Gospel: What is the primary identity of Christians?
Matters of personal identity loom large in today’s culture. Yet elements of identity that once seemed stable, like gender, are often seen today as products of self-construction. These elements, which might also include sexuality and definitions of family, create a fluidity of self-identity that seems to leave no solid ground, no stable place.
Many Christians find that this sort of shifting ground wreaks havoc on traditional notions of what it means to be male and female, but Paul offers a destabilizing theological equivalent in the New Testament when he writes that “there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” Paul states that our primary identities are no longer gender, ethnicity or social status, but that the supposedly stable characteristics of our personhood have been subsumed “in Christ Jesus.”
The language of being “in Christ,” which reflects a mystical incorporation into Christ’s body, reflects Paul’s own experience of the risen Lord, when all of his most cherished personal identity markers—“circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee” (Phil 3:5)—came to be seen by him as rubbish. The spiritual and mystical components of being “in Christ” transcend all of our human identity markers. When grounded in the mystical body of Christ, our defining characteristics become secondary to our primary identity as Christians.
Entry into the church is for Paul entry into a new family, since “in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith.” Being “in Christ” is incorporation into a new family, in which every gender, ethnicity and social status is welcome; but “child of God” transcends every other identity marker. Paul says, “If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.” What Abraham, the father of nations, received was a promise for all people to be incorporated into the family of God, regardless of who you were or who you are.
Baptism is the entry point into the new family of God, and Paul says that “as many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.” So what does it mean to clothe oneself in Christ? For ages, people have taken clothing as a primary means of self-identity and self-expression, just as we do today. Numerous beauty and fashion bloggers people YouTube, and millions of viewers subscribe for advice on fashion, makeup and lifestyle. Clothing speaks to identity, from Brooklyn hipsters to overworked mothers on the go.
But the clothing we put on in baptism is the start of a transformation and the beginning of a new identity that supersedes our particular modes of identification. The baptismal garment identifies us not with a tribe but with the anti-tribe, the church, and calls into question our categories of identification. The white robe signals that whatever family you came from before, whatever sort of male or female identification might have troubled others, whatever your status— from Wall Street trader to low-paid fruit-picker—there is a new place of belonging “in Christ” that transcends all of it.
In our incorporation into the body of Christ, there is something significant not about how we define ourselves but about how God defines us as members of God’s family, beyond the human categories by which we draw meaning. Our identities, beyond that of beloved child, do not matter to God. This does not mean that we do not stand against sexism, racism and all forms of oppression because we live in societies that judge people by gender, race and even how they dress. But in God’s family, we are called to transcend the categories and ground our identity on the solid rock of Christ, our brother.