The Trouble with Talking about our “Identity in Christ”

When it comes to explaining the Christian life, these days the premier conceptual tool that evangelicals are deploying is that of “identity.”  And in doing so, we’ve turned the affirmation of people’s “identity in Christ” into a cliche, neutering it of its force and stripping “identity” of any meaningful, positive content that people can actually understand and interpret their lives through.

Let me, though, back up a second.  For a long time, I’ve been touting the language of people discovering their “identity in Christ.”  The wisest, most Godly person in the world I know started drilling it into me some eight years ago, and I haven’t quite recovered from it.  I make use of the concept in my chapters on sexuality in Earthen Vesselsin part to try to separate out the ways in which our sexual lives intersect with the reality of Christ’s work.   So I think I know whereof I speak here and am as sympathetic as they come.

But these days, our affirmation of people’s “identity in Christ” is more often a sort of negative theologizing, a way of stripping away all the unhealthy and sinful forms of life and practices that are contrary to the plans and purposes of God.  Work too much?  Thankfully your identity isn’t in your job, but in Christ.  Struggling with sexual desires (of any sort)?  Well, good thing that your identity isn’t in your sexuality, but in Jesus.  Wrestling with some “daddy issues,” or some other family problem?  You’ve been rescued out of all that and your identity is in Jesus.

Unfortunately, the positive content of our “identity in Christ” rarely gets filled in much beyond that.  Instead, we are left with a void, an empty hole that can neither guide nor instruct us in how we should live in the world.  Our “identity” may be “in Christ,” but given that every dimension of our lives has been separated from that identity we are left with no imaginative possibilities for conceiving of what our new lives in Christ might actually look like.

Take, for instance, this interesting post by Jeff Buchanan at The Gospel Coalition:

Understanding our identity in Christ is essential for Christian living. When we were born again, we received a new identity, and we are complete in Christ (Col. 2:10). We will share in Christ’s inheritance, and as we grow in the revelation of our new identity, we will increasingly be enabled to live according to God’s will. If our identity is “in Christ,” can we add to this identity without implying that Christ is somehow deficient?

With every additional label–whether it is occupation, gifts, interests, or sexual orientation—we detract from the complete work of Christ in our lives and splinter our identity into fragments. We become defined by our actions and our desires, which plays into the pragmatic mindset of “I am what I do.” Rather than looking in a mirror that is complete and unbroken where we can see a perfect image, we are content with piecing together a distorted mirror of our own making. In Christ we have an identity far greater than the sound-bite descriptions commonly found on dating services.

I find it surprising that additional labels would “detract from the complete work of Christ.”  What if, you know, I am a writer and it’s part of my identity to write?  What if I’m not Matt Anderson unless I’ve the room in my life to hammer out words on a keyboard and raise a ruckus like I might do here?  God might take it all away and I would still be content, but when we all get to heaven if writing is the sort of thing that I’ve been called to, that it’s somehow tied to who I am in this world, then I might someday make my way to a keyboard.1   To use a biblical example, St. Paul seemed to call himself an apostle and the New Testament seems fine with that.  Is that a “label”?  Sure seems like it to me.

English: Jesus Christ - detail from Deesis mos...

English: Jesus Christ – detail from Deesis mosaic, Hagia Sophia, Istanbul (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In short, incorporating my social role, my desires, my actions, my life into my understanding of who I am in Christ doesn’t diminish the work of Christ.  It’s for the sake of reforming all of it that Jesus made me his own, and for the sake of jettisoning those parts of my life that are sinful and corrosive to my human flourishing and the flourishing of the community around me.  Whether my work can be incorporated as is remains a separate question, though, than whether it is my “identity.”  And, dare I say, a considerably more helpful one at that.

Let me try to drive at this from a different angle, by introducing a difficult question:  is it the case that Jesus would still be Jesus if he did not do what he did?   We know him as the second person of the Trinity precisely because of his death on the cross and his resurrection from the dead:  he is more than his history and his words and deeds,  but we have no access into his identity or life except through those very same things.

