23 Apr Jesus, The Church, And My Cultural Identity: Part III
The Church Provides A Corporate Identity
Apparently, it’s not proper to use expressions like “y’all” or “you’s guys” when you translate the Bible. That’s too bad. When you read the New Testament in English, you lose something very important. It’s something that is very obvious in Greek or Spanish or any other language that has an accepted written form of you (plural). Yep, the New Testament letters were written to groups of people (y’all), not to individuals. There are exceptions of course, but it’s important to remember.
Personalizing the Bible, or making it “your own” is good. But it isn’t good to lose a sense of the group identity the Bible wants you to feel. What does this have to do with a biblical understanding of cultural identity? Everything.
But first, let’s explore group identity a little more. It’s expressed in many ways in the New Testament. I want to point out three of them to show the variety of expressions in the New Testament.
When I talk about personal identity, you probably think very quickly about Paul’s expressions of being “in Christ.” Let’s go to Romans 6:3-4 to see an example:
“Are you unaware that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we were buried with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too may walk in newness of life.”
We often think of this happening to us individually. I got baptized. I was “buried with Christ”…so I can “live a new life.” And this is true. But the New Testament wants us to see this as God sees it—as a corporate event. We’re all baptized in Christ together. Our baptism unites us.
In other words, the “in Christ” identity we talk about in the New Testament is not just to keep me from acting “out of character.” “In Christ” identity statements in the New Testament are to remind us that we are united together with a common identity.
In the Roman’s passage above, Paul is using “we” language. The passage clearly refers to us all. So, let’s not lose sight of the corporate emphasis when we read something like Ephesians 2:8: “For you are saved by grace through faith, and this is not from yourselves; it is God’s gift.” Or when we read Romans 12:1–2:
“Therefore, brothers and sisters, in view of the mercies of God, I urge you to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God; this is your true worship. Do not be conformed to this age, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may discern what is the good, pleasing, and perfect will of God.”
The “you” there is “y’all.”
“In Christ” identity statements are not the only identity statements in the New Testament, of course. Before Paul even met Jesus, Jesus called people to be His followers. The idea of being a follower of Christ has huge implications for identity.
In Matthew 4:18-22, the language is strong and shocking. James and John forsook their responsibilities and their family to follow Jesus. Zebedee’s sons were known by their trade, their family, and by the ancestral lands they lived on. And they forsook them. They traded identities.
Being identified as a disciple already transcends cultural boundaries in the gospels. It doesn’t require them to forsake every aspect of their cultural identity, but becoming a follower of Jesus took precedence over a large portion of what had been their enculturated, personal identities.
Another important group identity in the New Testament is that of priesthood (1 Peter 2:1-10). Peter is writing to a diverse group of Christians. In this passage, he refers to the entire group with the language of Exodus 19! Think of the impact. He calls Gentile Christians a royal priesthood, God’s special people who share a corporate identity with Israel. Together God’s people (Jew and Gentile) form a royal priesthood that is set apart to represent God to the world. Their corporate identity is more important than regional or ethnic identities. (Of course this shouldn’t have been too much of a surprise. Isaiah already foretold it in Isaiah 66:21.)
So, we have a corporate (or group) identity as God’s people who are redeemed and set apart for His purposes. Does that mean our cultural identities are unimportant? No. Jesus dignifies your cultural identity by gladly receiving worship from you—your cultural identity is valuable to Him. It just means that our cultural identities are set in a context.
Our identities are bound together in such a way that gives us freedom to live fully in both our ethnic and corporate identities. In our next and final post, we will explore this idea with the hopes of celebrating the unique blessing of being the people of God living together in the church of God.
Wesley Price lives in East Atlanta with his amazing wife, Angey. Cullen and Lincoln are the little people that you see them with. Wesley was previously a worship pastor for 12 years, and now works in IT. Angey and Wesley are members of Blueprint Church and are a part of the Grant Park Missional Community.