By Regina Pei-Chan
With edits, additions and formatting by Stephanie Nannen and Jason Poon
Identity asks the questions, Who am I? and What makes me, me? For Christians, there are many resources that highlight the wonderful things which are true of each of us when we join God’s family. Numerous passages from the New Testament describe how we are accepted, secure, and significant as God’s children. These marvelous truths about our identity in Christ are important theological anchors for us. (1)
But what do they mean for us in our day-to-day realities? Are these truths connected in some way to the morally neutral and “non-spiritual” things you and I embody—things such as one’s ethnicity, gender, age, and socioeconomic background? The article “Epic Is About Identity” reminds us that a person’s identity in Christ is “lived out and experienced in the various contexts of a person’s life.” Do these facets of my identity in context matter? And if so, how do they relate to my identity in Christ?
Some commentators emphasize what God has done for us, and make the case that whose you are (identity in Christ) is more important than who you are (identity in context.)
Epic believes the two are deeply connected and intertwined—that our identity in Christ and our identity in context mutually inform each other. Our identity in context influences how we experience and comprehend our identity in Christ. At the same time our identity in Christ—especially as understood in the greater context of God’s story in the Bible—reshapes how we experience our identity in context.
For example, your image of what it means to be a child of God is influenced by your experience of being a child in your particular family. Were you close with your parents? Were you raised by one parent or two? Were they strict or permissive? What does your culture teach—explicitly and implicitly—about children? Did you grow up with siblings? Were you the oldest or the youngest? Were you adopted? Did you lose a parent during your childhood?
All of these factors inform your perspective on what it means to be a child. No one perspective is superior to another, and all our perspectives are marred by sin—both the sins we commit and the sins others commit against us. We need the truths of our identity in Christ to speak into our identity in context, to help us discern which aspects of our identity God affirms and honors, and which aspects need to be healed by God’s renewing grace and power.
If we look closely we can see the interplay of identity in Christ and identity in context in the stories of individuals from Scripture. Let’s look at one of those stories now.
FOR GROUP STUDY
Take time to read the entire book of Ruth. You can also watch this video summary as a refresher.
- The article “Epic Is About Identity” lists a number of variables that shape our identity in context, such as family dynamics, geography of residency, significant experiences, ethnicity and culture, socioeconomic class, status of power and privilege, organizational influences, and more. Using these variables, how would you describe Ruth’s identity? How do some aspects of her identity change as the story progresses?
- Take a look at some of the interactions between Naomi and Ruth (1:6-18) and Boaz and Ruth (2:8-13). Do the facets of Ruth’s identity, as discussed in the previous question, seem to affirm or challenge Naomi’s and Boaz’s understandings of what it means to be a member of God’s chosen people?2
- Read over this list of truths about our identity in Christ. How do these truths affirm or challenge the various aspects of Ruth’s identity in context?
Immigrant. Ethnic outsider. Widow. Childless. These markers of identity relegated Ruth to the margins of her community. Without the protection and provision of a husband or son, Ruth was rendered powerless and vulnerable to the carelessness and cruelty of others. Yet as the story unfolds we see Ruth’s strength, tenacity, and faith propel her—and Naomi—above and beyond what someone in her position could “reasonably” hope for. The uniqueness of Ruth’s identity in context illuminates distinctive ways she comprehended and experienced her identity as a member of God’s chosen people (identity in Christ).
Simultaneously, various aspects of her identity in context were transformed by God’s healing and redemption as she embraced the truths of her identity in Christ, with a lasting impact on her and those around her. Whether or not our stories resemble Ruth’s, we can be confident our identity in context and identity in Christ mutually inform each other. Both matter deeply, and must be considered together in order to pursue growth toward maturity as ministry leaders and followers of Christ.
- The “Epic Is About Identity” article lists a myriad of variables that impact our identity in context, including family dynamics, geography of residency, significant experiences, ethnicity and culture, socio-economic class, status of power and privilege, organizational influences, and more. Pick two or three of these and reflect on how God has used them to shape you and your leadership today.
- Look over these lists of truths about our identity in Christ. How have the variables you just reflected on (in the previous question) shaped your understanding of some of these truths, for better or worse? How do the truths about your identity in Christ affirm or challenge these aspects of your identity in context?
- Take time to read “Epic Is About Identity”. The article discusses the importance of accepting complexity and honoring diversity in our identities as we work with and minister to other people. What does it look like to interact with those who are different from you without losing your sense of who you are? How might this play out in terms of partnership and mission in your context?
- Share about one aspect of identity in context that you reflected on in the Personal Reflection section. How has it influenced you and your leadership? How has it shaped—and been shaped by—your identity in Christ?
- As team members share, do you see any patterns or contrasts that emerge?
- How do the things shared by your teammates cause you to think differently about how you lead together as a team?
- What are some ways you could see (or have seen) your teammates contribute uniquely to God’s mission as a result of their identity?
- In your movement, what is the prevailing sense of what “identity” means? What can you affirm about this understanding, and what would you like your movement to consider differently?
- In your opinion, what aspect(s) of identity in context are most meaningful to your movement? How does it shape people’s understanding of their identity in Christ? How do the truths about your identity in Christ affirm or challenge this part of your identity in context?
- As you think of the scope of your campus, what would change if your movement’s leaders lead out of a sense of identity that is increasingly grounded in both Christ and their context(s)? Consider the potential impact on relationships, leadership values and styles, evangelism, ministry priorities, etc.
As a team, take 60-90 minutes to do the Signs of Identity exercise together, but with a small twist. For the interactive statements, after people share why they chose that category, have them also share how their identity in Christ influences – and is influenced by – that aspect of their identity in context. Use one of the identity in Christ lists mentioned above as a resource.
On Identity in Christ
- ”Who I Am In Christ” by Freedom In Christ Ministries
- “Who I Am In Christ” by the Church of Grace and Peace
- The King Jesus Gospel: The Original Good News Revisited by Scot McKnight
On Identity in Context
- “Discovering Culture, Identity, and Mission” by Larry Tu
- “Rethinking Culture and Mission” by Adrian Pei
- Beyond Colorblind: Redeeming Our Ethnic Journey by Sarah Shin
- The Gospel of Ruth: Loving God Enough to Break the Rules by Carolyn Custis James
- ”Read Scripture Series: Ruth” from The Bible Project
- ”The Global Message of Ruth” from ESV.org
1 To clearly understand the various truths about our identity in Christ, it is crucial that each statement is framed in the greater context of Scripture—namely, the story of Israel and the story of Jesus (and how Jesus fulfills the story of Israel)—as well as the immediate context in which the statement was communicated. These truth statements are not purely objective concepts that arose in a vacuum; they came to light in response to the questions or concerns of a particular individual or group in a particular place and time. No matter how truthful a given statement may be, there are dangers inherent in neglecting to grasp the immediate context in which that statement came to light. However, an exploration of these dangers is beyond the scope of this current study.
2 Since the story of Ruth takes place before Christ entered the world, it makes more sense from the characters’ perspectives to understand identity in Christ as “membership in God’s chosen people.”