In short, it seems we should get to our “identity in Christ” by a road other than negation.  Suppose, for instance, we say something like we are “children of God.”  That fills things out quite a bit more, for to be a child is to be something.  There’s a social role there that can be filled, a role that imposes duties (play!) and obligations (play nicely!).  One of my concerns with the language of identity is that by separating out the reality of our union with Christ from the roles, duties, and obligations that seem to constitute identity-bearing things, we actually create conditions where sanctification and the recognition of our real responsibilities to conform every part of our lives to that of Christ’s is more difficult than it would be otherwise.

How does all this work out with respect to sexuality?  Well, there’s a tricky set of questions that we should take up sometime.  But in the meantime, let’s reconsider not just the language of “sexual identity” but that of “identity” altogether.  Because the help it is providing may be less than we think.

***Before you overreact here, let’s remember that here at this blog we try to think out loud.  I’m trying to work my way through the above and would appreciate feedback.

 

 

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  1. 1. This uses the language of vocation, which isn’t exactly the same as the language of “identity.”  But there is conceptual overlap, as well.  Certainly one of the things we are (or might be) is called to do something in the world, such that our doing something becomes a constitutive part of our identity. []
  • http://www.chriskrycho.com/theology Chris Krycho

    Your analogy to the Trinity seems helpful to me. The ontological Trinity is what it is; yet we know the nature of the ontological Trinity – so far as we do – almost entirely in terms of the economic Trinity. One of the major debates of the last half century, so far as I can tell, is whether the two are identical, or whether the ontological realities of the Trinity are distinct from His economy in our world. (The question of submission within the Trinity seems to be at the core of this, but I’m not sufficiently well read as to wax on any longer.)

    We might, by carrying this analogy a bit further, get somewhere. It’s reductionist and incorrect to say that humans are only what we do, just as it is reductionist and incorrect to say that the ontology of the Trinity can be reduced to its economy. By contrast, though, it is also wrong to suggest that the ontology of the Trinity does not include its economy (otherwise we have a breach in the nature of God, or at the least a fundamental block in knowing his true reality), and in precisely the same terms it is wrong to suggest that people’s identities do not include their vocations, their families, etc.

  • http://www.waulkthisway.com Joshua Waulk

    The identity of the believer has been on my radar for a few weeks of late. I don’t know if my loosely collated thoughts will contribute much here, but as I roll in generally Reformed circles (and affirm most of what that entails), I’ve grown concerned w/what at times appears to be an over-emphasis, or a hyper-sensitivity to Total Depravity. I’m sensing that some of us, as believers, have tacked this onto our “identity”…even as we are “in Christ.”

    Whether we speak of “sexual identity” issues, or other, less sensational topics, I’m finding that what I call “I am” language is much more critical than we’ve previously thought. If “I am” “in Christ”, then I ought to consider carefully what I mean when I say “I am…(fill in the blank).”

    Example: For seventeen years “I was” a police officer. It consumed me. It was my “identity” and where I found (sinfully) my essence for many years. Today, “I am” retired. I no longer wear a uniform and no longer do the things I once did. My “identity” in this regard has changed.

    Stretching this out a bit further, we find those with addictions (past or present) forever citing the refrain, “I am an alcoholic.” Even if they’re “in Christ” this is what they’re told and the “identity” they adopt. Does this not fly in the face of 2 Cor. 5:17? Or was Paul just being silly when he wrote these supposedly inspired words of the believer’s “identity”?

    In the end, the concern I’m walking out is that in many corners of the church, believers are inadvertently being taught to continue finding their “identity” “in Adam” *alone*, rather than finding their “identity” “in Christ”, which is a promise of the New Covenant.

    Saying “I am in Christ” seems a bit nebulous and difficult to grasp. How do I walk out of my house and apply that? The answers may be hard to come by, but teachers of the word must do a better job of figuring that out for their people, because somewhere, somehow, being “in Christ” does have real life implications and applications.

  • http://menliketreeswalking.blogspot.com Matthew L

    I’m tempted to overreact a little… : )

    …but seriously, I think you don’t need to make your point by overstating the case with one example. I think that most of the time when one’s “identity in Christ” is brought up (in counseling manuals, sermons, or whatnot), there is a positive aspect that specifically applies to the situation at hand. I think that “identity in Christ” is in danger of becoming a limp cliche and this sort of article is an important caution, but there’s no need to go all Frank Turk all over everybody’s ass.

