Identity Development and Transformation in Christ (5/7): Christo-centric Identity

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Developing Christo-centric identity

The following article is the fifth in a seven-part series on Identity Development and Transformation. This series is geared for Muslims who are leaving Islam and embracing Jesus Christ as Lord, as well as those ministering to them.

Identity Development and Transformation in Christ Series:

  1. Muslim Identity – To be or not to be Muslim? [Available Oct 9, 2017]
  2. Flexibility of the term “Muslim” [Available Oct 16, 2017]
  3. Shahada and Muslim Identity [Available Oct 23, 2017]
  4. Transitional Identity [Available Oct 30, 2017]
  5. Christo-centric Identity [Available Nov 6, 2017]
  6. Christo-centric Identity for Former Muslims [Available Nov 13, 2017]
  7. Identity Applications [Available Nov 20, 2017]

Introduction to this Article

The previous articles in this series have examined Muslim identity and transitional identity issues for inquirers. The focus now turns to developing Christ-centered, or Christo-centric, identity. To prevent identity limbo or bifurcation that extends indefinitely, and which will likely result in the emotional and spiritual collapse of the inquirer, movement toward a resolution is needed. The previous article ended with a quote from Philippians 3, and this article will begin with one as well: “I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Phil 3:14). The Lord Jesus Christ is simultaneously the Way upon which the spiritual journey is traveled, the goal of the journey, and the reward.

To consider identity transformation properly requires a holistic and integrated view in which individual and collective (group) identity converges upon the Lord Jesus Christ. Convergence indicates a process. The Bible provides clear pictures of identity transformation. None of this is new or unique to ministry to Muslims. The Holy Spirit continually transforms unregenerate sinners through a real relationship with their Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. The Gospels and Acts place special attention on identity transformation.

Many examples of Christo-centric identity development could be cited. This article examines biblical cases covering the four quadrants of the identity matrix:

Perception from within Perception from without
Individual 1. Self-perception

(“Who am I?”)

 

3. Perception of individual by others

(“Who is he/she?”)

 

Group 2. Collective self-perception

(“Who are we?”)

 

4. Perception of group by outsiders

(“Who are they?”)

 

  1. “Who am I?” (individual self-perception)
  2. “Who are we?” (collective self-perception)
  3. “Who is he/she?” (perception of self by others)
  4. “Who are they?” (perception of the group by others)

The Self-Perception Quadrants:

  1. “Who am I?”

Paul provides an excellent subject in the study of identity transformation. Though Paul (Saul, at that time) was physically persecuting the Church, he was actually persecuting Christ in His Church. Jesus indicates this when, on the Damascus Road, he asks His future apostle, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?” (Acts 9:4).

Much later, Paul shares with the Philippian Church that his aspiration is “to be found in Christ.” This phrase epitomizes Christo-centric identity. Here is the context of Paul’s confession: “More than that, I count all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them but rubbish so that I may gain Christ, and may be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own derived from the Law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith” (Phil 3:8-9, emphasis added). Here, gaining Christ equates with being found in Him.

Believers are “in Christ,” while simultaneously Christ is in the believers. Paul acknowledges that “Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Col 1:27) is indeed a “mystery.” How can A be inside B, and B be inside A, if A is not B? Certainly, we frail sinners are not God, but our relationship with Christ is such that it can be described that we are in Christ and Christ is in us.

Paul describes believers in Christ with the reflexively possessive terminology mentioned by Jeremiah and Ezekiel: “I will be their God, and they shall be My people” (2 Cor 6:16). A possesses B while B simultaneously possesses A. Paul goes on to speak of believers being “baptized into Christ” and “baptized into His death” (Rom 6:3). Here the believers are immersed or placed into Christ. Paul’s seeks a Christo-centric identity which exceeds belief system, but extends to a living relationship initiated by God Himself in the sending of His Son. To the Colossians, he uses the phrase, “Christ, who is our life…” (Col 3:4). Well said!

  1. “Who are we?”

In Acts, we read an unbroken story of thousands of disciples of Jesus who find their identity in Christ and lived (and died) to make Him known. The first truly cross-cultural church, as well as the first missions sending church, is found in Antioch. Refreshingly, it was unnamed people who planted this church by reaching out to Greeks through “preaching the Lord Jesus” (Acts 11:20). A revival ensued (v. 21), and the grace of God was apparent even to the external observer Barnabas (v. 23). Saul re-emerges and, along with Barnabas, teaches considerable numbers of the church for a year. Then, Luke makes the interesting notation that “the disciples were first called Christians in Antioch” (v. 25). The use of passive voice makes it unclear if this name was coined by the believers themselves, or by external observers. Perhaps “Christians” just caught on as the most appropriate identifier of these believers.

The name “Christian” became a Christo-centric identifier for these early believers. Historian Judith Lieu describes this process in her article, “The Forging of Christian Identity”: “The creation, at least rhetorically, of a self-conscious and distinctive identity is a remarkable characteristic of early Christianity.” 1

Disciples of Christ need not take on the specific identifier “Christian.” Admittedly, this term has a variety of negative connotations in Muslim contexts. Nevertheless, the key thing is the group of believers has a Christo-centric collective identity. The principle extends beyond any one word. In summary, local believers must consider themselves as they are: a local expression of the global and eternal Body of Christ.

