The phenomenon of identity was no less a concern in the ancient Mediterranean world from which the writings of the New Testament arose than in our modern Western world. In the West today our membership in a particular group, whether one’s gender, socioeconomic status, or ethnicity, informs both how we understand ourselves and the way others perceive us. For the original recipients of the apostle Paul’s letters, the groups to which people belonged were even more instructive for their sense of self and how they fit in society.
Paul’s fundamental mission was to establish new communities that were bound together by their allegiance to Jesus Christ, the true Lord and Savior of the entire world. As anyone who has experience leading diverse people toward a common cause may know, Paul’s task was incredibly difficult. But we may still ask: what, exactly, made his missionary agenda so difficult?
I already suggested that one’s life experience in the ancient Mediterranean world was largely defined by one’s membership in particular groups. The diversity of groups naturally led to varying perspectives and values among the larger population. Nevertheless, a central social value shared among the spectrum of ancient Mediterranean peoples was the acquisition of honor.
Therefore, the gospel was to be heard and embraced by everyone—Jews and Gentiles, men and women, rich and poor, slaves and free persons—alike. To obey the gospel meant that one was brought into the family of God.
Generally, honor was thought to be a limited good; honor gained by one person or group was thought to be ipso facto at another’s expense. Accompanying the desire for honor, an additional feature that characterized the culture at large was its intensely competitive nature.
Because of these social dynamics, it was typical for groups to vie with one another for eminence and/or view members of other groups with contempt or resentment. Indeed, animosity between groups was often the norm rather than the exception.
It is in this social environment that Paul proclaimed the gospel of Jesus Christ. Through Christ, God had redeemed all of creation and reconciled it to God’s self. Therefore, the gospel was to be heard and embraced by everyone—Jews and Gentiles, men and women, rich and poor, slaves and free persons—alike. To obey the gospel meant that one was brought into the family of God. Consequently, in Christ, those who once represented the “other” had become one’s own brothers and sisters.
Notwithstanding this new reality made possible through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus and concomitant work of the Holy Spirit, Paul still had to contend with the reality on the ground, as it were. Practically speaking, how could Paul bring together into a single community such disparate groups of people?
Well, it all comes back to identity. As New Testament scholar Philip Esler has famously asserted, Paul was an “entrepreneur of identity.”
Accordingly, Paul’s strategy was to fashion for the converts to his gospel a new identity to which they could all lay claim. This new identity did not wholly supplant other social identities his gospel converts may have possessed. That is, in the Christ community, there were still Jews and there were still Greeks; there were still men and there were still women.
These respective identities still mattered. They mattered because God loves variety, and such differences serve to enrich God’s creation, representing an integral part of its inherent goodness.
However, crucially for Paul, one’s identity in Christ was to be considered infinitely more important than any other identity a person may hold. In other words, as Christians, the moment we begin to view ethnic heritage, gender, nationality, socioeconomic status, etc., as in any way more relevant than who we are in Christ Jesus is the moment that we fail to embody the implications of the gospel.
So I ask you, brothers and sisters, when you look at yourself or each other, is the first thing you see a white person or a person of color, a woman or a man, someone who is of financial means or someone who is poor? If so, I humbly direct you to the words of the apostle Paul:
“In Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faithfulness, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:27–28).