When I visit a church, I notice things. The number of blacks, Asians, and Latinos in relation to whites. Whether women are on the platform. How people are dressed. The quality of the cars in the parking lot. I notice whether the congregation is old or young, and assume that if it’s young, it’s vibrant. As an Anglican, I notice the order of worship and naturally look down my nose at all that is liturgically incorrect. I also notice how much paper is wasted in thick worship bulletins, how much empty air is being heated needlessly above the worshipers, and other signs of environmental friendliness.
I do this because I’ve been catechized to notice all these big and little differences. I’ve been catechized not by one group but by many different groups, each with its own identity and mission. It’s a phenomenon we might call identity churchmanship.
This is a Christian version of identity politics, which has come under severe criticism as of late. But before we join the chorus of critics, we are wise to remember the value of identity politics. Groups that feel oppressed or simply misunderstood find comfort and strength in banding together around their common identity. Many scholars consider the black identity politics of the 1960s as the beginning of this wave, and it was key to the success of the civil rights movement. Black identity politics gave African Americans the courage to work together for their rights. Since that time, we’ve seen identity politics play out in terms of gender, sexual orientation, generations, disability, and many other identities.
My late brother, Steven, for example, was blind from birth. Sometime in the ’90s he joined what was a blind identity politics group, with whom he could vent about public policies that discriminated against his disability. For a time, he found it deeply encouraging to be with the likeminded.
I participated in a kind of evangelical identity politics when I was a mainline Presbyterian. We evangelical pastors recognized we were in a minority in a liberal denomination. Sometimes, frankly, we were a despised minority. So we formed local and national support groups not only to commiserate with one another but also to plan together how we might prod the church in more orthodox directions. Those meetings are some of my fondest memories in ministry.
So identity politics has been a force for good in many arenas, including the church. But as Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury, noted, maybe it’s time for us to shift gears: “We are now, I think, beginning to see the pendulum swinging back and saying identity politics is all very well, but we have to have some way of putting it all back together again and discovering what is good for all of us and share something of who we are with each other so as to discover more about who we are.”
I think he was on to something. As I said, one reason I notice all these things about a church is because different identity groups in the church have taught me to notice them. But now I not only notice the differences, I look down on and disparage the church if it has failed to meet my newly adopted criteria.
Given human nature, identity churchmanship seems to inevitably degenerate into judgmentalism and division. Identity based in common interest, experience, or even conviction cannot enable the one thing that Jesus is most eager for us to do: come together in unity in him.
Yet the problem with identity churchmanship goes even deeper than disunity. It encourages me to notice what is passing away while failing to notice the reality that will last: the profundity that lies at the heart of the Good News.
Eastertide is a good time to reawaken to the gospel. But to my surprise, it wasn’t meditating on Jesus’ resurrection appearances that helped me see how faulty my vision of the church has been. It was when I noticed the lack of them.
Jesus roamed Galilee in his resurrection body for 40 days. And yet in those 40 days, it seems he appeared to his disciples only about 10 times, depending on how one integrates the various accounts.
On the first Easter, our resurrected Lord appeared to Mary Magdalene (John 20:11–18), “the women” on the way to tell the disciples about the empty tomb (Matt. 28:8–10), Cleopas and a companion on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13–35), and the disciples, minus Thomas (John 20:19–25; Luke 24:36-43).
Eight days after Easter, he appeared to the disciples plus Thomas (John 20:26–29), and in the ensuing weeks, Jesus appeared to 7 disciples at the Sea of Galilee (John 21:1–23), some 500 disciples at a large gathering (1 Cor. 15:6), the disciples in Galilee (Matt. 28:16–18), and James (1 Cor. 15:7). And on the 40th day after Easter, he appeared to “all the apostles” at the Ascension (Luke 24:49–53; Acts 1:3–11).
Though only ten, this is nothing to scoff at; these appearances changed history. They demonstrated that Jesus was truly alive again. They opened the apostles’ eyes to what God had promised and foretold in the Scriptures. Paul lists the appearances alongside Jesus’ death for our sins and Jesus’ resurrection as “of first importance” (1 Cor. 15:3). But given the import we rightly grant to the bodily resurrection, one might have imagined that Jesus would have appeared many more times during those 40 days. In fact, during those 40 days, he is absent much more than he is physically present. And when he is present, he discourages people from holding on to his resurrected body.
“Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father,” he told Mary. “Go instead to my brothers and tell them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’ ” When Thomas confesses his faith, Jesus gently scolds him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” Jesus doesn’t seem to want his disciples to put too much stock in his resurrected body. What’s going on here?
Reading the rest of the New Testament, the answer seems to be this: While Jesus’ resurrected presence during those 40 days is “of first importance,” so also is Christ’s bodily absence.
The bodily resurrection is not first and foremost intended to dazzle. It’s not a spiritual spectacular designed to knock our spiritual socks off. It clearly doesn’t do that, as the Gospel writers note. When Jesus appears to the 11 to give the Great Commission, for example, Matthew notes that while some worshiped him, some still doubted (28:17). And Luke notes in Acts 1:3 that Jesus had to give “many convincing proofs that he was alive.” His resurrection appearances were not a slam dunk for faith.
Theologically, this helps us see why the Resurrection is crucial. First it is a vindication of what was accomplished at the Cross: the forgiveness of our sins and our reconciliation with God. Second, it looks forward to what our bodily life will be like in the kingdom of heaven. These are the two great truths of the Resurrection. This is why the physical, bodily resurrection of our Lord is crucial to the preaching of the Gospel and why we can never go the route of the old liberalism, which argued that Jesus rose only in spirit or in the hearts and minds of the disciples.
Still, why does Jesus seemingly downplay or relativize his bodily resurrection? Because he knew that what was coming was more miraculous and astonishing still. He was not satisfied to be a mere object of wonder and worship, someone we observe and marvel at from afar. Someone we could merely touch, see, and hear as someone separate from us. He did not want to establish a religion that memorialized this miracle, set it in lifeless stone.
No, the great miracle that the gospel proclaims is not merely that Christ lived bodily after the Crucifixion but that he lives dynamically in us today. The Resurrection is one with the Ascension and Pentecost—we cannot grasp the meaning of the Resurrection in isolation, because these two other events display an even greater miracle: Christ in us, the hope of glory (Col. 1:27).
There are few phrases more important in the teaching of Paul than his repeated affirmation that we are “in Christ”—he uses that phrase over 200 times in his letters. Christians do not merely believe truths about Christ; we do not merely trust in God’s forgiveness given at the Cross and that Jesus rose bodily from the grave. The most distinctive mark of Christians is this: We are people in whom the resurrected Christ dwells (Eph. 3:17).
At the day of Pentecost, note where Peter ends his sermon. He has already acknowledged the reality and vindication of the Resurrection (Acts 2:32–33). He recognizes that the Cross has accomplished the forgiveness of sins (v. 38). But all this seems to be in service of something else. We are to repent and be baptized for the forgiveness of sins, he says, because then “you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (v. 38).
This Spirit, of course, is identified in the New Testament with Jesus Christ: “You, however, are not in the realm of the flesh but are in the realm of the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God lives in you. And if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, they do not belong to Christ” (Rom. 8:9). This is part of the mystery of the Trinity: We receive the third person of the Trinity when we receive the Holy Spirit, but given the unity of the Trinity, we can also understand why Paul sometimes says we are indwelt by the “Spirit of Christ.”
It is this reality—that we are in Christ, and that Christ is in us—that drives so much of Paul’s theology. Union with Christ is no small doctrine. The great Reformation theologian John Calvin said that union with Christ has “the highest degree of importance.” John Murray, the great Scottish theologian, agreed, calling it “the central truth of the whole doctrine of salvation.”
This doctrine is crucial in part because it completely reorients us, helping us to see ourselves in a new light. It clarifies our real, deepest, and lasting identity. As Paul put it memorably, “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me” (Gal. 2:20).
The most remarkable thing about each of us is that through the Holy Spirit, Jesus Christ dwells in us and we in him. We are unified ontologically, that is, at the core of our being. We are not unified because we’ve agreed to adhere to certain doctrines and behaviors, nor because we have a lot in common culturally. Unity based on such matters is all well and good, but it remains external to us; it’s only as good as our intentions.
