Identity in Christ as the Basis of Christianity Identity
New Testament Roots
The authors of the New Testament frequently tried to help the early followers of Jesus understand their new identity as the most important facet of their personal existence. Throughout the Pauline Epistles, for example, one finds the Apostle Paul addressing the various followers of Jesus in different parts of the Roman Empire as “saints” or those who are in Christ. Paul even refers to followers of Jesus, whether Jewish or Gentile, as the “Israel of God.”
The authors of the New Testament prioritized the question of identity precisely because they believed that the true citizenship of all members of the church was first and foremost in the heavenly kingdom. They all believed that after death, Christians would inherit the eschatological kingdom as a direct result of their belonging to the body of Christ. The major concern in this life, these authors believed, was to stay true to this commitment of belonging to Christ’s body, namely, the Church. There were many challenges in the ancient world that potentially prevented the followers of Jesus from following through with this commitment until the end of their lives. For this reason, the apostles laid a heavy emphasis on identity in order to keep the saints focused on the goal of the Christian life, namely, to enjoy communion with God and the saints both now and forever.
Various Titles for Christian Identity
These efforts at reinforcing identity were no accident. Rather, the authors of the New Testament deliberately invoked titles such as saints, sojourners and the twelves tribes of Israel dispersed abroad in order to help the followers of Jesus reconceive their identity precisely in response to the various challenges facing Christians at different times and in different places for the first-century world. These New Testament authors believed that assisting the recipients of their letters with this critical question of their new identity in Christ and as members of the body of Christ would greatly assist them in navigating the difficulties of their commitment to the faith.
Aware of the power of identity in general, Paul and the other apostolic writers began their lengthy letters with these pointed reminders. These authors were acutely cognizant of the fact that identity is one of the most powerful dimensions to human existence. One of the fundamental motivators of human action is the desire to stay consistent with one’s identity.
Professionals in various fields, for example, will often introduce themselves according to their professions such as “I’m a lawyer,” or “I’m a counselor.” These are concise but potent introduction because they reference the guild to which a person belongs. Such brief identity designations say much about people’s vocations and priorities in this world.
Responsibilities of Christian Identity
In a similar manner, the authors of the New Testament make frequent recourse to the question of identity. They were acutely aware of the need to help the new and even seasoned members of the Church recognize their dignities and the responsibilities as members of Christ’s body. In view of such a recognition, the authors of the Gospels, the Epistles and the Acts of the Apostles inspired their listeners to act in new and even countercultural ways.
Recognizing the importance of our Catholic identity is essential in the modern world. Like their early Christian forebears, contemporary Catholic Christians are faced with similar challenges of pluralism, internal challenges to the faith and the question of prioritizing competing identities (e.g., ethnic, professional and religious) as their primary center of identification. In the face of these challenges, Catholics should identify first as Catholic Christians and then according to their other forms of identity (e.g., national, professional, regional etc.)
Join us this week as we provide a preliminary introduction to this question about Catholic identity.