Identity. Now there’s a query which so many people are trying to answer throughout today’s digitally driven world. And Christians are also trying to discover their true identity in an increasingly volatile global society.
For a start, Christian identity should not be confused with the Far Right cult of Identity Christianity which pollutes the United States and is the favourite ‘religion’ of the modern-day Ku Klux Klan.
In Ireland, ask someone to define their Christian identity and they will most likely quote you the denomination or fellowship they choose to worship at. I recall 30 years ago when I had moved to the east Antrim coastal town of Larne to take up the post of Deputy Editor of a local weekly newspaper, part of my role was to develop religious coverage.
On paper (forgive the pun!), it sounded easy. Just make a list of the different churches in the Larne borough. When it came to the Catholic faith, there were two – the mainstream Catholic Church and the independent church run by Father Pat Buckley.
As for Protestantism – well, there’s a whole new debate as to which denomination, fellowship or church represents the true Reformed Faith. Around Larne in the late 1980s, I counted at least two dozen different Protestant denominations in the borough, each with their own clergy, church structure and specific theology.
As a preacher’s kid married to a preacher’s kid, even I started to get confused as to what was actually the theological differences between some of those Protestant denominations. My conclusion is that the real difference was not theological, but personal. Protestantism, by its very nature, is a dissenting theology and everyone wants to lead his or her wee faction!
If I posed the question to the various Protestant denominations, pick one to represent the Reformed Faith, I wonder who would come out on top? For me, the true Christian identity can be found in the New Testament in the epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Ephesians, Chapter 4 verses one to seven.
Quoting from the King James Version of the Bible, this portion reads: “I therefore, the prisoner of the Lord, beseech you that ye walk worthy of the vocation, wherewith ye are called.
“With all lowliness and meekness, with long-suffering, forbearing one another in love. Endeavouring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body, and one Spirit, even as ye are called in one hope of your calling.
“One Lord, one faith, one baptism, One God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all. But unto every one of us is given grace according to the measure of the gift of Christ.”
Whilst these verses may be difficult to comprehend because they are in the King James Version, more modern translations - such as the New International Version or The Good News Bible - of this portion of Scripture may put this Christian identity in more simple, everyday language.
The real challenge to us as Christians is that our identity could be defined by how others see us. How we live our lives defines our faith; do folk see Christ in us or do they see the 21st century equivalent of the Biblical hypocrites, known as the Pharisees?
The section from Ephesians which gives us our Christian identity is sometimes referred to as the unity of the Spirit. The challenge to us Christians is how we work this out in our daily lives.
Bluntly put, if Ephesians 4 verses 1 to 7 is the theory, where do we find the practice? This is also found in the New Testament in St Matthew’s Gospel chapter 5, known as the Beatitudes, or Christ’s Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus uses the phrase ‘Blessed are …’ to guide how the Christian should define their true Biblical identity.
But how many of us Christians can truly hold up our hand and say that we abide strictly by Jesus’ commands in the Beatitudes? If we are being truly honest, none of us can. Is the true Christian identity setting too high a moral definition to follow?
Perhaps then the real identity of the Christian is in striving to be like Christ. We may constantly fail and fall, but we pick ourselves up spiritually and keep trying.
Or maybe the true Christian identity has been smothered by mankind’s rules and regulations to the point where we have too much religion and not enough Christianity.
In trying to define the Christian identity in our own minds, have many of us become nothing more than judgemental tub thumpers, where we are quick to point out the wrong in others, but ignore the wrong in ourselves?
How many judgemental tub thumpers put on a show at Sunday worship to hide what we are doing in secret during the remainder of the week?
Is it a case that we as Christians in trying to define our identity have erased the words of Christ in St Matthew’s Gospel Chapter 7 verse 3?
Again, the King James Version reads: “And why beholds thou the mote that is in they brother’s eye, but considers not the beam that is in thine own eye?”
In judging or condemning someone’s lifestyle or actions, are we trying to deflect attention away from that someone focussing on our own lives? My own experience in my spiritual journey as a Christian working in journalism is that we Christians are the biggest bunch of back stabbers I have ever come across.
On a Sunday, many Christians are full of ‘praise Jesus, great to see you brother and sister’, yet come Monday morning they are contacting me as a reporter to give the latest gossip on someone’s sex life!
After 41 years in journalism in Ireland, I have come to the conclusion that many Christians have simply no concept of the laws of defamation or the ethics of invasion of privacy when it comes to talking to reporters like me.
The real concern when it comes to defining the Christian identity is that many people judge the faith by how we behave, and that in many cases, we Christians are the worst advertisements for Christianity! Maybe before we heal others spiritually, we need as a faith to heal ourselves?
Follow Dr John Coulter on Twitter @JohnAHCoulter
Listen to religious commentator Dr John Coulter’s slot, Call Coulter, every Saturday morning around 9.15 am on Belfast’s Christian radio station, Sunshine 1049 FM, as part of the ‘At The Table’ show.
Listen online at www.thisissunshine.com