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Feature
7 November 2022

Identity in Christ
The Heidelberg Catechism (1563) aptly captures the essence of Christian identity in its answer to Question 1: “What is your only comfort in life and death?” The answer reads, “That I with body and soul, both in life and death, am not my own, but belong unto my faithful Saviour Jesus Christ.” Indeed, Christians do not have their own identity. Rather, they have discarded their old sinful identity in exchange for a new identity in Christ, who first identified with them in his substitutionary death which bore the penalty of their sins. Belonging to Christ means Christians no longer own themselves; instead, they have been transferred from a life of bondage to sin to a life of freedom in Christ.

The words of the Catechism reflect the Apostle Paul’s teaching that believers are “in Christ” and that the community of believers is “one body”, that is, the body of Christ. Paul elaborates on the metaphor “one body” by likening individual believers to be different parts or organs of the human body. Just as the eye or feet do not have independent identities but are controlled by the head of the body, Christian identity is formed under the authority of Christ who is the head of his body, the church. It should be stressed that the community of believers is more than just a sociological body. It is a spiritual reality; a reality that is emphasized by Paul when he describes the community of believers as the temple of God or temple of the Holy Spirit, in contrast to the physical temple at Jerusalem which was later destroyed in AD 70.

As a replacement of the physical temple, the church is the eschatological community of God which embodies a new pneumatological reality: “For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit” (1 Cor 12:13). The church is spiritually a universally inclusive body of believers, but locally it exists as a visible social order where believers accept the authoritative teachings of the apostles (kerygma), re-enact the Eucharistic remembrance of Christ, participate in the shared communal life of fellowship (koinonia) and practise the ethos of a covenant community. In effect, the local church is a microcosm of the universal church of Christ. That is to say, believers are members of the “One, Holy, Catholic Church.”

Moral Transformation in Christ’s Body
Paul further elaborates on the identity of the believers in Christ, who has “become for us wisdom, righteousness, sanctification and redemption” (1 Cor 1:30). A new believer puts on Christ when he believes. As he grows in faith, his individual identity becomes increasingly conformed to the image of Christ and his social identity is reinforced through interaction with other believers. Indeed, the moral life of the body is premised on what was first mediated or done for the community by Christ, the original moral exemplar. Paul emphasizes that believers, having been “baptized into Christ” have “put on Christ”. As such, they are to “put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness” (Gal 3:27, Eph 4:24).

Gordon Fee notes how Paul in 1 Cor 6:9 first warns the Corinthian Christians who were still indulging in the sins of idolatry, sexual immorality and swindling thievery that they will not inherit the kingdom of God. He then counters their sinful proclivities by reminding them of their identity in Christ: “But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God” (1 Cor 6:11). The consequence of the work of Christ is not merely to guarantee a life in the hereafter, but to transform the believer so that he lives a holy and righteous life together with his fellow believers. Paul accentuates his demand for holiness in the community by using another powerful image—one that portrays believers as God’s temple or the temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 6:9).

The Greek texts use the plural you in 1 Cor 3:16 and 2 Cor 6:16, which shows that Paul is here referring to the community rather than to individuals. (There is no contradiction between these verses with 1 Cor 6:19 as God’s Spirit indwells both the individual and the community as a whole.) Significantly, there is only one temple of God: naos (singular) theou. This being the case, Paul is urging the Corinthians to ensure that the Christian community collectively exhibits a specific spiritual and moral ethos worthy of their status as God’s temple which is indwelt by God’s Spirit. That is to say, a personal holiness that arises from recognition of the sanctity of and submission to the authority of the Holy Spirit in the individual will result in righteous action which will suffuse and nurture the life of the entire community.

One of the roles of pagan temple ceremonies in traditional Mediterranean society was to reinforce the core values of society and differentiate the roles and status of members, all of which were coordinated into a unified polity. The manifest function of temples was to offer worship to the deities, but the latent function was to bind all classes of the community into one ordered polity. Likewise, Paul describes the Corinthian believers as an alternative temple (God’s temple and the temple of the Holy Spirit) with clearly defined core values and boundaries of membership.

Bruce Winter, in his book After Paul Left Corinth (2001), identifies several immoral and social practices which could undermine the integrity of God’s new community in Corinth. These include:
(1) Professional competitiveness among the teachers vying for loyalty among followers (1 Cor 1-4).
(2) Manipulation of the secular litigation process to gain leniency in legal punishment (1 Cor 5).
(3) Social elitism that ascribes greater honor to members belonging to the privileged class during hosting of private and community meals (1 Cor 11: 17- 34).
(4) The practice of patronage to extend dominance and influence in social, political and cultic spheres (1 Cor 16:15-18).

Since social interaction and social conformity assume greater significance when official functions of the city are conducted in the pagan temple, Paul insists that believers must maintain a critical distance from these activities. But the critical distance is not to be defined by physical withdrawal or isolation. Instead, believers are to be distinguished by an alternative moral ethos consistent with their identity in Christ which can be concretely recognized by people searching for an alternative way of life to that defined by the pagan temples.

Since believers are identified with the Crucified One who has revealed the righteousness of God, they must adopt a “cruciform” way of life; the way of life that judges all social practices according to the work of Christ on the cross. It is undeniable that the cross has become a universal scandal—a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Gentiles. By the same token, the Christian community becomes a contrast community that displays the power of God revealed in weakness and turns the dominant values of the world upside-down. Consequently, only as it is identified as a community of the cross is the church able to enjoy its freedom from worldly ideologies and engage society with critical distance.

The believer must not only die to himself, but he must also renounce his old loyalties and reject the oppressive ideologies and value systems of the world because he has experienced wholeness and freedom in Christ. Put positively, the first task of believers is not to change the world but to ensure that they are collectively conformed to the image of Christ. Then willy-nilly they become an instrument for social change. As one second-century Church Father wrote (in the Epistle of Mathetes to Diognetus),

For the Christians are distinguished from other men neither by country, nor language, nor the customs which they observe. For they neither inhabit cities of their own, nor employ a peculiar form of speech, nor lead a life which is marked out by any singularity… They obey the prescribed laws, and at the same time surpass the laws by their lives. They love all men, and are persecuted by all… They are evil spoken of, and yet are justified; they are reviled, and bless; they are insulted, and repay the insult with honour; they do good, yet are punished as evil-doers. When punished, they rejoice as if quickened into life; they are assailed by the Jews as foreigners, and are persecuted by the Greeks; yet those who hate them are unable to assign any reason for their hatred.

Christians will gain grudging attention, if not respect, and may even win over hostile opponents when they are willing to forgo their rights and serve others. Their witness to the living God and Saviour is effective not simply because they offer an alternative moral system—which can become another list of oppressive obligations in the long run—but because they represent a new identity that promises new freedom and wholeness in union with Christ the risen saviour. In this regard, believers can do no better than to follow Paul’s exhortation so that the witness of the church will be spiritually authentic and socially transformative.


Dr Ng Kam Weng is Research Director of Kairos Research Centre in Kuala Lumpur. Previously, he had been a fellow at the Oxford Centre for Mission Studies and a member of the Center for Theological Inquiry at Princeton University. From 1989 to 1992 he taught at the Malaysia Bible Seminary Graduate School. He has a PhD from Cambridge University.