I believe that one of the reasons we are having trouble with disunity in the church is related to the issue of identity. I propose that our inability to hear oneanother on topics of faith (i.e doctrine, exegesis), culture (politics, modernism, social justice) has to do with our individual failure to understand and embrace our Biblical identity and purpose. Let me lay out my argument and you can decide if I have made my case.
Who am I? Who are you? In the context answering the scribe who asked the Lord which is the first commandment of all, we hear Jesus’ response, "And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength: this is the first commandment. And the second is like, namely this, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. There is none other commandment greater than these.” Mark 12:30,31.
The scribe’s grasp of the significance of Jesus answer is reflected in his next comment, “Well, Master, thou hast said the truth: for there is one God; and there is non other but He: and to love Him with all the heart…and to love his neighbor as himself, is more than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” (v. 32) The scribe understood the preeminence of God (Who He is) and the implications for man (who we are and what our purpose is in Him).
I believe that in order to fulfill Jesus’ desire for us, voiced in His prayer in John 17:21, that all believers be in unity, we must start with a proper perspective of our identity. We find this, as the scribe did, in the context of our understanding of who God is. He is our Creator God and, as the scribe concluded “there is none other but He”. Mark 12:32. Revelation 4:11 highlights the fact that we were made for Him: for the pleasure, glory and honor of a God who is the embodiment of love. Therefore we are to love God with our heart, soul, mind, and strength. Then we go from there, by the enabling power of His grace, to love our neighbor as we love ourselves.
If we seek to create an identity outside of Him, we likewise adopt a different purpose and priorities in our lives. We, essentially are seeking to bring glory to ourselves. This clearly violates the original purpose of our creation, and there is no lasting joy in that approach. Consider one of the Bible’s descriptions of our identity and glorious destiny: ”But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God's own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who has called you out of darkness into his marvelous light; for you once were not a people, but now you are the people of God; you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.”1 Peter 2:9-10. Our greatest fulfillment can be found only in embracing our identity as sons and daughters of the only true God, destined to reproduce His character of love and reflect His glory.
The problem with disunity in the body of Christ, as I see it, is that, if my personal identity has not been shaped by the word of God, then, it has evolved in my flesh, over the course of my life. It is actually a composite of several identities - one at home, another at work, and at church and out in the world. I have a basic need, in my flesh, for a sense of control and to be perceived as being right. My sense of worthiness is tied up with having these things. I am driven by my desire for fulfillment, misguided, though it may be in the eyes of God, and I am threatened by those who disagree with me.
Even as I seek to be a worthy Christian, a great husband, father, grandfather, and person, I come into conflict when I bump into anyone who challenges my identity - my ’self’, my ideas and my perceived worthiness. In this self centered state, one or more of any number of negative thoughts, feelings and emotions can surface. A fear of failure, of not looking good, a sense of rejection, hurt pride, shame, etc., can raise its ugly head. Pride, selfishness and/or fear can be at the bottom of it. When I forget that “in God have I put my trust, I will not be afraid what man can do unto me” Psalm 56.11. I feel my identity threatened.
When someone disagrees with me at home, at church, or in a social forum, my identity is on the line. If I want to be accepted, while holding a minority position on some issue, I may be tempted to compromise. If I fear that my employment is at stake by stating my position, I will more likely be silent. The alternative is to speak up and risk becoming an outcast or being ignored. Am I alone in this human struggle?
Where do I go from here? Recognizing my vulnerabilities, I need to begin “casting down imaginations and every high thing that exalted itself against the knowledge of God, and bringing into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ.” 2 Corinthians 10:5. I must make matters of identity, (including my sense of belonging, being esteemed, and need for being actualized), and even my basic needs (food, shelter, safety) subject to the authority of Jesus Christ. How do I do this practically? That deserves much more discussion than can be done here. But the bottom line is, if my identity is found in Him, I must abide in Him. This requires that I choose to “die daily” to my natural selfishness, my love of my own opinion, my need of control, etc., and come under the control of His Holy Spirit and the authority of His word.
What am I to do? First of all, get clear on my identity in Jesus. Do I identify myself as a child of God? Redeemed by His blood? Then my identity is lost in Him, and my sense of worth found in Him. “...For without me ye can do nothing” John 15:5.
It is only then that I will truly be able to love my neighbor (which starts with my spouse, my children, my brethren, my neighbors, and then the world at large). If I take a hard look at my life and find that I’m not flourishing in the inner circle, then that is where I need to focus my work. I need to start there. Then as I begin to reflect God’s character to them, I can be better prepared to dialogue with the brethren on issues of faith and culture. Not before.
If we, as the professed body of Christ, fail to understand who God is from the only accurate source—the Bible, we will default to an understanding corrupted by the world, our natural pride and/or selfishness and the result will be idolatry (allegiance to anyone or anything above God). If we fail to shape our personal identity and purpose on God’s own revelation of our identity and His purpose for our creation, we will naturally be unable to love others as we love ourselves, as we have been commanded.
May we, like the scribe in Mark 12:32, 33 come to acknowledge the preeminence of God and embrace our identity in Jesus and our overarching purpose of reflecting His love to others in every circumstance. May we submit to His authority and choose, by faith, to live by every word that proceeds out of His mouth, no matter what the cost. We will thus be empowered by His Spirit to stand loyal to Him, while loving our neighbors as we love ourselves. Our identity as true sons and daughters of God will be evident, as we treat those of our brethren, whose perspective may be at variance with ours, with respect, Christian love, kindness and tenderness. Then Jesus’ prayer for love and unity among believers, will be fulfilled in our lives, “that the world may believe…” John 17:21.