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Polarization Is Always an Identity Issue


A couple years ago Scientific American published a study which found that “identifying as liberal or conservative was a stronger predictor of affective polarization than issue positions.” To put that in more understandable terms the study found that a person who identified as a conservative would have a stronger negative emotional response to someone who identified as a “pro-life liberal” than to a “pro-choice moderate.” The article concluded with this warning:

If Americans slide into seeing all policy debates as battles between Us vs. Them, we stop selecting policies based on their actual content. Ironically, this would lead to choosing policies that don’t match our personal values, because the content and evidence would become less important than the source. In short, seeing politics as a battle may worsen things for everyone. (Here)

Polarization in the SBC Denomination

What is true within American politics is also true within religious circles such as the SBC. We’ve broken up amongst various camps. The SBC has always been a “big tent” denomination with several differing beliefs partnering together for the sake of missions. But in our increasingly polarized society our predominant identities are now found within our splinter groups instead of the name outside the big tent. As such we’ve become Corinth. “I follow Tom, I follow Beth, I follow JD”.

We might say that our fractures are centered around issues, but it’d be interesting to do a study within the SBC similar to that done by Robert Talisse which finds that “Americans are less divided over the issues” but we “see ourselves as profoundly at odds.”

This means that when you see a Tweet from someone from the “other” party our first instinct is to suspect instead of engage the actual statement or argument being presented. When all is said in done we probably have more in common with the “other team” than we think we do. But our polarization causes us to maximize those difference.

This was the very thing which plagued the church at Corinth. We will always attach our identities to something or somebody. As those created in the image of God who are hard-wired for worship this will always be the case. We were made to have our identities attached to the Lord. But if our identity is not attached to Christ it will be attached to someone or something else.

In Corinth they had similar things with polarization. Who are you? I’m part of team Apollos. I’m the guy who speaks in tongues better than any of those other jokers. Oh, I’m not like those fools who can’t eat meat they got at the market, I understand the gospel. I’m a forgiving dude. I’ve arrived. I’m knocking this Christianity thing out of the park.

And what Paul does here in the very beginning is remind them of who they are in Christ and how empty all those other identities are. No matter what that self-focused identity is founded upon it will always hinder our ability to be kingdom-focused.

And this was precisely what was taking place at Corinth. When God used Team Apollos perhaps Team Cephas was getting upset about it. That promotion should have gone to them. I belong to Apollos…

But notice what Paul does at the very beginning of his letter to them. He reminds them who they are. Their identity is found in Christ not anywhere else. They were saying “I belong to Apollos, I belong to Cephas, I belong to Paul” and God is saying, “No, you belong to me.” Notice how verse 2 begins. “The church of God…” Not Apollos, not Paul, not Cephas, but God. It is God’s church. They belong to God– those who have settled in Corinth and have been rescued by Jesus.

So how does that change things?

If my identity is found in money then I’ve got to claw and scrape and do everything I can to be financially successful. Same with power. Same with parenting. Same with pastoring. None of those are big enough to hold the weight of our identities. They will all come crumbling down. So when I hear in the gospel that my identity is found in Christ that changes everything. I don’t have to make my life about these other things. I belong to God. And so does my neighbor.

“There is not one square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, Mine!”

We rightly use that Abraham Kuyper quote to be involved in many different things—a host of missional enterprises—but perhaps we should extend it to our fellow humans. While I’m certainly involved and our unity and shared responsibility in Christ says something to a church which features dancing storm troopers, a faithful starting point is that such a church belongs* to God—even if they are fully apostate. It’s ultimately His to sort out. My higher calling is to be faithful with what God is calling me to do and be. (John 21:21)

Again this is what Paul is doing when he reminds them that they aren’t the only church. They are a church and not the church. Their identity is found in Christ just like all of the others who “in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ”. You don’t have to compete or compare yourself with other churches. That’s just silly. But you’ll do that if your identity isn’t found in Christ. You’ll compete instead of cooperate. You’ll start asking the wrong questions and make wrong comparisons. But Paul reminds the Corinthians that they aren’t alone in calling upon the name of the Lord Jesus Christ. They are in this with other believers from all around the globe. Their calling is to be the church at Corinth. To be obedient to God and do their thing that God has called them to do.

Polarization happens when we move away from our identity in Christ being primary. Such a move will always call me to put undue weight on the identity of something else. And it’ll impact the weight that I give to the words of others as well. It’ll shape the way that I view them. If we want to fix our squabbles and increasingly polarized tribes within the SBC (or within Christianity at large) it’ll do us well to begin with digging into what it means to be “in Christ”.

Notice that Paul never really settles whether team Apollos or any other team is the one who is theologically correct or the one who is knocking it out of the park. He changes the focus for every one of the groups. If Christ isn’t their identity then everything else (even correct theology) is going to miss the mark.

*When I’m using the term “belong” I mean in the creational sense and not necessarily in the relational sense. Though I’m not necessarily saying they don’t belong to the Lord in a relational sense. I’m simply not making that point.

This article about polarization originally appeared here.

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Mike Leake is husband to Nikki and father to Isaiah and Hannah. He is also the lead pastor at Calvary of Neosho, MO. Mike is the author of Torn to Heal and his writing home is http://mikeleake.net