In early February 2022, American Reformer published a provocative article by Caleb Morell titled “Stop Finding Your Identity in Christ.” Morell first notes the prevalence of this “identity in Christ” phrase in Christian literature, explaining that this language “exploded in the 1980s, particularly as Christians began borrowing this emerging term from secular psychology.” In the second half of his article, Morell unpacks three dangers of carelessly using “identity in Christ” language, followed by four alternatives.
Later in February, Perry Glanzer published a response at the Christian Scholar’s Review blog: “Keep Finding Your Identity in Christ.” The subtitle announced that he was “responding to sloppy Christian reasoning about identity.” Glanzer highlights what he sees as “numerous fallacies and mistakes” in Morell’s article and concludes by urging Christians to “keep finding your identity in Christ.”
In very broad terms, Morell’s article rejects (or strongly advises against using) what he calls “an unbiblical phrase”—that is, “identity in Christ”—and Glanzer’s article reassures Christians that such usage is entirely appropriate. My suggestion below is not a third way per se regarding identity in general, but more of a middle way between the two approaches of Morell and Glanzer. I first want to clarify a few of the fallacy charges, then largely agree that we can keep the language of “identity in Christ,” and conclude by highlighting an important caution in the inciting article.
First, Morell’s article may not contain as many fallacies as Glanzer detects. Glanzer first sees a “guilt by association” or ad hominem fallacy, because Morell refers to John MacArthur, Mark Driscoll, and T. D. Jakes as popular Christian writers who have used the phrase “identity in Christ.” I confess that I do not know what the ad hominem attack might be. Glanzer seems to assume that Morell uses these three men as negative examples, since perhaps few people would like all three of them. This would be the guilt by association tactic—if distasteful people use a phrase, then the phrase must be inappropriate. Glanzer points to other (perhaps more likeable) writers such as Neil T. Anderson, Rick Warren, and Tim Keller, arguing that if Morell had mentioned them, then Morell’s argument would have been more difficult.
My reading, however, is that Morell did not choose his original three men because of their lack of likability, but rather because he thought they represented a spectrum of Christian positions, from fundamentalist to heterodox. (Morell cites singer Lauren Daigle too, who is presumably pretty likeable.) His point is that this recent “identity in Christ” language ranges across a wide variety of Christian writers, which seems to be a fair and true enough observation.
Glanzer then argues that Morell makes an argument from silence by allegedly dismissing the “identity in Christ” phrase simply because it is relatively new, and it does not appear explicitly in the Bible. Glanzer adds, correctly, that “the misuse of a phrase is hardly a reason for not using it.” But again, I am not convinced that Morell makes such an argument. Noting that a phrase does not appear recently or in the Bible is not an argument from silence if it is combined with another argument. Morell acknowledges that the word identity “may have been initially smuggled into Christian vocabulary as a Christianized adaptation of ‘self-esteem’ literature.” He seems to accept such a practice, but he also wants to consider the “unintended implications” of the phrase’s usage.
Throughout his response, Glanzer makes more accusations of logical fallacies, and while I am not sure that all of the charges land, I do think that in general Morell’s case for being careful about using the phrase “identity in Christ” does not ultimately require us to abandon such language completely. Glanzer is right to highlight other words such as community that appear infrequently (or negatively) in Scripture and have become popular only recently. Church fathers such as Origen and Augustine wrote of the practice of plundering the Egyptians, and as Morell even hints, Christians can appropriate phrases that originate in secular contexts by turning their language toward the service of Christ. With proper qualifications at appropriate times, we can use phrases that are not inherently problematic. We need not view those who use “identity in Christ” language as if they were trying to smuggle arsenic into a preschool. And surely we can agree that it is fair to be cautious about appropriating therapeutic language in an already over-psychologized church.
At the same time, Morell makes a point that bears repeating, and it is a point that, if understood correctly, I imagine Glanzer may agree with. The first danger Morell lists is the way that “identity in Christ” language can occasionally (or frequently) downplay other identities. Specifically, it is common to hear people say some variety of the following: “I don’t find my identity in X; I find my identity in Christ” (no chi pun intended).
