I’ve a question for you before we get going. How do you think of yourself? Who are you? What is your identity? How would you describe yourself if someone said, “Hey, tell me about you?”
Often what we do is we start saying the things that are either, one, most important to us or, two, we think are going to be most important to the other people in terms of giving them a picture of who we are. So, what’s your picture? Who are you? What is most important about you?
Now, the fact that I’m asking this on a podcast about Christianity, and specifically about apologetics, may kind of skew your answer a little. But try and think of how you would answer that question if someone legitimately asked you that in a non-Christian context.
I think what we will find is that things dealing with Christianity are not really maybe at the top of the list. I might say things like, “Well, I have a background in software development.” Or, “I’m a husband and a father, I live in Tallahassee, I’m married.” Those sorts of things. And maybe you would have similar things dealing with your marital status or your education or what you work in, your field, or things like that.
But the sad thing about that is, for the Christian, our primary identity, the picture of how we see ourself, should be intimately and inextricably tied to our union with Christ, to the fact that we are “in Christ,” to the fact that we have been ransomed from our sins, the dead has been made alive. We’ve been given a heart of flesh and the heart of stone has been removed, and we are Christians! We are people who live by the grace of God in Christ.
Our identity is found not actually in and of ourselves, but it’s a derivative identity from another, from someone else. That is how we should primarily think of ourselves. I mean, consider the fact that in the first and second chapter of the Bible, we are told that man—men and women, humankind—was created in the image of God. Their identity is actually based on who someone else is. Our value and worth as people is based on the fact that God created us to image him, to reflect his glory. So we don’t even have an identity that can stand on its own without reference to God. That’s just the base-level identity for every single person on the planet.
But as people who have been saved by the grace of God, we actually still, once again, have an identity that is derivative. It is based on and only defined in the context of God. We are people who have been clothed in the righteousness of Christ, who are in Christ, who have been adopted into God’s family. All of these things you can’t explain without reference to God and Jesus.
So what I’m getting at today, is how do we think of ourselves? Where is our identity? And you might be thinking, “Okay, this sounds like a sermon. This doesn’t sound very apologetic.” And I think the lines there can be more blurry than we often would like to think. But here’s why this is important, because there are secular philosophies and theories out there in the world today that I see influencing how Christians and the church think about identity and think about themselves, primarily.
But even before we get there, let’s talk about some just base-level categories of identity that should not be primary or maybe even used at all for the Christian. And that last qualifier, “used at all,” is not going to apply to all of these, but to some it will.
Some people find their identity based on their nationality. That should not be primary for the Christian. As Christians, our primary nation is actually the kingdom of God. And yeah, you might say, “Oh, that sounds like a Sunday school answer.” No, that’s the true answer. If we have been saved by the grace of God, our primary citizenship is in the kingdom of God. And we only submit to the kingdoms of this world because we are a member of the kingdom of God. And that’s what God, as our king, tells us to do. So nationality’s an identity.
Ethnicity can be an identity. I mean, the divide that’s often used in the United States today, is the example of white people and black people. But there are people who come from all different countries around the world who are white, and people who come from all different countries around the world that are black, but we often make it, pardon the pun, too black and white, and just talk about it that way. But we can have an inordinate and inappropriate pride in identity based on our skin color and our heritage. Now I’m not saying that having a heritage and knowing it and liking it and finding some identity there is bad, but like many things, sometimes we can take it too far.
Gender is one, too. Do I identify as a man? Yes, I identify as a man. I am actually a man biologically, too. But is that primary for me? No. Someone’s gender conception should be a primary identity.
Sexual orientation, this is one that comes up often. There are conferences that are starting. One’s called Revoice, in kind of the evangelical world, that seem to adopt the idea that a core part of identity can be our sexual orientation. Maybe for some people that would mean that they are same-sex attracted, and that’s a core part of who they are. The Bible rejects that as a core part of identity. Does that mean that we do not have certain attractions or lusts or temptations? No, but it does mean we should not identify with them.
Sometimes education is a core part of identity. Is it bad to have education? No, but for some people it is actually how they see themselves and find their worth.
Marital status, or lack of marital status. Economic status or perhaps other victim classes or classes that have been discriminated against. None of these things necessarily are bad in of themselves. It’s not bad to be from America. It’s not bad to be black. It’s not bad to be a man. It’s not bad to be educated, etc.
But the question is, is do I find my worth and my primary identity, or maybe too much of an identity in those things? So those are just questions I think that have been around for a long time. There were questions of identity and worth that existed like that in Jesus’ day. But, this has gotten perhaps more pressing for us as Christians and the church to think clearly about in light of new secular philosophies and in social theories.
And one of those is called intersectionality. That’s a big word, but basically what it means is that your identity as a person, and maybe the extent to which you have value or are allowed to speak in certain situations is related to how many overlapping social categories, that you’re a part of. Generally, people who would be in favor of intersectionality would take that a step further and actually say that it’s related to how many overlapping victim classes you’re a part of.