The External Perception Quadrants:

  1. “Who is he/she?”

The Holy Spirit provides an identity illustration for this quadrant through the life of Peter. Jesus visited our third quadrant by asking Peter and the disciples “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” (Mt 16:13). Jesus asked this not because He was confused about His own identity but to fortify the disciples so that they would identify with Him in the presence of others.

Though Peter responded gallantly in Matthew 16, he faltered at the fireside on the night of Jesus’ betrayal. The first servant girl who accosted Peter chided, “You too were with Jesus the Galilean” (Mt 26:69). She identified Peter as being with Jesus, but he denied it. When the second servant girl repeated the inquiry, “he denied it with an oath, ‘I do not know the man’” (Mt 26:72). At this point, Peter was unwilling to publicly identify with Jesus. Outside observers claimed he was connected with Jesus—this was actually a good thing—but Peter wanted nothing to do with it.

After the tears of repentance, and then after Jesus’ resurrection, after the Great Commission, and after Pentecost, the Lord graciously granted Peter another chance to provide public leadership in the presence of unbelievers. This time the critics were not servant girls, but high-ranking unbelieving religious officials. After healing the lame man at the Beautiful Gate, Peter became the spokesperson for himself and John. He launched into a Christo-centric sermon. The high priest Annas and the others sought urgently to identify these men. Interestingly, Luke describes: “ Now as they observed the confidence of Peter and John and understood that they were uneducated and untrained men, they were amazed, and began to recognize them as having been with Jesus” (Acts 4:13). The Jewish priests did not know about the Peter-the-Rock statement of Matthew 16, but they did somehow connect Peter (and John) to Jesus. From their perspective, Peter is understood to having been with Jesus, and that process of being together with Jesus resulted in something that has amazed even the high priest.

  1. “Who are they?”

There are many external descriptions of the New Testament Christians, who, initially, were Messianic Jews. These descriptions ranged from those of Thessalonian Jews, who described the believers in Jesus as “those who have turned the world upside down” or “upset the world” (Acts 17:6). The Athenian philosophers identified Paul as “a proclaimer of strange deities, because he was preaching Jesus and the resurrection” (Acts 17:18). King Agrippa, who was well informed of Jewish religious issues, concluded that Paul is trying to get convince him to become a “Christian” (Acts 26:28). Festus, less-informed on contextual religious issues, described the controversy surrounding Paul and his accusers as “some points of disagreement with him about their own religion and about a dead man, Jesus, whom Paul asserted to be alive” (Acts 25:19). So, Jesus, though not having been seen in the flesh for several decades, continued to provide the locus of the identity of His followers, even from the perspective of external observers.

Importantly, the New Testament disciples of Jesus, even though they ministered in a high-persecution context, did not seek to conceal their message or their methods. During the aforementioned Pauline trial, the apostle of Christ confirms this: “the king knows about these matters, and I speak to him also with confidence, since I am persuaded that none of these things escape his notice; for this has not been done in a corner” (Acts 26:26, emphasis added).

Compared to the cloak of secrecy thrown over so much of the “insider” methods, the New Testament paints a welcome picture of transparency. One positive by-product of this transparency was that disciples of Christ could indeed find their individual self-identity in Christ, and their collective identity in the Body of Christ. Furthermore, outsiders could observe what was happening and this provided for them a clear choice as well. Paul had no interest in promoting anything like “Zeus Insider Followers of Jesus,” which he easily could have done in Lystra (Acts 14). He understood that inquirers needed to understand Jesus is Lord, and the sooner they understood that, and acted upon it, the better.

Conclusion:

The late great Leonard Ravenhill once wrote about identity: “There are three people that live in me: the one I think I am; the one others think I am; and the one God knows I am.” 2 Ravenhill’s point here has to do with identity integrity. Do we see ourselves as God sees us? And do the perceptions of others begin to fall into alignment with this, especially as it relates to our connection to Christ?

Identity in Christ must be integrated and holistic, not bifurcated or schizophrenic. The New Testament describes a true people movement, initially constituted of Jews, but which quickly spread to include Gentiles. These believers centered their individual identity on the risen Messiah Jesus Christ. They considered their local assemblies part of a wider Body of Christ—quite an intimate expression that mirrors the language of the Lord’s Supper. All of this, of course, was a process of identity development and transformation. The positive news report is that this process continued to converge and center on the Lord Jesus Himself throughout the New Testament period.

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Notes:

  1. Judith Lieu. “The Forging of Christian Identity and the Letter to Diognetus,” In The Religious History of the Roman Empire: Pagans, Jews, and Christians, edited J.A. North, and S.R.F. Price, 435-59. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press (2011): 435.
  2. https://www.gospeltruth.net/ravenhill.htm. (Accessed July 24, 2017).
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About Author

Rev. Fred Farrokh is an Iranian-American Christian of Muslim background. He is an ordained missionary with Elim Fellowship. He has a PhD in Intercultural Studies from the Assemblies of God Theological Seminary.

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