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Finding Your Identity in Christ?

August 6, 2013

Imagine this nauseatingly stereotypical scene: There is a freshman worship gathering at a certain Midwestern Christian liberal arts college. After the worship band has stopped playing, some students come up front to give their testimonies. One of these is the Evangelical Girl (I told you this would be stereotypical). She gives a talk about how she used to be consumed by how much she cared about her body image and her boyfriend. But now, she says, she’s trying to realize that her identity isn’t in her body or boy’s. “I’m trying to find my identity in Christ,” she says.

Now imagine that a very confused Peter Leithart walks in. He would probably appreciate Evangelical Girl’s desire to escape for her idolatries. But he would point out that her idea of “putting her identity in Christ” is rather weak. Putting your identity in Christ isn’t merely a way to escape from some troublesome habits. It is a holistic process that transforms the entire person, rather than just getting rid of some vices. “To be a Christian means to be refashioned in all one’s desires, aims, attitudes, actions, from the shallowest to the deepest…If one is a Christian at all, he or she is (however imperfectly) a Christian from head to toe, inside and out…Conversion does not simply install a new ‘religious’ program over the existing operating system. It installs a new operating system.” (Against Christianity, 16)

Dr. Leithart might go on to look at a favorite buzzword of said Midwestern Christian liberal arts college–“community.” “Though weakened in modern Christian usage, the Greek koinonia began its life as a political term…Like other communities, the political koinonia is establishing on things that are ‘common’ (koinos) to the citizens…According to the apostles, the Church also forms a koinonia because things are held in common. Ultimately, the koinonia of the Church arises from a common sharing in Christ and his Spirit.” (25-26) This community is not merely a secret club or arcane philosophical society, but rather a counter-community, providing an alternative to the communities that form the unbelieving world. Its actions–Fellowship, communion, prayer, sharing of material wealth–are self-consciously different than the actions of unbelieving communities. “In short: Paul did not attempt to find a place for the Church in the nooks and crannies of the Greco-Roman polic. The church, was not an addition, but an alternative to, the koinonia of the polis.” (27)

Identity in Christ, then, is not merely a private re-ordering of the heart, but a relentlessly public allegiance to a community, a “King and a Kingdom,” to use Derek Webb’s phrase. The Church is not a sanctifying attachment to the secular city. Rather, “To say that the Church is a community of friends is to say that it is an alternative city.” (28).  Identity in Christ is not only a public proclamation–it is also a political one.

“Further, as [N.T.] Wright explains, Paul [in Phillipians] was mounting a polemic against the imperial ideology, affirming that Jesus, not Caesar, is “Lord” and “Savior,” both prominent terms in imperial propaganda. Paul’s claim that Christians are citizens of a heavenly politeuma further indicates that the Phillipian Christians are to consider themselves a colony of heaven more than as a colony of Rome. Paul imitated Christ by giving up his privileges as a Hebrew of the Hebrews, and he exhorted the Phillippians to follow his example by treating their Roman citizenship and attachment to the Roman emperor as ‘rubbish’ for the sake of Christ and His heavenly politeuma.

In short: throughout Phillippians, which some identify as one of the least political of Paul’s letters, Paul was treating the Church as an alternative to the politico-religious organization of the city and of the empire.” (30)

This means that the finding your identity in Christ does not mean simply getting rid of a few bad habits–caring more for your body image or your boyfriend than about Christ. Instead, it viscerally challenges the ideologies from which those bad habits spring. It attacks the beauty-industrial complex that markets a certain (unattainable) look as normative, and sacralizes that kind of  physical attractiveness over other values. It attacks the dating culture which spreads lies about “true love” and romance, which sets up an unrealistic kind of relationship as an ideal which everyone deserves, and which subjects both men and women to standards that they cannot live up to. And it attacks the “Christian” culture which refuses to make a public stand in the realm of aesthetic and sexual ethics, relegating them to a private realm of mental experience rather than challenging them in the market, on the web, at the movies.

So, in the final scheme of things, Christian identity is not just an individual’s way of organizing their life. Instead, it is a challenge to the unbelieving world, a proclamation of total allegiance to an entirely different way of life, a different community. As the old song goes, “I’m in the Lord’s Army.” And the Lord’s Army is not here on a peacekeaping mission. “If we are preaching the gospel faithfully, we will clash with the various, proliferating religions of the ‘postmodern’ world…But, we will also be clashing with other competitors. The Church’s competitors are nation states and international political bodies like the United Nations. The Church’s ethos and culture are not just a challenge to other ‘religions’ but to the ethos of Americanism and the culture of globalization, insofar as such an ethos and culture exist.” (34) This goes far beyond merely making some “positive alternatives” to whatever the unbelieving world is marketing today. “Christian political activism is as modern and worldly as Christian political quietism, since both are based on the (false and heretical) assumption that being the Church is not already political activism. Both assume that to be political we need to do more than preach and live the gospel.” One does not simply put one’s Identity in Christ and then, if one feels like it, later move on to cultural formation. Putting one’s Identity in Christ is cultural formation.

With that, Peter Leithart realizes that he should have been in Blanchard 339 instead of Coray Gym, so he leaves the stage. But Evangelical Girl–indeed, all the students present–feel strangely moved and unnerved at what he has just said. They will have to think about this for a long time.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Troy Lizenby permalink
    August 6, 2013 7:42 pm

    Prodigious! Good stuff! Thank you.

  2. August 9, 2013 3:43 pm

    I like it. Most college Christianity is Therapeutic Deism. And most post-college Christianity. Ok, fine, American Christianity.

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