Have you ever “unfollowed” one of your Christian friends on Facebook because you couldn’t handle their political views? Or maybe you received criticism because of who you voted for in the last election. Have you ever found yourself longing for the good old days in the worship service when the songs were recognizable and the volume was bearable? Do they really have to sing the same choruses over and again? Or can you recall a situation when you felt uncomfortable with “those kind of people” when you noticed them in a church service, people different from you in some significant way? Perhaps you thought they would be more comfortable in a service that was designed for their own kind. Politics, worship styles, and personal biases are just some of the challenges church folk face as they try to navigate their personal identity along with their membership in the body of Christ.
The lens that the Bible uses to help us understand ourselves is both individual and collective. The church is one body made of many members (1 Cor. 12:27). We cannot see ourselves as mere individuals. Yet we do not lose our individual identity in Christ (1 Cor. 7:18–20). In the New Testament, the designation “temple of the Holy Spirit” (1 Cor. 6:19 ESV) is ascribed both to the individual believer and the entire faith community. The church is a collective by nature. The bond that knits individual believers together is spiritual. We are joined to one another because we are united with Christ. Unfortunately, this spiritual reality does not guarantee either a cohesive culture or a community that expresses mutual concern for its individual members.
It’s no accident that the epistle that speaks most clearly of our identity as one among many was addressed to the sharply divided church in Corinth. It alerts us to the pitfalls we face in wrestling with our identity. Some in Corinth overidentified with their leaders in a way that set them against others. They even identified themselves with Christ in a way that set them against other members of Christ’s body. In order to have a biblically shaped identity, we must learn to hold our individual identity in balance with our corporate identity. And Paul shows us a way to do this in his letter to Philemon. We must know when to subordinate the particularities of our individual sense of self to our collective identity as part of the body of Christ.
DIVISIONS IN THE BODY IN CORINTH
One of the many problems the Corinthian church wrestled with was an overidentification with their Roman social identity. We see this unhealthy tendency in many of their actions. They were dividing around key personalities (1 Cor. 1:12). They over-relied on the world’s wisdom (1 Cor. 2:5). They had an inordinate trust in Roman officials (1 Cor. 2:6–9). They had a misplaced confidence in Roman law courts, which were central in enforcing Roman identity (1 Cor. 6:1–11). And their social hierarchy relied on patronage relationships, the primary economic model in antiquity (1 Cor. 3:3–4; 4:8; 11:17–34). Civic identity had become a problem for the congregation, which resulted in “divisions” within the body (1 Cor. 11:18). This was so much the case that Paul had to ask, “Is Christ divided?” (1 Cor. 1:13).
We see Paul’s goal for the community in 1 Corinthians 1:10: “I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another in what you say and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly united in mind and thought.” To accomplish this, Paul addresses issues related to identity in chapters 1–4, and then he instructs the Corinthians on issues related to individual ethics in chapters 5–10. In chapters 11–16, he offers guidance in the formation of the group’s ethos. Paul recognized that identity influences individual ethics, which when expressed in a group setting also produce a group ethos. Leaders seeking to maintain or restore unity in a church need to sustain a balanced focus on these three areas: identity, ethics, and ethos.
Paul focuses on the transformation of the group ethos in the last part of the letter, and after addressing issues related to worship practices, he writes, “Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ” (1 Cor. 12:12). is may be another example of Corinthian Roman social identity causing problems in the church. e imagery of a group of people as a body was well-known in Roman politics. Menenius Agrippa used it to reestablish a hierarchical relationship between the senate and the plebeians. His point was that each segment of society had a role to play and should remain in their social stations for the common good. His purpose was to maintain the existing order for the ruling elites and to tell the masses they had no choice but to submit to this order.
In light of the problems in Corinth associated with Roman political identity, it’s likely that just such a status-based approach to communal life had taken root in the church, especially when one considers the mistreatment of the poor at the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor. 11:17–34). Paul, as an intercultural mediator, took this well-known imagery and reused it to point out the way status reversals are the norm within the church. Those who were undesirables among the Romans were given honor in the “body” (1 Cor. 12:22–24). It is likely that the problems associated with tongues were also linked to social strati cation (1 Cor. 14:18–20). Paul identified with the higher-status group initially but then switched to o er a transformed approach to worship. “In declaring this,” Kar Lim explains, “Paul is also instructing those who perceived that they might have higher social status because of the possession of the gift of tongues to give up their rights to speak for the sake of the weaker brother so that there would be no schism in the body (1 Cor. 12:25).” By doing this, Paul is marking identity boundaries for the group and noting that they are different than the status-based ones evident in the broader culture. The identity of the group as the body of Christ is made evident through the inclusion of the weak and poor, those the broader culture would set aside as deplorable.
