Christians should always reflect critically upon how we use theological language. Yet, we must recognize that sometimes our critical reflection can be corrupted by our cultural location. That is the problem with a recent web article, entitled, “Stop Finding Your Identity in Christ,” by Caleb Morell. The essay contains numerous fallacies and mistakes that provide an example of how not to reason theologically about the topic discussed—the phrase “finding your identity in Christ.”
Of course, the phrase builds upon the common biblical term “in Christ” that is used numerous times in the New Testament (93 in NIV, Morell says 160 although I do not know what version he is using). Morell’s particular problem is with adding “identity” to the phrase. Thus, he starts his argument using guilt by association tactics. John MacArthur, Mark Driscoll, and T.D. Jakes, he observes, wrote about finding your identity in Christ. I doubt one would find many Christians who would “like” all three of them (especially after the latest popular CT podcasts). Yet, he could have made his argument harder by using Neil T. Anderson, Rick Warren, Tim Keller, or others who have written or spoken about this topic. Guilt by association or ad hominem is not sufficient to argue against the phrase.
Next, he uses a Google n-gram form of evidence to demonstrate the phrase “identity in Christ” has not been used after the Reformation until recently. To make his argument stronger, he could have added that “identity” is not found in many translations of the Bible (e.g., NIV). The problem with this argument from silence is that Morell is thinking woodenly and literally instead of conceptually. Taking this literal approach, we could apply it to loads of words we routinely use in Christian circles that are also not found in the Bible. Consider “community,” a word only used negatively one time in the New Testament (NIV). It also has an uneven history of use according to the Google n-gram and has only become popular recently. Does that make it problematic for use in Christian circles? Hardly.
The biblical absence of a word or the recent use of a word is not a reason to start a Christ against culture rage against it. Creative use of language to capture similar biblical concepts is simply part of being made imago Dei. Chronological snobbery works both ways. Of course, if one looks at the Bible conceptually, the astute observer realizes it constantly addresses questions of human identity (e.g., image bearers of God, sinners, saints, etc.).
Why does Morell not see this? It stems from his anemic concept of identity. He claims identity is a “vacuous category,” which is only true in his case because he never defines it. Then, without defining the word, he contends, “[Identity] places a premium on choice through the negation of other identities such as man, brother, father, and son. Thus ‘identity in Christ’ is often used to wrongly undermine legitimate biblical callings, such as gender and nationality.” Interestingly no citations are made to support this “often” claim, although the misuse of a phrase is hardly a reason for not using it (ask any ethicist about “love”).
We see here the core problem with his understanding of identity. He assumes one only chooses identities instead of realizing identities are also bestowed by God or other humans (e.g., I never chose to be a son or a Glanzer). I suspect this tendency stems from his thinking being corrupted by the reductionistic view of identity offered in American higher education that my recent book describes. His definition merely reflects the modern emphasis on individuality and autonomous self-choosing. Oddly, he recognizes, “Scripture teaches that we are embedded in given relationships of mutual obligation to faithfully steward and embrace,” but he never makes the connection to the fact that we label these relationships using identity terms (e.g., neighbor, citizen, friend, mother, father, son, daughter, etc.).
In fact, God constantly reveals himself using these identity terms (e.g., creator, lawgiver, teacher, sculptor, shepherd, judge, husband, etc.) and bestowing identities (e.g., image bearers, sinners, God’s “chosen people,” “my son with whom I am well pleased,” etc.). God reveals in order to describe, as one Oxford-English Dictionary definition of identity puts it, “who or what a person or thing is.”
Yet, based on Morell’s problematic understanding of identity as something that only humans chose, he proceeds to see three dangers. First, he thinks it leads to the neglect of other identities or what he prefers to call vocations (another word not found in the Bible and with an odd usage pattern over the years). Thus, he mistakenly argues, “If identity is chosen [by the individual], what place is there for any other obligation than being faithful to yourself? ….To say, ‘I’m a stay-at-home mom but I identify as a creative writer and thinker’ downplays the legitimacy of motherhood as a divinely sanctioned vocation (Gen. 3:20; Titus 2:4-5).” Here, he commits the either-or fallacy.
