“Identity”: Duane W.H. Arnold PhD
We were discussing matters of Church polity, practice and doctrine. He made the comment that many of his views had changed since his early days as a Christian. “It’s natural, I’m a different person than I was back then. I’ve matured a bit, I’ve learned, I’ve developed and I don’t think the Holy Spirit is through with me yet, I’m still learning who I am and what I’m supposed to be, but I’m not quite sure how to describe myself these days…”
Reading this, I could do nothing but agree. We take it as a matter of course that as we grow older we change. Yes, we still have the “inner core” of who we are, but we also refine our thought process, our judgements and, hopefully, we recognize our innate prejudices and seek to temper them accordingly.
This is especially true, I think, when it comes to the issue of identity. As we develop, it is a continuing search for “self-description”.
For instance, in a recent discussion, we tried to define the term “evangelical” (a term which many apply to themselves) and found it to be a difficult task. There are few clear markers that all might agree upon. Secular survey companies come up with an essentially sociological/political definition. Denominations who claim the term, place it within their own particular set of self-defining statements of faith. So called “online discernment ministries” set the term within a narrow definition of their own making, surrounded by the paranoia that is symptomatic of the deluded who believe that they alone know the truth. Some, who actually carry many of the distinctions associated with the term “evangelical” – high view of Scripture, conversion, mission oriented, substitutionary atonement – still reject the term out of hand as not being descriptive of their faith.
Now, if this is the case with the term, “evangelical”, how much more difficult is it to deal with the far more basic description, “Christian”? As an adjective, it’s used with all the abandon of ketchup at a roadside diner… you can put it on everything. So now we have “Christian radio”, “Christian movies”, “Christian books”, “Christian music”, “Christian counseling”, “Christian festivals”, “Christian social action”… you name it and we can add the adjective. Rather than helping to define the term, however, its diffusion has only added to the confusion of what it really means. In politics these days, you often hear that America is a “Christian nation” founded on “Christian values” (never mind that most of the Founding Fathers were actually enlightenment Deists). Then again, on the other side of the divide are those who claim the name “Christian” in arguing for a more inclusive approach to LGBTQ rights (in the Church and society at large) along with a whole host of other social issues upon which there are widely diverging opinions.
Try as we might, however, it seems we cannot claim the description as exclusively our own.
Scripture indicates (Acts 26:11) that believers first acquired the designation in Antioch. Interestingly enough, however, it does not seem to be an appellation that they claimed for themselves. We are simply told that it was first in Antioch that they were “called Christians” – that is, others applied the term to them; they didn’t take it on themselves. The term literally means “follower of Christ”. Something about the life, teaching and conduct of this small group of Jews and Gentiles was extraordinary enough that those who knew of them simply called them, “followers of Christ”.
Maybe, however, that is the point – It’s not about us, it’s about who we follow.
In the mid to late second century, a Christian named Mathetes, sent a letter to Diognetus (possibly the tutor of the emperor, Marcus Aurelius) in which he gave a description of what he understood it meant to bear the appellation, “Christian”. In our current day and age, we might do well to give it consideration…
“For the Christians are distinguished from other men neither by country, nor language, nor the customs which they observe. For they neither inhabit cities of their own, nor employ a peculiar form of speech, nor lead a life which is marked out by any singularity. The course of conduct which they follow has not been devised by any speculation or deliberation of inquisitive men; nor do they, like some, proclaim themselves the advocates of any merely human doctrines. But, inhabiting Greek as well as barbarian cities, according as the lot of each of them has determined, and following the customs of the natives in respect to clothing, food, and the rest of their ordinary conduct, they display to us their wonderful and confessedly striking method of life. They dwell in their own countries, but simply as sojourners. As citizens, they share in all things with others, and yet endure all things as if foreigners. Every foreign land is to them as their native country, and every land of their birth as a land of strangers. They marry, as do all [others]; they beget children; but they do not destroy their offspring. They have a common table, but not a common bed. They are in the flesh, but they do not live after the flesh. They pass their days on earth, but they are citizens of heaven. They obey the prescribed laws, and at the same time surpass the laws by their lives. They love all men, and are persecuted by all. They are unknown and condemned; they are put to death, and restored to life. They are poor, yet make many rich; they are in lack of all things, and yet abound in all; they are dishonored, and yet in their very dishonor are glorified. They are evil spoken of, and yet are justified; they are reviled, and bless; they are insulted, and repay the insult with honor; they do good, yet are punished as evil-doers. When punished, they rejoice as if quickened into life; they are assailed by the Jews as foreigners, and are persecuted by the Greeks; yet those who hate them are unable to assign any reason for their hatred.
To sum up all in one word–what the soul is in the body, that are Christians in the world. The soul is dispersed through all the members of the body, and Christians are scattered through all the cities of the world. The soul dwells in the body, yet is not of the body; and Christians dwell in the world, yet are not of the world. The invisible soul is guarded by the visible body, and Christians are known indeed to be in the world, but their godliness remains invisible. The flesh hates the soul, and wars against it, though itself suffering no injury, because it is prevented from enjoying pleasures; the world also hates the Christians, though in nowise injured, because they abjure pleasures. The soul loves the flesh that hates it, and [loves also] the members; Christians likewise love those that hate them. The soul is imprisoned in the body, yet preserves that very body; and Christians are confined in the world as in a prison, and yet they are the preservers of the world. The immortal soul dwells in a mortal tabernacle; and Christians dwell as sojourners in corruptible [bodies], looking for an incorruptible dwelling in the heavens. The soul, when but ill-provided with food and drink, becomes better; in like manner, the Christians, though subjected day by day to punishment, increase the more in number. God has assigned them this illustrious position…”
Duane W.H. Arnold, PhD