My friend John loves the New York Yankees. He often wears a Yankees’ ball cap, and he enjoys reminding me about the number of championships the franchise has won. I love him in spite of his idolatry.
But what if John’s love for the Yankees were in fact idolatrous? What if John identified himself first as a Yankees’ fan and only second as a Christian? How would he listen to, behave toward, or value a Red Sox’ fan who was also a brother in Christ? If John’s primary allegiance were directed toward the Yankees, then what would happen if he met a brother or sister in Christ who hated his beloved Bronx Bombers?
It may sound silly, but this happens in churches every day. Joe Parishioner is a Christian—a genuinely regenerate, Christ-loving man—but political affiliation has become an idol to him. He is a Republican, and cannot imagine that any Christian could be otherwise. When Bob Congregant expresses support for a Democratic candidate, Joe does not merely question his intelligence; he questions his salvation.
Mary Churchgoer is a true believer—but race has become an idol to her—and she views herself as white first and a Christian second. She may be entirely unaware of this until her primary identity is challenged. It goes like this: Her black sister in Christ, Angela Pewsitter, decries what she perceives to be the systemic racism of a predominately white legal system. Mary reacts defensively, for her identity—her whiteness—has been attacked.
But imagine that each brother or sister in Christ, regardless of his or her skin color or political affiliation or baseball team, identified first and foremost as a Christian. If each were a Christian first and all else second, then peace and grace would follow. Joe Parishioner and Bob Congregant could disagree on political matters because these are secondary—their identity resides in Christ, not in political parties. Mary Churchgoer and Angela Pewsitter could disagree about the fairness of the legal system in peace, for neither of them vests their identity in the color of their skin.
This matters because Christians say stupid things. White Christians say and do stupid and insensitive things. So do black Christians. So do Republican Christians and Democratic Christians, and especially Christians who love the Yankees. This side of Glory we will never stop giving each other reasons to be offended. Our only hope is Christ, and in the identity we mutually draw from being His.
If I primarily identify as white and someone questions the character and integrity of white judges, white lawyers, and white police officers, then I will necessarily take it personally. They have attacked my identity, and the people with whom I identify. But if I identify as a Christian, then I can hear those accusations dispassionately, not feeling the need to defend every white person, but instead identifying myself more with my black brother in Christ who shares my faith than with a nameless attorney who happens to share my skin color but knows not my Lord.
In the same way, if I primarily identify as black and someone defends the character and integrity of white public officials over against black accusations of racial injustice, then I will necessarily take it personally. They have attacked my identity, and the people with whom I identify. But if identity as a Christian first—if being black is only a descriptor of my skin and not a definition of my person—then I can listen calmly, not feeling the need to defend every black man against every white man. Many white men share Christ with me; many black men do not.
While the world buzzes with racial antagonism, the Church has the opportunity to demonstrate peace and charity, but only if each of us identifies as a Christian first—only if my allegiance, and thus my identity, is established explicitly in Christ Jesus. Simply put, is your heart more closely knit together with those who share your politics or with those who share your Lord? Does it bond more tightly with those who share your skin color or with those who share your Savior? Examine your own heart, and ask yourself why it reacts defensively when it reacts defensively, and the answer will reveal the idol that has captured your primary allegiance, which must belong to Jesus Christ alone.
I love my brother John because he is my brother in Christ. We share one Lord, one faith, and one baptism, which is a good thing because I can’t stand the Yankees.