Pastoral Perspectives

What Constitutes our Identity?

Recently, a teenager tried to impersonate a COVID-19 safe distancing enforcement officer at a mall. While a desire to keep others safe in a pandemic is to be applauded, impersonation is not. The teen was arrested for all his trouble after the police deemed his motivations could have been less than honourable. The police reminded the public that safe distancing enforcement officers and ambassadors are identifiable by the passes they hold when performing their duties; also, they do not demand fines for breaching rules to be paid to them. The teen’s masquerade was called into question when he did not possess what constituted the identity he took on—he showed neither the material credentials nor the behaviour expected. 

        In this case, identity necessitates a correspondence with what is real. One cannot legitimately identify as a safe distancing enforcement officer without producing the passes and exhibiting the requisite behaviour. Similarly, one cannot identify as Singaporean before the law without minimally having a record of one’s citizenship in the national registry. To insist on one’s Singaporean identity without any hard evidence takes one either to the police or to the physician. Here, identity must be constituted by what is substantive.

        If so, what substantively constitutes our identity as Christians?

        Years ago, the video Why I Hate Religion But Love Jesus went viral on YouTube. This video by Jefferson Bethke is a passionate, poetic, and scathing criticism of Christianity in North America, revolving around what he perceives to be false religion and what he believes true Christianity is supposed to be. In the video, he condemns “religion” for enslaving Christians to “behaviour modification,” “self-righteousness,” hypocrisy, and the incessant need to “do.” None of these matter in true Christianity because it is about having a relationship with Jesus that liberates and sets us free from the incessant need to “do” and to just be ourselves; everything depends on Jesus and not us: “See, because religion says ‘do’; Jesus says ‘done.’” Unfortunately, Bethke does not define what he means by “religion.” Is it pharisaism? Is it human works? Is it the church as an institution? All of the above? Whatever he may mean, it is clearly the opposite of whatever Jesus stands for.

         Bethke’s imprecision with words did not bother the internet. His short video went viral quickly—gaining millions of views in days (and now after 8 years it has more than 34 million views), along with heaps of positive responses—indicating that his message resonated favourably with many in North America and around the world. While much of his criticism seems valid, he goes too far in disparaging the “externals” of Christianity. He believes the need to do certain things, or having to behave in certain ways is inimical to true Christianity. This means there is nothing substantive constituting one’s Christian identity. In fact there is no need for anything substantive; it is all about one’s faith in Jesus and one’s personal relationship with him. “See, because religion says ‘do’; Jesus says ‘done.’”

        So one can legitimately identify as Christian without substantiating his claim with anything real or concrete. The Christian identity is constituted by a sheer assertion stemming from a private persuasion. This is what Charles Taylor, a Christian philosopher, would consider as “excarnation,” a process by which Christianity is dis-embodied and de-ritualised, and becomes a mere belief system. One can identify as Christian without needing to go to church on Sundays or do good works in the name of Christ, but simply do so out of an abstract belief in Christ. Judging by the response to Bethke’s video, a dis-embodied and de-ritualised Christianity is now considered by many to be true Christianity!

        All this would have seemed strange to the nascent church, which as early as the end of the first century had already worked out a manual of Christian instruction known as the didache. It showed how anyone wishing to identify as Christians are to live their lives. This means they could not consider themselves Christians (and would not be considered as such) unless they adhered to the instructions of the Christian community. Before anyone could take on the identity of a Christian, one must first be properly taught from the manual and then be baptised. Only those who were obedient to the instructions could partake of the eucharist (Holy Communion) and be regarded as Christians. In fact, the manual instructs Christians to “[g]ather together frequently, seeking the things that benefit your souls, for all the time you have believed will be of no use to you if you are not found perfect in the last time.” Salvation was not about mere abstract personal belief or a one-time “decision for Jesus”, but an active life of “prayers and acts of charity” until they die.

        To the early Christians, these constitute the Christian identity apart from an assent to Jesus as Lord: participation in the sacraments, living a holy life, and a pursuit of good works in the name of Jesus. Theirs was a full-orbed, robust understanding of the Christian life and identity. The Christian life cannot be reduced to certain doctrines, nor can the Christian identity be reduced to sheer belief.

        Perhaps the dis-embodied and de-ritualised “religionless” Christianity which has no need for its adherents to substantiate their identity is a strange contemporary outworking of the Reformational focus on justification by faith alone. For Reformers to claim this singular doctrine as the pillar upon which the church stands or falls is a short step away from making it the only thing which matters in Christianity. After all, we are “saved” only because we are justified by faith. Are we justified by gathering in church on Sundays? If not, then it is inconsequential—we are not saved by it. Are we justified by the sacraments? If not, they are inconsequential—we are not saved by them. Are we justified by doing good works? If not, they are inconsequential—we are not saved by them. Nothing else really matters apart from being justified by faith alone. “Excarnation” takes place.

        Certainly, this was not what the Reformers had in mind when they made this doctrine out to be the load-bearing pillar of the church, since religion—the “externals”—remained important for them. Yet, our contemporary predilection for a “religionless” Christianity is certainly a pathological outcome of an unhealthy fixation on it.

        To be clear here, it is true we are justified by faith. However, we are only justified insofar as we are united to Christ. As New Testament scholar Matthew Bates puts it,

properly speaking, at the present time Jesus the king is the only person who has already been directly judged by God (the Father), found to be in the right (justified), and vindicated. His resurrection from the dead is proof of his innocence—that he truly has been justified. Resurrection constitutes Jesus’ deliverance and total vindication.

        Our justification results from union with Christ. Hence, if we are justified by faith, it means we are united to Christ; “we have been buried with him by baptism into death” and “just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father,” “so we too … walk in newness of life” (Rom. 6.4). In the same vein of relating justification to union with Christ, the New Testament scholar Michael Gorman defines justification as

the establishment of right covenantal relations—fidelity to God and love for neighbor—by means of God’s grace in Christ’s death and our co-crucifixion with him. Justification therefore means co-resurrection with Christ to new life within the people of God now and the certain hope of acquittal, and thus resurrection to eternal life, on the day of judgement.

        To think of salvation as union with Christ and participation in Christ changes our perception of justification by faith. To quote theologian Andrew Root,

To have faith is to be in Christ; it is, paradoxically, to receive the justifying action that renders you passive. You are told to stop working and just receive the free ministry of the Father through the Son in your person … But having passively received this free ministry, you are also sent by the Spirit to join the person of Jesus by ministering to your neighbor.

        Far from resulting in “excarnation,” to properly understand justification vis-a-vis union with Christ brings about a life of actively working out our salvation with fear and trembling (Phil. 2.12) that results in “prayers and acts of charity.”

        As Gregory of Nyssa once remarked, “If therefore someone puts on the name of Christ, but does not exhibit in his life what is indicated by the term, such person belies the name and puts on a lifeless mask.” What we put on in name, we also put on in our outward living such that the latter constitutes the former. If we identify as Christians but are unable to substantiate this identity, then perhaps we ought to repent and ask God for his grace to live our lives in. a manner worthy to carry his Son’s name.


Pr Png Eng Keat

November 22, 2020