The unity Paul proclaims stands at the very core of our being and identity: We each are fully identified with Christ, for Christ fully lives in each of us. We are one because of Jesus Christ’s indwelling presence in each one of us. Everything else we can say about ourselves pales next to this statement.
Scott Black Johnston, senior pastor of Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York City, puts it well:
I am 100 percent confident that the people in our sanctuary on any given Sunday do not all think the same thing about God or Jesus or the Holy Spirit. What connects us to the two billion Christians spread out across this planet, with all their different languages and customs and beliefs and hopes, is baptism. In baptism we are joined to Christ.
He’s just riffing on Paul: “We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life” (Rom. 6:4). This is not mere symbolism, but something essential that unites us intimately with Jesus Christ and Christ with us. It’s that most glorious reality: Christ in us, the hope of glory.
A Troubling Reality
This reality is glorious, yes, but also unnerving for someone like me.
First, it means I am intimately united with all manner of people in my church, even those whom I try to avoid after worship, those who annoy me, those whose culture seems strange and off-putting to me, those whom I believe discredit the faith because of their political preferences or whatever. I’m even united with believers when they sin (see 1 Cor. 6). These are not just “brothers and sisters” in some vaguely sentimental sense, but people with whom I am united at the deepest level of existence.
Second, it means all the distinctions I make when I enter the church—and especially the distinctions about myself of which I am most proud (male, Reformed, white, Anglican, theologian, journalist, husband, father, etc.) and by which I naturally understand my identity—these distinctions are relativized in Christ. Instead of noticing those things I naturally think are most distinctive about me and about those around me, I am invited to see the deeper reality—that Christ dwells in each of us, and each of us in him. To see that first and foremost, before and beyond all distinctions, we are one in Christ.
I am likely at this point to nod in agreement but add a line that is so important to me: Yes, we are united—and united in our diversity! That’s the line I comfort myself with especially when I find myself judging and distancing myself from others inadvertently as I tally our differences. But when I read the New Testament closely, it appears that God does not seem as interested in the diversity I’m interested in.
Paul, for example, when he does notice the church’s diversity, does so only on the way to talking about our unity in Christ. In his discussion of the unique gifts the Spirit gives individuals, he says, “Just as a body, though one, has many parts, and all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ. For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink” (1 Cor. 12:12–13).
Even more unnerving is his statement in Galatians. I have often said that the church is unified—both Jew and Greek, male and female, slave and free—and then I riff on the racial, ethnic, gender, and class diversity in the church as being one of its glorious marks. It’s dismaying to realize that Paul does not move in that direction. What he says is: “[F]or all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (3:27–28).
Paul seems anxious to do away with those categories by which we naturally form our identities, those aspects of our lives of which we are in many ways rightly proud, those dimensions we imagine make us unique and special. Instead he wants to drive home that which really makes us truly remarkable, that which forms our deepest and most astounding identity: our union in Christ Jesus.
The Great Check on Identity Churchmanship
As Rowan Williams noted, identity politics tends to divide us from one another and does not have the tools to bring us back together. Let me note how that works itself out in the culture, and then suggest how those same dynamics can potentially sabotage church unity.
Mark Lilla, professor of humanities at Columbia University, critiqued liberalism’s fixation on identity politics in a recent essay in TheNew York Times.
The fixation on diversity in our schools and in the press has produced a generation of liberals and progressives narcissistically unaware of conditions outside their self-defined groups, and indifferent to the task of reaching out to Americans in every walk of life. At a very young age our children are being encouraged to talk about their individual identities, even before they have them.
He went on to note that the best politics is able to transcend our distinct identities:
It is at the level of electoral politics that identity liberalism has failed most spectacularly, as we have just seen. National politics in healthy periods is not about “difference”; it is about commonality. And it will be dominated by whoever best captures Americans’ imaginations about our shared destiny. Ronald Reagan did that very skillfully, whatever one may think of his vision. So did Bill Clinton, who took a page from Reagan’s playbook.