IDENTIFICATION WITH CHRIST
Paul emphasized the close connection between Christ and those who claim to follow Him. This may harken to his experience on the Damascus road where the risen Christ associated the members of the church with Himself (Acts 9:1–5). Identification with Christ refers to the position every believer has in Jesus on the basis of His work and the appropriation of it by the individual believer’s faith. This is accomplished by the Holy Spirit as an act of divine grace. Paul describes it in 1 Corinthians 12:13 when he writes, “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.” And in Galatians 3:27, he describes this experience as being “baptized into Christ.”
We are united with Christ (John 15:1–6; Gal. 2:20; Eph. 2:6). Scripture’s teaching on our union with Christ is crucial for the formation of a salient identity. Theologian J. Todd Billings describes it this way: “Union with Christ . . . entails the giving of a new identity such that in Christ, forgiveness and new life are received through the Spirit. Union with Christ involves abiding in Christ the Vine. It means that through the Spirit, sinners are adopted in the household of God as co-heirs with Christ.” Those who are in Christ have at their disposal the cognitive, evaluative, and emotional resources to overcome a life of failure, guilt, and frustration—both personally and with others (1 Cor. 2:10–16).
The last phrase, “with others,” is especially important. Union with Christ is not just a personal doctrine. It is also a social one. As a result of being united to Christ the Head, all individual believers—members of Christ’s body—are united to each other. Naomi Ellemers recognizes that the three components mentioned above (cognitive, evaluative, and emotional) contribute to a sense of social identity: “a cognitive component (a cognitive awareness of one’s membership in a social group— self-categorization), an evaluative component (a positive or negative value connotation attached to this group membership—group self-esteem), and an emotional component (a sense of emotional involvement with the group—affective commitment).” These three components are important to keep in mind as we seek to uphold the unity of the church while maintaining and honoring our respective differences. Too often, union with Christ is seen only as a theological point and not a social one. It is more than a point of belief. It is also a way of life.
Seeing union with Christ only as a doctrine often results in the fossilization of Christian identity. Fossilization occurs when theological constructs designed to address earlier cultural settings are transported to a different era without proper contextualization. The way to overcome fossilization is to translate union with Christ in a way that retains its essential content while restating it in contemporary terms. Union with Christ doesn’t require only one way of living. Christian identity adapts to various cultural circumstances. William S. Campbell notes that in-Christ language is metaphorical. But on what basis is the believer’s being in Christ or in union with Christ construed as a metaphor rather than a reality? Being in Christ is conceptual (lending coherence to Paul’s writing) and also contributes to shaping these new realities based on existing ways of acting, knowing, and communicating. In this way, in Christ becomes a “metaphor we live by.”
J. BRIAN TUCKER (BS, Lee College; MA, Liberty University; MDiv, Michigan Theological Seminary; DMin, Michigan Theological Seminary; PhD, University of Wales, Lampeter) is Professor of New Testament at Moody Theological Seminary and Honorary Research Fellow at the University of Wales, Trinity Saint David in the United Kingdom. In his spare time, he enjoys science fiction and playing and listening to jazz.
JOHN KOESSLER serves as chair of the pastoral studies department at Moody Bible Institute, where he has served on the faculty since 1994. He is an award-winning author who has written thirteen books and numerous magazine articles. He writes the monthly “Theology Matters” column for Today in the Word and is a frequent workshop leader at the Moody Pastor’s Conference. Prior to joining the Moody faculty, John served as a pastor of Valley Chapel in Green Valley, Illinois, for nine years. He is married to Jane and they live in Munster, Indiana.
Taken from All Together Different: Upholding the Church’s Unity While Honoring Our Individual Identities by J. Brian Tucker and John Koessler (©2018). Published by Moody Publishers. Used by permission.