Identity is how individuals actualize themselves into reality. In other words, identity is how someone sees themselves and their role in relating to others. This issue is so crucial, because how someone understands their identity effects their desires, beliefs, and behaviors. Oftentimes, identity is not discussed, but assumed. Understanding identity from a secular and Christian perspective will show the superiority of the biblical worldview. But a lot of times, Christians do not think through what identity is, they just assume it. Or Christians are told, “Your identity is in Christ.” Which is true, but this Christianese does not translate practically. Yes, believer, your identity is in Christ, but what does that mean?
Exploring how identity is formed from childhood, the nature vs. nurture debate, and identity’s complexity will lead to the complex priority identity theory. This is a theory (admittedly, for what it’s worth) that I came up with to explain identity from a biblical worldview. I saw a problem with Christians looking at Critical Race Theory and decrying it as wrong; while, at the same time, these very Christians were not bringing out a positive, or a biblical theory of identity. Complex Priority Identity Theory is the idea that nature, nurture, desires, beliefs, and actions feed into an individual’s complex, multiple identities. The individual then prioritizes these identities (sometimes in different ways at different times) which in turn effects their desires, beliefs, and actions. This definition is a little dense and will take some time to unpack. One basic observation is the cyclical and fluid nature of identity. One’s identity, especially early in life, is not set in stone.
As a child, one usually assumes the identity formed in them by their parents, without questioning. Children usually don’t think about who they are, they listen to who parents (or other major influences) tell them who they are. Within the biblical worldview, Christian parents are supposed to be that major influence, but that is not always the case. Sometimes siblings, peers, teachers, internet or media “influencers” take the place of parents. This foundational identity in childhood exercises influence on the individual for the rest of their lives.
Usually starting around middle school, individuals begin to reject and accept their childhood identity. That is, individuals either become more grounded in how they were raised, or begin to reject it. This is the time when individuals start becoming their own person rather than only parroting their major influences. This is also the time when people’s influences shift from their parents to their peers.
Sociologist debate about how people gain their identity: is it on the basis of nature or nurture? Nature is based off of DNA (essentially “born that way”); whereas, nurture is based off of upbringing and societal pressures (as explained above). Of course this is an oversimplification, but the divide between the two sides is erasing as more and more studies seem to show that both nature and nurture have an impact on people’s behavior.
Even then, philosophically speaking, one has to decide if an individual’s identity is determined (by external “forces” i.e. God, “mother nature”) or chosen (by the individual). Multiple groups have argued for both perspectives at different points when it seemed more beneficial for them. For example, the LGBTQ community has argued their sexual identity was determined by nature (“Born this way”). The Critical Race Theorist argue their racial identity is determined by nurture (that is, the ones in charge have caused the identity of “the oppressed”). Arminians argue their religious identity is chosen by self. Hyper-Calvinists argue their religious identity was determined by God.
People operate with complex identities on a hierarchical structure. Identities are worldview anchors, or ultimate allegiances, core beliefs which shape the way an individual believes, desires, wills, behaves, dresses, and interacts with others. People have complex identities (sometimes can be conflicting) and operate on the basis of how they prioritize these identities. Identities can include nationality, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexuality, vocation, et. al. Christians can identify in a multiplicity of ways in regard to ethnicity, nationality. Identities can be moral (caregiver), immoral (murderer), or amoral (woman). Christians usually argue (rightly) from the Bible that gender and ethnicity is determined by birth. Most rational people argue nationality and ethnicity is determined by nature as well. For example most in our society frowned at Rachel Dolezal, who born as a white woman, identified as black. And anyone born as an American can identify as a German all he wants, but it won’t gain him citizenship in Germany. Identity is not simply what one is born with, nor simply what one chooses.
Identity is complex. On this issue, Christians usually misunderstand and make discipleship more difficult for individuals who struggle with same-sex attraction or transgenderism. And in this way, they make their own sanctification more difficult. Behaviors feed desires and desires feed behaviors. Oftentimes, Christians want to say to someone who is attracted to the same sex, “stop it!” as if this individual has an identity switch they can just turn off. Desires cannot always be switched off, but they can be trained.
Let me give a simple illustration of what I mean. I personally do not like to run. I do not identify as a runner, not because I am incapable of running, but because I do not enjoy it. But, my enjoyment can be trained. If I know running is good for me (belief), I choose to get up early every morning and run (the will/behavior), my body get acclimated to crave the activity (nurture), I could very well begin to enjoy running. And in this way, I could begin to identify as a runner. The skill of my running does not necessarily correspond to whether I can identify as such or not. Then when I wake up, do I prioritize my identity of “stressed” “tired” et. al. or do I prioritize my identity as “runner.” How I prioritize these identities will effect whether I run or not.
For a Christian their highest identity is in Jesus. Therefore, all other identities must fall into line behind that supreme identity. Their self-identification in ethnicity, politics, gender, sexuality, nationality, wealth class all must conform to their ultimate allegiance in Jesus Christ. Therefore, the example of Christ must be applied to our other identities as well.
If I identify as a male, it is in the meekness and humility of Christ. If I identify as white, it must be conformed to Christ’s law. If I ever come to believe that my identity as a male or of being white becomes more important than my identity in Christ, not only will my behavior become sinful, but my other identities become idols placed in the way of Christ. I will boast in my other identities more than Christ, and this is a danger for the church. Partiality begins in idolatrous prioritization of identities.