must look to conceptions of what being a Christian is that are native to the New Testament, not imposed on it.

There is one reason why “finding your identity in Christ ” is not adequate: identity as thought of in the modern world is not translatable to Biblical Christianity. An identity is inherently individualistic, associated with separation and setting oneself apart from the crowd. However, an “individualistic Christian” seems to be an oxymoron! Genesis 2 (“it is not good for man to be alone”), Jesus himself in Mark 14:33 (“he took with him Peter and James and John…”), the jailer of Act 16 (“he was baptized at one, he and all his family”) and Revelation 19:1 (“every nation and tribe and language and people”) all present fellowship – the opposite of individuality – as the defining characteristic of not only Christianity, but of what being fully human is.

Because identity is not an idea which fits neatly onto the Bible, it struggles to connect to Biblical categories. “Finding an identity in Christ” may lead you to a local congregation. But being a part of the body of Christ, with its complementing hands, feet, and legs certainly will. 1 Corinthians 12:26 says, “If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together ” (ESV). Clearly, this is a much deeper relationship than mere social identity can provide. Participation in social institutions is a byproduct of finding an identity; fellowshipping in the body of Christ is formative to you from the outside.

Identity also does not account for how we can relate to the world. “Finding your identity in Christ” is rather oppositional. The tacit (or sometimes explicit) backdrop is always instead of sexuality, work, hobbies, etc., find your identity in Christ. What, then, are we to make of our work, hobbies, or sexuality? It seems to me that instead of jettisoning these important, often life-altering categories, we should utilize them. So long as our actions within them are Christ-like, outside, even world-made, categories are the best way to be in, but not of, the world. Having an “identity” in Christ seems to be isolationist. Except for in this case, it is not only isolates from the body of Christ, but also from the world which we are called to serve in. Is it wrong for me, Jacob Harvey, to be a part of the subset of people – call it an identity, if you wish – that is philosophy students? And if I exclude myself from that subset of people, will my work not suffer since I no longer have a tangible connection to it? It is hard to see that it will not; therefore, if we are to work to the glory of a perfect God, merely having an identity in Christ does not provide a reason to do so. But we know that works do matter for the Christian life, as St. Paul in Romans 6 and St. James in James 2, among many other examples, tell us.

Since identity cannot account for calling and work, identity cannot account for the wholeness of the Christian life. Justification makes one a Christian. Nevertheless, the Christian life does not end at justification. Character is not developed in passivity, nor in resting in an identity, free of “worldly” cares. Taking up your cross is not just taking on a new identity, setting yourself in opposition to those around you. It is taking the initiative to act differently, to be “baptized into [Christ’s] death”! But as the Christian story does not end in death, but in life, Paul quickly follows, “just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in the newness of life” (Romans 6:3-4). And walking in the “newness of life,” is much more than simply taking on a new identity. Therefore, if identity cannot be placed onto the framework for the complete Christian life, we should do away with it as a theological category for Christians altogether.

I am not saying that identity should be a taboo utterance. Like most words, it has a proper place in society and a role to play in describing the world, including for Christians. But we should not, I think, elevate a merely worldly category to the level of a theological one. For if we do that, we are bound to fail. The Christian life is ultimately one in which faith and work, individual salvation and covenant community, personal assurance and outside fruit all play a part. And the identity account of being a Christian, for all its modern luster, only accounts for the former half of all those intertwined concepts. Soon following his comments on how Christians “walk in the newness of life,” Paul provides a very vivid account of what it looks like! In verse 18, he says that Christians, “having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness.” While acknowledging the limits of his terminology (v. 19), Paul gives an account of the Christian life which could not be more in opposition to that of “identity.” What could be less individualistic than being a slave (or, more literally, a bondservant)? And yet, “the fruit you get leads to sanctification and its end, eternal life” (v. 22).

We see, then, that identity, with its individualistic tendencies, is best replaced by the mandates of God (Rom 6), the fellowship of believers (Rev 19), and the body of Christ (1 Cor 12). This account of being a Christian is, I believe, both supported by the New Testament and – as should be no surprise! – is better equipped to guide us to lead a more complete life in Christ.