I identify as . . . fill in the blank.
Just reading those words might make you cringe. Or blanch. Or cause your hackles to rise.
I was chatting with my son the other day and he said something very interesting. He pointed out to me that the gender identity issue is akin to the way C.S. Lewis describes the Christian worldview. I have often mentioned this quote at home, so he knows it well.
I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.
Dad, it’s the same now with gender. Young people see the whole world through the prism of their gender identity. It’s that important. He may not have used the word “prism”, but you get the idea. The catastrophe that occurred when our culture split gender from biological sex is something all leaders are facing.
But I’m not writing on that today.
Instead, I’d like to focus on these two questions:
Why is identity so important?
Why is belonging so important?
Since time immemorial, we have given ourselves badges. We have slapped labels on ourselves to give ourselves meaning. It’s very natural. These badges, however, are always subsumed by something greater than ourselves. We don’t just need badges, we need to belong. We group ourselves together with others who wear the same badge. Just go to a game of football.
When I grew up, I knew what my badges were. I was,
A Collins – son, brother, nephew etc
A pupil from X school
British with a Norwegian mother (hence my flashy middle name)
In time, I was introduced to Jesus. I became one of his followers and suddenly, my badges needed to be prioritised in a completely different way. I started with this one.
I am one of God’s children, dearly loved. (John 1.12)
As I grew in faith and learned more, my Christian identity expanded. I came to see that I had a large array of different badges.
A member of the church
A recipient of grace and mercy
A forgiven sinner
A human being fearfully and wonderfully made
A human being destined for glory
A brother to fellow believers
A minister of reconciliation
A Spirit-filled believer
All of these identities are developments on a theme, but they are all incredibly important. Indeed, I’m not sure we can answer the question, “What am I for?” until we’ve answered the question, “Who am I?” It is fundamental to human flourishing. Without a clear answer, we will always struggle. Often when I meet those outside the church who are struggling with life, it’s clear that they simply don’t know who they are. Everything they’re chasing is an attempt to feel like they matter in some way, and to do that, you need to know who you are. So, I’m sure you know most of these, but here is a list of verses that describe a Christian identity.
Gen 1.27 – Made in God’s image
Ps 139.13-14 – Fearfully and wonderfully made
Eph 2.10 – God’s workmanship
Rom 12.6-8 – Gift-bearer
I Cor 6.19 – Temple of the Holy Spirit
2 Cor 5.17 – New creation—in Christ
1 Cor 12.27 – Member of the body of Christ
Rom 8.1 – Forgiven sinner
Gal 3.26 – A son of God through faith
John 15.16 – Chosen by God
1 John 3.1 – Child of God
This list isn’t exhaustive. It isn’t even half-way to describing our multiple identities that all revolve around our primary identity: Forgiven children of God. It all starts at the cross.
So far, so Sunday morning, right? Probably half the sermons you preach have something to do with identity, and rightly so. Can the assertion of our identity solve all our problems? No, but at the very minimum, it’s a good place to start when helping people face their struggles. I don’t advocate slapping a Bible verse on every problem, but I do think it’s helpful to remind a believer of all the resources we have in Christ.
Is identity enough?
Well, no. Not unless it’s combined with our belonging. In our radically individualistic culture, it’s interesting that we cannot escape the desire to belong. We need others. We yearn for the affirmation that comes from being a member of a group. This is really where the Christian faith comes into its own. It is a radically communal faith. Indeed, first-century Jewish culture had very little room for the individual. They thought almost exclusively in collective terms. When I was in seminary, I remember my favourite professor telling me, “You read the story of Joseph and you see a brave young man triumphing against the odds. That’s because you’re modern and Western. The Jewish reader? All they see is their nation wrapped up in the destiny of this one man. If he falls, then we all fall. No individual. Just group.” For the Jews—family, village, tribe, nation. All groups.
It's hard to over-emphasise the importance of belonging. No wonder John Donne’s words are so well-known: No man is an island. We are more like ants . . . than ants themselves! Without others, we die.
We must belong. Somehow.
And this brings us back to badges. We either belong to others with the same badge by birth, or we seek out others who choose the same badge as us.
I’m a Collins. I can’t change that. We don’t choose our families, and in truth, many of our most painful problems come from our family backgrounds. They are also a source of our greatest joys. Family life is both a huge blessing and for some, a curse. We also don’t choose when we’re born or where. I am British. I can’t choose to be born French.
As we grow, however, we soon become aware that we can choose to belong to groups we like. We can follow Liverpool F.C. or a writer’s group, or a charity we support. One of the most powerful drivers among those who prioritise their gender identity is the yearning to belong to a group. Non-binary isn’t just a statement of a gender identity, (however confused this might be) it’s a means of seeking others who identify similarly. It’s driven by the hope of finding others who share the same struggles; it’s driven by a profound desire to belong.
And this is the real point of this post.
The gender identity debate tells us that we, as human beings, are desperate for both identity and belonging. Our world seeks an answer to the question “Who am I?” and it finds its answer in “A group with whom I can identify.”
My first answer above was “child of God”. It’s little wonder, because I’m modern and Western. But the badge I wear is just the beginning. It’s the belonging where the power lies. It’s the belonging that answers the question “what am I for?” Child of God, as wonderful as that is, doesn’t tell you what you’re for. It tells you who you are, but you need belonging to tell you what you’re for.
In short, you need the church.
You need the church not just to give you a sense of belonging, but also to create the environment in which you can flourish as a Christ-follower. Sure, some are called to be itinerant preachers—Wild West Christian cowboys—taking the gospel to the ends of the earth. But they are rare. And in truth, they aren’t on their own at all. They are supported by a network of others who give financially and pray for them.
We’re all connected, hence the body metaphor in Scripture.
It’s a little ironic, isn’t it, that the gender debate should remind us of our need to belong? The church is being rattled by this fractious debate, and yet it contains a bright silver lining. It is shouting, “I want to belong.” Indeed, it is crying out, “I want to be loved. I want to belong.”
The church has an answer to that cry.
We live in a radically individualistic age, in which we worship personal autonomy. When a visitor arrives on your doorstep, do you wait until they make themselves known, “giving them space” to initiate? Or do you reach out to embrace a fellow believer and show them where they might start to belong in your community?
Belonging is not just a warm fuzzy feeling. It’s not enough for church members to say, “well, I’m a child of God like everyone else.” Belonging needs more than that. We want to know that we have a role, a place, an identity within the community. This is why courses that help identify the gifts within each church member, so they can be developed for the glory of God within a community, can be helpful.
When you look out over your congregation this Sunday, I wonder whether you see a community in which each person has a clear sense of belonging? Not just “I attend X church” belonging, but “My leader(s) know(s) the gifts I bring, and is seeking to develop them” belonging. Perhaps belonging is even delegated down so that a whole team of people is helping others find their place in the church.
Belonging for Christians isn’t an added extra. It is intrinsic to how we see ourselves when we look in the mirror. We don’t just need an identity “in Christ”. We need that identity, that badge, to find expression within our community. That, for Christians, is belonging.
For only when we develop our gifts and grow together in our shared knowledge of the grace of God do our badges and belonging fuse into one. For believers, our badges only have meaning when they’re celebrated, developed, grown, challenged, and encouraged within our belonging. When our particular kind of “in Christ” badge finds its place. That’s belonging.
What a calling it is to be a leader in God’s church!
Badges and belonging. For every one of your church members.
The Lord bless you as you help your people to find joy in both their badge and their belonging.