    • http://menliketreeswalking.blogspot.com Matthew L

      …which is not to say that you did, only that there was a level of alarm that I could feel in your post that was probably disproportionate to the issue.

    • http://www.mereorthodoxy.com Matthew Lee Anderson

      Matthew,

      I don’t have much time tonight, but can you specify for me what that “positive dimension” is?

      Matt

      • http://menliketreeswalking.blogspot.com Matthew L

        Thanks for asking, Matt! Here’s one example from a set of sermon notes from Tim Keller: http://theothercriminal.com/2011/02/20/tim-keller-sermon-notes-series-the-necessity-of-belief-sermon-5-the-meaning-of-the-city/

        here, he specifically talks about turning away from a sinful way of life that uses the city and having our identity in Christ (knowing who Jesus is, how he died for us and for the people we interact with, etc.) reshape, specifically, how we look at/serve/use the city. Keller is, IMO, one of the great promulgators of this “identity in Christ” business and an excellent expositor of finding it in Scripture then practically applying it in a non-mushy sort of way.

  • http://www.squarepeggedness.wordpress.com Rachael Starke

    Part of the challenge is the conflation of terms like “identity”, “calling”, “role”, etc. Another aspect is the conflation of being, vs. doing.

    IMHO, identity is more about character traits that infuse our roles and callings. Roles and callings are limited – you weren’t always a writer, I wasn’t always a wife. Both of us may find ourselves in seasons where neither of those things are true. But our union with Christ is eternal.

    I think the issue that Jeff was raising had to do with attaching something to our identity as Christians that is inherently contra that identity. To be in Christ is to have, forensically at the very least, been freed from those sinful practices that previously identified us, like same sex sexual attraction. I think the real issue is that we pick on that one relentlessly, when there are just as many of us who don’t understand that we are still clinging to our equally sinful cravings for success, stuff, accomplishment, etc.

    In circles, there *is* a tremendous amount of time spent focussed on roles like mothering (ahem, especially homeschool mothering), that I think *would* benefit from more time spent understanding how that role is subordinate to our identity in Christ. I think it depends on the circles and season of life you happen to be in.

    • http://www.mereorthodoxy.com Matthew Lee Anderson

      Rachael,

      I’m down with the language of “character.” It’s actually a lot thicker to talk about someone’s character, as it brings together a lot more closely how we live in the world with our self-understanding.

      Also, the gifts and callings of God are…. : ) I’d like to always be a writer, even if I’m not always going to be a husband! : )

      Matt

  • Catherine Kerton-Johnson

    Matt I have struggled with this question for many years and lazily put it away before I had really made any useful progress. Thanks for bringing it up again. It is something that if answered satisfactorily would be transformative for many Christians.

  • http://www.sometimesalight.com Hannah

    Hallelujah! I’ve been wrestling with the use of the term “identity in Christ” for a bit now, but I could never really understand why it wasn’t fitting properly. And this piece helps explain why. It’s true that we must find our “identity in Christ” (and I confess to having often used that phrase myself), but that identity must be clearly defined. Thanks so much!

  • http://www.sometimesalight.com Hannah

    An additional question: how much of this is the result of, not only a simplistic understanding of soteriology/sanctification, but more likely, the result of a one-dimensional understanding of human existence?

    I guess I’m getting at this: properly applying the Gospel to our lives requires both an accurate, robust understanding of God as well as an accurate, robust understanding of human beings. Have we over-simplified sanctification because we have oversimplified what it means to be human?

  • Elena

    You’re right–we can’t separate our identity from our roles. Perhaps this is where the idea of “dying to self” has teeth, in the nitty-gritty places where all the other, very real, parts of my identity clash with my identity in Christ.

    There are times when I can’t find time to write between the diapers and the dishes, and that’s a place where discipleship means picking up my cross and dying. When my identity as writer demands something different from my identity in Christ, I have to die.