Even if identities are solely chosen (which they are not), it does not mean one will choose only to adhere to one’s own individual identity. People choose to adopt and prioritize all kinds of identities in all kinds of different orders. Choosing to be a professional writer does not mean one must neglect being a mother. I chose to be a professor, but when my wife was in bed for a year and we had children aged three and six, I chose to prioritize being a husband to my wife. In other words, even when we do choose our identity priorities, we must as the great commandments tell us to do with our loves—order them according to God’s priorities.
In truth the best way to understand our identity, as I argued in another one of my recent books, Identity in Action, is to start with what God says about us. We are image bearers of God and “God’s people in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 4:21). Then, discovering that we are image bearers of God—finding our identity in Christ—actually helps enhance our other identities. For example, I can choose to be an excellent brother or son even though I did not choose to be one, and I can (and should) choose to allow my identification with the crucified Christ to enhance my understanding of excellence in those identities. Or to use the example I mentioned earlier, finding my identity in Christ enhanced my view of what it meant to be an excellent husband by imitating Christ’s sacrificial love for the church (Eph. 5) when my wife lay in bed. Moreover, only by finding my identity first in Christ and not my performance as a husband, parent, or professor during that time, when I often failed due to exhaustion, could I rest securely in God.
The second danger that worries Morell is that “rather than starting with God’s glory and holiness, the contemporary ‘therapeutic gospel’ often makes God a servant of man’s sense of well-being and Christ’s atonement primarily a statement of man’s worth and loveliness.” Once again, Morell then suggests the corruption of something good means we discard both the corruption and what is good. A better corrective would be to simply point out that we must first understand God’s identity (understood most fully through Christ) and then recognize that the triune God bestows our human identities as gifts, thus leading us to worship the giver and not the gifts. Morell thinks that we must only focus upon the giver and not enjoy or talk about the gift in order to escape idolatrous temptations. That’s a mistake.
Third, Morell claims, “To say that “I now find my identity in Christ” falls into the trap of reducing morality to feelings and emotions.” This statement is problematic on so many different levels. There is nothing about morality, feelings, or emotions in the claim. “I find my identity in Christ” is actually a statement about discovery (“find”) related to the source of ultimate reality—Christ. It is a confession that one’s identity can only be understood in light of ultimate reality.
Finally, to top things off, Morell makes the mistake I see many Christian commentators making on social media these days—proposing a false dichotomy to elevate their own position. He claims we should focus on “union in Christ” instead of our identity in Christ. Actually, we should focus on both our union and identity in Christ. In other words, similar to the way we talk about marriage as both a union (spiritually, physically, economically, etc.) and an identity transformation (perhaps even including a name change much like God bestowed identity name changes upon Abram, Jacob, and Simon), we should understand our relationship with Christ in both ways.
In fact, the gospels and epistles are identity education and formation documents. The gospels are more like screenplays than autobiographies in that the authors choose particular vignettes of Jesus’s life and teaching to emphasize the aspects of Christ’s identity we need to know in order to understand Christ and what it means to be God’s image bearer. Indeed, the gospel of Mark climaxes with an identity question: “Who do you say that I am?” Peter got the identity answer right (e.g., the Messiah), but he got the narrative identity or story of the Messiah wrong (wanting to deny that “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” Mark 8:34b). If we are Christians, we do not get to choose the identity narrative of our Messiah. However, Christ commands us to identify with him by taking up that same cross. So, keep finding your identity in Christ.
While the exhortation to “find your identity in Christ” runs the risk of misunderstanding in a culture that valorizes self-created identities, it is the psychological appropriation of the Spiritual reality of the Christian’s union with Christ. Christians who use the identity expression should regularly connect its foundation to union in Christ but need not jettison the term.