The Ordinances: A True and Better Identity Politics
By common consent, identity politics is tearing people apart. At bottom, identity politics starts with some feature that differentiates people into a group and forms political perspectives, alliances, and goals that advance the interest of the group. Race and gender are by far the most common organizing principles of identity politics, but they aren’t the only ones. These days, nearly anything can get turned into a badge of identity, a lever to elevate one group at the expense of another.
Identity politics hardens differences into divides. It politicizes everything. It can easily turn loyalty to your group into loathing of every competing group. Often, it implicitly sets up some standard of who gets to count as fully human, a standard that your group possesses and the other does not. Identity politics turns common life into a war of every socially constructed subcommunity against every other.
So its problems are obvious. But identity politics doesn’t just create problems “out there”: many of the forces that threaten to pull churches apart are driven by toxic, worldly manifestations of identity politics. One reason that political disagreements between Christians so often escalate into battle royales is that it increasingly seems like disagreeing with my view is disparaging my person or my people.
What’s the alternative? What can unearth and uproot and undermine the unbiblical assumptions that animate identity politics and threaten to tear apart what God has joined together?
I would submit a simple, perhaps surprisingly obvious answer: baptism and the Lord’s Supper.
Every group identity derives its political power from its answer to the questions:
- Where are we from?
- Where are we going?
- To whom do we belong?
Consider how the ordinances of baptism and the Lord’s Supper answer those for every Christian, and how they construct an alternative identity politics. One might even say, a true and better identity politics.
Where are we from?
Baptism tells us that we are from the grave (Rom. 6:1–4; Col. 2:11–12). Before we were united to Christ, we were the living dead. We had no spiritual life in us and deserved nothing but death. Baptism reminds us that, no matter what earthly advantages or disadvantages any of us had before coming to Christ, none of us had any claim on God, any standing before him, or any power to alter our condition.
Where are we going?
Baptism not only dramatizes our spiritual death; it also previews the resurrection that our faith in Christ guarantees. Because Christ was raised from the dead, and we’re united to him by faith, we too will be raised with him, and his resurrection power is already at work in us by his Spirit. Baptism reminds us that our proper and permanent home is the new creation.
And the Lord’s Supper reminds us that our final destination is a celebration in which all God’s people will partake. “I tell you I will not drink again of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom” (Matt. 26:29). This side of paradise, every utopia will fail. No political program can perfect humanity. But the certain destination of all God’s people is a never-ending celebration, in perfect peace with God and perfect harmony with all his people.
To whom do we belong?
Both baptism and the Lord’s Supper proclaim that we belong to God, and, because we belong to God, we also belong to each other. When Jesus commands his disciples to baptize new believers “in the name” of the Father and Son and Holy Spirit, he is saying that baptism is a badge of belonging (Matt. 28:19). Baptism marks off a believer as the personal property of the Triune God. And because baptism makes us God’s property, it also makes us each other’s family. Those who were baptized at Pentecost were, by that act, “added to the church” (Acts 2:41). Baptism creates a new body politic, one defined not by any prior criterion of group membership, but by repentance and faith in Christ.
And the Lord’s Supper corporately enacts our communion with Christ and thereby our communion with each other. That is, in the Lord’s Supper, a local church, by faith, shares in the benefits of Christ together (1 Cor. 10:16). And by so sharing in Christ, we come to share a single common life. By partaking of the bread that stands for his body, we ourselves solidify into solidarity: “Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread” (1 Cor 10:17).
Baptism and the Lord’s Supper proclaim to us the true narrative of who we are and whose we are, of where we’ve come from and where we’re going. When any Christian asks, “Who am I?” baptism and the Lord’s Supper return the ultimate shorthand answers. Baptism and the Lord’s Supper declare that what unites us in Christ is both more fundamental and more ultimate than anything that threatens to divide us.
What difference should that make as you seek to pastor, or live as a faithful member of, a local church? Here’s one application out of hundreds: When you disagree with another Christian over some matter of political philosophy or policy or advocacy, place your disagreement on one scale and baptism and the Lord’s Supper on the other. Is your disagreement of such gravity that you could not celebrate the Lord’s Supper with this other professing Christian? Is their error so great, as you see it, that you think their baptism invalid? If not, make sure that you conduct your controversy with that believer—its tone, matter, extent, and consequences—in light of the more fundamental and more ultimate realities that unite you.