So they would say, perhaps, that the discrimination that a black person experiences is different than what a white person experiences, and the discrimination that a gay person experiences is different than the discrimination that a non-gay person experiences. But the discrimination that maybe a black gay person experiences is different and intensified by the fact that they are both in the category of black and gay.
So what intersectionality does, is it divides people according to classes and categories, and it kind of assigns almost a worth to how discriminated against that category is. The more discriminated against, maybe the more worth that group has in a certain way. The more of these classes that overlap, the more oppressed the person is.
Now it’s somewhat reasonable to say that if you’re in groups that have been more mistreated than other groups, then you as an individual may have been more mistreated than other people.
But here’s the problem with this: this view has come into the church in sometimes subtle and unseen ways, and maybe unintentional ways. And also, from some people, in very intentional ways. What it leads to is viewing identity in terms of what classes you are a part of. And that is a problem. When we’re trying to ask how we can deal with discrimination of many kinds and break down barriers, separating people by classes is not helpful. By putting people in separate classes, we actually create division where there may not have been any, perceived or real, before.
I read an account of a conference on intersectional feminism. The participants had breakout sections based on their intersectional identities. So, the female, gay, black people went to one table, and the female, white, gay people went to another, etc. Then they couldn’t even agree at the tables that they were in the same class, because “Well, actually, you’re older than I am, and I’m from the South, and you’re not.” And, “My parents, five generations ago, lived in this country.” They just couldn’t agree, because it just self-destructs. When you start breaking people up into categories to find identity, well how far do you take the divisions?
Part of the problem here, is that one of the primary things Jesus did at the cross was break down barriers. He broke down the barrier between God and man, in terms of our sin being an offense against God that needed to be atoned for. But he also broke down barriers for everyone that comes into the kingdom of God, the family of God. If that is our primary identity, it can’t coexist with intersectionality. It can’t coexist with me elevating my various kind of worldly, non-Christian identity components to the same level. They just don’t work together. One squashes the other. I fear what’s happening today is that we are using non-Christian identity categories to actually edge out and squash Christian identity.
So, I want to spend some time reading through Galatians 3, and a little bit of Galatians 4 in our remaining time together.
Paul in this letter is confronting the Judaizers, who were basically saying you needed to become Jewish, or at least keep parts of the law in order to be a good Christian. And he calls that a false gospel. This is what he says starting in chapter three, verses 23 and following.
”Now before faith came along, we were held in custody under the law, kept as prisoners until the coming faith would be revealed. Thus the law had become our guardian [You could also translate that as tutor] until Christ, so that we could be declared righteous by faith.”
And this is where our main passage is coming in.
”But now that faith is come, we are no longer under a guardian. For in Christ Jesus, you all are sons of God through faith.”
And I’ll talk about in a minute, why he actually says “sons,” and not sons and daughters. But he says,
”You’re all in Christ Jesus, you’re sons of God through faith. For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourself with Christ, therefore there is neither Jew nor Greek, there’s neither slave nor free, there’s neither male nor female, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”
So, let’s just recap that. If you were baptized into Christ, you have clothed yourself with Christ, why can you go on to say that there’s neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female? Why can he say that? Because our primary identity now is as those who are clothed in Christ. If I am in Christ and you are Christ, I am clothed in Christ. You are clothed in Christ. We are both clothed in Christ! That is now our new primary category of identity.
Now, does that mean somehow when we become Christians, suddenly the Jews no longer had an ethnic heritage of being Jews? No, not at all. Does it mean that suddenly when someone becomes saved, let’s say it’s a couple, a husband and a wife, that they’re now just androgynous people, they’re neither male nor female? No, it doesn’t. What it does mean is the gospel breaks down the barriers of who could actually be saved, of who was valuable and who was not. Because this is written in a time when Greeks, non-Jews, were not seen to be the people that God cared enough to save. Salvation was thought to only be for the Jews. Paul’s correcting that. This was also written at a time when women were not viewed to be equally as valuable as men. This breaks that down. This was also written at a time when there were slaves and there were free people. And Paul’s saying, “In Christ, your value is equal.”
In the early church, even as Paul is writing to them, there were slaves and masters who went to church together, who loved the same God, who worshiped, who did not have enmity between each other. Even though that their social situations were different, their primary identity was in Christ. And that is how people of different social classes were able to coexist, because their primary identity was not in their overlapping social classes. It was found in Christ.
How does this happen? Well, we were baptized into Christ. We have clothed ourselves with Christ. We are clothed in the very righteousness of Christ, and that is our objective, primary identity. Like many things that Paul writes, he tells us what we are, and then he tells us to live like it. And that is the struggle of the Christian life, to realize that we have been declared righteous, and yet we need to try and live righteously. He has told us that we are clothed in the righteousness of Christ, that our primary identity is in Christ, and yet we’re also told that, yeah, you need to live like it, too. And that is the struggle here.