The problem with this language is that identities are often rooted in roles, and it is entirely appropriate for, say, someone in the role of a father to identify as a father. At its most basic level, identity concerns how one sees oneself, particularly in relation to groups. (It is difficult, though perhaps not impossible, to identify as something absolutely unique—a set with one element. Such identification is meaningless except as it stands in contrast to what it is not, and in that case, we are back to group dynamics.) It is fitting for someone to identify as a female, or an Asian, or an American, or a Lutheran, or a dentist—as long as those identities align with reality.
Morell is right to caution against saying “I’m not American because my identity is in Christ” because such language “ignores the boundary lines of geography and time that God has allotted for us.” Given realities such as sex and ethnicity cannot be changed, and other realities such as one’s nationality or vocation, while changeable, have significant ramifications that should not be dismissed. On the other hand, totalizing a lesser identity can be extremely dangerous, because if a role disappears (e.g., a parent whose children die, someone who loses a longtime job, etc.), life may seem unstable and perhaps even not worth living.
These examples of fatherhood and nationality deserve some expansion, because while few people may explicitly say, “I am not a father” or “I am not an American,” current cultural tensions have created difficulties for expressing enthusiasm for certain identities. Fatherhood is intrinsically connected to maleness and masculinity, and the confusion regarding these areas leads to polarized positions, with some claiming that traditional masculinity is inherently harmful, and others unashamedly claiming that it’s good to be a man. Moreover, debates about “tribalism” and “Christian nationalism” have complicated legitimate gratitude for one’s country. The 2020 record low in American pride may not have immediately obvious ramifications, but the average civilian’s sense of loyalty and duty to one’s country surely has some effect on areas such as military recruitment.
The issues are complex, and sometimes there may be cause for shame regarding the actions of others in our groups. Yet the poor actions of some should not erase a group’s value. Therefore, while an explicit rejection of roles such as fatherhood or citizenship may be uncommon, the morally charged debates over these issues has led many people to downplay expressions of appreciation for God-given realities and circumstances, and the ramifications may be even more far-reaching than personal expression.
One of the ways that our culture has pushed back against the downplaying or erasure of certain identities is by resisting the descriptor “color blind.” It used to be common for those distancing themselves from discriminatory ideology to claim to be color blind. But what people quickly realized or re-affirmed is not only that ethnicity matters as far as group experiences are concerned, but also that legitimate cultural and ethnic differences ought to be celebrated, not erased. And one of the unintentional implications of “color blind” language was just such an erasure.
Additionally, as Dave Chappelle and others have pointed out, when it comes to LGBT issues, the Ls tend not to get along with the Ts, precisely because transgenderism erases the very differences that give Ls their sense of mission. To be blunt, if womanhood is practically nonexistent because gender is fluid, then women’s rights is a nonsensical category. Womanhood means literally nothing and can be appropriated by anyone at any time. J. K. Rowling continues to take a lot of heat on Twitter for opposing the trans movement, but she is determined not to allow activists to erase the distinctives that give feminists purpose and even meaningful existence.
One of the consequences of downplaying or erasing other distinctives, sometimes with the help of Galatians 3:28, is that we can lose the ability to speak intelligently about the significance of lesser identities. I am willing to guess that the average Christian cannot astutely define and defend masculinity or femininity. What is a man? What is a woman? What implications does biology have for societal roles? Is the fact that many people today, including Christians, cannot articulate clear answers to these questions an unintentional effect of overemphasizing “identity in Christ” language and downplaying lesser identities?
As I think both Morell and Glanzer would agree, lesser identities (or roles or callings) should never take precedent over our union with Christ. When other identifying characteristics such as class or status fall away, our stability will not be in how much money we make or who our friends are. Christians’ ultimate identity is in Christ—we are children of God and co-heirs with Christ. Nevertheless, while ultimate worth and value are not found in identities or roles, it is fitting to find some proximate worth and value in those realities, whether given or chosen. Our identity in Christ should stabilize our other identities, not erase them.