    I cannot and should not stop being a writer, and it’s even more clear that I cannot and should not stop being a woman. Nonetheless, that too frequently clashes with my identity in Christ. (It’s strange how many vices get absorbed into gender identity!) In those places where I have to choose between acting like a woman and acting like Jesus…. I have to die there, too.

  • Adam

    Okay, so I get the point, but I want to distinguish between social roles that express my identity in Christ and social roles that constitute it. If you think that writing is part of what constitutes your identity in Christ, then I’m going to start to worry about you, but I can deny that and still affirm that there is no such thing as having an identity in Christ in some abstract, noumenal conceptual space. It is something to be embodied and manifested in the particular roles that we play here and now. It is something to lay hold of and live into in very concrete ways, but ultimately, you wouldn’t lose your identity in Christ if the things you’re talking about (like being a writer or a husband) were taken from you.

  • http://www.jeffwbuchanan.com Jeff Buchanan

    Matthew, I just happened to come across your response to my article and I truly appreciate your perspective. You actually have brought up some points that I have been pondering as well. The cultural emphasis on identity is something that has become normalized in the past 100 years or so. Naturally, we see the assimilation of the concept in mainstream theology. In an attempt to speak the language of the culture, my desire was to emphasize basically the idolatry that we put on such identity labels and how they actually hinder us as believers. Stating “I’m a Christian writer” is perfectly fine as long as you are stating a position (calling), gifting, or occupation. When you begin to assign value and/or security to that label then, of course, it becomes problematic.

    To the best of my knowledge (I don’t possess an exhaustive knowledge), we don’t see early church fathers utilizing this term. What we do see are teachings that address the fact that we are “in Christ”. If you ask people today to define the concept “Identity in Christ”, I imagine some would have a difficult time articulating what it means. Understanding the basic foundations of regeneration, justification, sanctification, etc. are the essential components for living “in Christ”. (Also, the “Identity in Christ” label can potentially place an emphasis on man rather than God.)

    While I don’t believe it is in error to use the term “Identity in Christ”, I believe that the utmost emphasis must be placed on “in Christ”. This is a great conversation to have and I agree there needs to be a “re-alignment” in the understanding and use of the term.

  • http://www.sometimesalight.com Hannah

    Been mulling over this the last few days and I remembered this passage that beautifully illustrates the cross-section of individual identity and identity in Christ.

    “Were you a slave when you were called? Don’t let it trouble you–although if you can gain your freedom, do so. For he who was a slave when he was called by the Lord is the Lord’s freedman; similarly, he who was a free man when he was called is Christ’s slave.” (I Cor. 7:21-22)

    Like the post suggests, identity in Christ is only meaningful as it is applied to the specific circumstances of our lives. And to do that, we must first recognize and acknowledge our individual distinctiveness (dare I say our individual identity) not simply dismiss it as something obviated by our being in Christ.

  • Sarahb

    Am I missing something? To me, our roles as writer, husband etc are just that. Roles. Positions. Status. We may have spiritual gifts and talents that empower us to be the very best in those positions. Our calling even. But it is characterized by earthly temporal states and change – after all our marital status and jobs are not eternal. So this is all about DO, for me.

    But our identity in Christ reflects the eternity of WHO Christ is irrespective of our cultural identity roles, status or circumstances. It’s about his being, character, promises, authority, plans, ways, purpose etc. Surely as believers, understanding, believing and applying this is what it’s about?

    Abraham believed God and it was credited to him as righteousness, so in a sense he was ‘in Christ’, prior to Jesus incarnation. Let’s not make expressions like ‘identity in Christ’ detract from how God, through his word, shows us very clearly how to live.

    • http://www.mereorthodoxy.com Matthew Anderson

      Sarah,

      Once you strip away everything that you mentioned in the first paragraph, what is left that we can point to when we say who you are? We are not Jesus. We are *in* Christ. But that means that there has to be something there that’s really us that we can point to (roles, status, vocation, etc. etc.)

      Which is to say, my worry is that focusing too much on “identity in Christ” becomes pastorally harmful because it takes away too much.

      Best,

      Matt