And I want to continue a little in chapter four. Paul says that,
“When the appropriate time had come, God sent out his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law.”
We looked at that verse last week.
”So that we may be adopted as sons with full rights, and because you are sons, God sent the Spirit of His Son into our hearts who calls, ‘Abba Father.’ So you are no longer a slave, but a son. And if you are a son, then you are also an heir through God.”
So what’s Paul talking about here? What’s going on? Why does it keep saying “You are sons, you have been adopted as sons?” Well, the reason for this is that in the ancient world, as a rule, women did not inherit property. And adoption was not the kind of adoption we have today. Adoption today is more about parents want to love someone else and bring them into their family, and that sort of thing. Adoption, in a legal sense in the ancient world, especially in the people that Paul is writing to, was a legal transaction such that someone could inherit property. So it wasn’t like, “We want to make you a loving part of our family.” It was, “We want to basically have someone that can inherit property or maybe keep a family name going on.” So there are differences there.
But for the Christian, it’s not just about inheriting property, it’s about inheriting the promises of God. But here’s the thing. Whose family have we been adopted into? God’s family. Isn’t that just a remarkable thing? And shouldn’t that actually be our primary identity? If the king, sovereign, God, creator of the universe adopted you in his family, wants to make you an heir of promise of a plan he started from the Old Testament all the way through the New, and is still carrying out, shouldn’t that be how we primarily think of ourselves? I think it should. I think it should be how I primarily think of myself, and often that is not the case.
So, there are things that this passage does not say. Paul goes on in other places to say that are different roles for different genders. So in a marriage relationship, there are different roles. And when it comes to church leadership, there are different roles for different genders, and that sort of thing. And we see in other places, that Paul does not explicitly tear down the dividing wall between slave and masters, though I think you can make a good Biblical case to do that. That was not his explicit goal. What his goal was here is to show that primary identity is in Christ, that people of different ethnicities and genders and backgrounds and social classes all come together into a primary family. All have been adopted into the family of God. And that’s how we should think of ourselves.
That is what we need to be sensitized to. Going back to where we started on why this is important, many of the apologetic issues out there today revolve around identity. When it comes to, what is a Christian, there’s an identity component to that. How do I think of myself? When it comes to sexual orientation and homosexuality, there’s a large identity component to why that is such a contentious issue today. Because in people’s minds, when we say, “Homosexuality’s wrong,” what they hear is, “I am wrong,” because they have associated themselves with their behavior in how they conceive of themselves. So we’re not just talking about behaviors at that point, we’re actually talking about people in their mind. We have to know that. We have to be sensitive to that.
Gender identity is literally about identity, it’s about how I conceive of myself, as opposed to how God created me. So those are just a couple examples, but I think this also plays out when it comes to conversations about race and reconciliation and how does that work. Our identities and how we think of ourself matters.
I’m glad to see some friends I have who are black, who do think that there are racial problems in America (we may agree or disagree on specifics or on what to do about it.) But one thing they’re very clear on is, their primary identity is in Christ. It’s interesting seeing them talk with other people who don’t agree, who think that actually, “yeah, being black is a core part of my identity. It exists alongside my Christianity.” I don’t think the Bible allows for that, and I’m not trying to be hateful or discriminatory here. But I’m just simply saying, regardless of what non-Christian classes you think you’re a part of, being a part of the family of God trumps all of that.
And maybe it’s easy for us to point to other clear case examples and say, “That person over there, they need to make Christ more of their identity.” But I think when we do that, we should very quickly recall “how did I answer the question of who I am?” How would we answer the question when we talk with someone else and they say, “Hey, tell me about yourself.” Is the first thing that comes to mind, if I’m honest with myself, really my identity in Christ? Is it really the fact that I’m a part of a totally diverse group of people across the world in all time that God has saved for himself? Is that how I think of myself? And if not, I have work to do. And I’ll just be honest with you all, I have work to do here.
So this is me thinking about it and reflecting some of that to you, hopefully giving us a mutual challenge that we can think about and work towards. But this is becoming the single greatest issue for Christians to have clarity of thought on. And it probably will affect us in ways we haven’t even thought of yet, but we need to be prepared to think in categories of identity, and specifically Christian identity, if we’re going to realize when secular influences come in and affect how we think about ourselves as Christians and fellow brothers and sisters in the kingdom of God.
Well, I’ll talk with you next week, Lord willing, on Unapologetic.
One thought on “Episode 165 – Christian Identity (And Intersectionality)”
Wow Brian, what a message for our nation especially today. I believe we’ve been blinded in part by intersectionality, so that we give no thought to our responsibility of living toward which ever destiny.