Had we been paying attention, we might have seen this earlier. Michael Lewis’s newest book, The Undoing Project: A Friendship That Changed Our Minds, talks about the groundbreaking work of Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky in the area of behavior economics. The Prospect Theory (for which Kahneman won the Nobel Prize in 2002) has revolutionized the way we understand how people make decisions.
One aspect of their work looked at how grouping things together shapes decisions we make. In terms of class, race, or ethnicity, Lewis says, they discovered this: “Things are grouped together for a reason, but, once they are grouped, their grouping causes them to seem more like each other than they otherwise would. That is, the mere act of classification reinforces stereotypes.”
In other words, the more we identify ourselves in a particular way in a unique group—I’m male, I’m white, I’m blind, I’m Anglican—the more likely we are to see others in terms of other groupings we label them with and, therefore, to prejudge them. As Lewis put it in a recent Freakonomics podcast, identity politics (one of whose assumed goals is to challenge stereotypes) actually ends up reinforcing stereotypes.
The same dynamics are at play in identity churchmanship, but here’s what checks us from going down that path: This not-so-little reality of union in Christ. As we keep reading the New Testament faithfully, this reality sinks into us more and more deeply. As much as we recognize and rightly take a measure of pride in our social, economic, gender, theological, and many other differences, we’ll keep coming back to the most amazing thing about each of us: We have each died with Christ, and it is not we who live (with all those various identities markers we’re so proud of) but Christ who lives in us. That’s our real glory, that’s our real identity.
Lord, Have Mercy
This does not mean that institutions and churches that sense God’s call to increase their social, ethnic, gender, theological, or whatever diversity should stop, as if that is no longer a divine call on them. It’s one of the unique movements of the Spirit today to see so many Christians engaged in such enterprises.
We certainly feel that call at Christianity Today. We pride ourselves on being an organization that represents “big tent” evangelicalism. We do that well in some areas but not in others. Certainly when it comes to the racial and ethnic diversity of our staff, we can do much better at representing the breadth of our movement. So we’ve committed to change—an initiative we call Culture, Diversity, and Innovation—and, God willing, we’ll be able to make some progress over the next decade.
But as I noted, any group worthy of the name Christian that embarks on such an enterprise will be grounded in the Word, and the Word will help us keep all this in perspective. So I’m not all that concerned about diversity initiatives in Christian groups grounded in Scripture. There’s this self-correcting reality at work in the church that is simply not present in the larger culture.
But I am worried about people like me. For if I am honest, I’m not all that keen on saying, “It is not I who live, but Christ who lives in me.” Let alone, “I have died with Christ.” I have the hardest time losing my life (Mark 8:35)—that is, letting go of my various and sundry identities—even if I’m promised by Jesus that I will gain my life back in a way that is glorious.
It’s a sign of how little I trust God’s goodness. I hear these words and I imagine God saying he wants to erase me, to eradicate my uniqueness, to simply swallow me up so that “I” no longer live but only Christ in me. That’s when I realize that while I believe that Christ is truly God, I’m not so sure he was truly man—that is, the True Man, humanity in its fullness. The late theologian Lewis Smedes said in his book Union with Christ that our union with Christ is “at once the center and circumference of authentic human existence.” My gosh, why wouldn’t I want that? Why wouldn’t I want to die to my identities to get authentic human existence?
And yet, even after 50 years of faith, I still think the most interesting things about me are my gender, my race, my roles in life, my hobbies, my denomination, and so forth. The world has done a good job of shaping me into its mold. This is one reason I keep falling back on that part of Peter’s sermon that comes before the filling of the Holy Spirit: “Repent . . . for the forgiveness of sins.” And why I lean upon Paul’s reminder, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” In Christ Jesus. I know that I really am in Christ and Christ in me, as much as it startles and frightens me some days.
That’s also why this Easter, I’m going to spend more time thinking about the resurrection absences and about the resurrected Lord who has made a home in me in the Holy Spirit. I’m going to pray to let go of the identities I fearfully clutch, and when I walk into church, to stop the labeling that separates me from others—and especially to remember that the most astonishing miracle of Easter is right before my very eyes as I scan the congregation: Christ in us, the hope of glory.
Mark Galli is editor in chief of Christianity Today.
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