Identity, Affinity and Christ
So many of the controversies surrounding the church at present center on concepts related to identity and affinity. Whether these issues are sexual, ethnic, biological or political in nature, one cannot escape the seemingly ubiquitous existential clamor with which we are daily inundated. Bombarded by a steady stream of headlines about scandal, social injustice, political policy and manufactured pandemonium, the Christian is ever in danger of losing a sense of who he or she is in Christ. When we enter into debates in which emotional hijacking tends to be par for the course, we must guard against the temptation to abandon the center of gravity of the Gospel and to trade our identity and affinity for something other than Christ and His people.
This danger is not foreign to the pages of the New Testament. Many of the pervasive issues that the Apostles tackled in the foundational days of the New Covenant church were those having to do with identity and affinity. Whether it was the Judaizers tempting Jewish converts to forfeit their fellowship with their Gentile brothers and sisters in Christ or the Corinthian error of picking and choosing which of the teachers in the church would represent their particular affinity group, the fledgling churches were constantly in danger of departing from Christ in order to settle in with another identity or affinity group. The potency of the Judaizing heresy lay in the fact that false brethren appealed to the heritage of a select portion of the believers in the body. These false teachers baited the newly converted Jewish believers with their past, saying, “This is your heritage. Don’t abandon your heritage. Don’t betray us.” In Corinth, members of the church were vying for particular teachers to lead their affinity groups. The deleterious subtlety of this error was seen in the fact that the teachers with whom they aligned themselves were men who had been appointed by God to be ministers in the church. New forms of these pernicious errors can and will most certainly surface in the church today. When they do, they inevitably threaten our Gospel identity in Christ and affinity with His people.
For the Christian, nothing short of knowing Christ and who we are in Christ will suffice. When we remember that Jesus stood in our place, for our sin, and took the wrath that we deserve in order to forgive us, cleanse us and reconcile us to God (as well as to unite us to all of His blood bought people), we come to understand that our past doesn’t identify us any longer. In turn, we start to recognize that we don’t have to search for a particular affinity group–we’ve already been placed in one, namely, the Church. The Apostle Paul labored tirelessly to establish this principle in the minds of God’s people. He gave the Galatians the remedy to their misplaced identity when he explained, “You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:26-29).
A tangible loss of real spiritual joy will always accompany our misplaced quests for identity and affinity. There is a deep seated joy that flows from realizing the newness of life that we have in Christ in the Gospel. So much of what we read or hear online today lacks this sense of Gospel joy. When we allow psychological constructs, social agendas, party spirits and cultural identities to take the place of the good news of Christ crucified for sinners, we invariably forfeit the benefit and implications of the good news. When I was a new convert, many in the church would tell me, “Nick, you’ve got to remind yourself that you’ll always be a drug addict.” I’ll never forget the inner freedom and joy that I finally came to experience when I realized that I was a new creation in Christ. The Apostle reminded the Corinthians of this very thing when he wrote, “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new” (2 Cor. 5:17). A new name, a new identity, a new experience, a new community, a new life in Christ–these were the truths that caused joy inexpressible and full of glory to well up deep within in my heart.
These are the truths which are meant to shape our minds so that we will be able to navigate our way through a world that tells us our past, our desires or our preferences are what ultimately define us. Then, and only then, will we be able to speak helpfully to the issues of the day without derailing or disenfranchising our brothers and sisters in Christ. Our union with Christ in His death and resurrection means that we are defined by who He is, what He has done and what we have become in Him (1 Cor. 6:9-11). As this truth grips our hearts, we will find that our affinity group consists of all those who–no matter their moral, socio-economic, ethnic or political background–have also been raised to newness of life together with us in Him.