(Reading time: 3-4 minutes.)
I worked for the Ford Motor Company during my college years. One afternoon, I climbed the steps to the paint department, walked through the door into the smoldering heat, and was almost immediately met by another employee. Without any preliminary niceties, he asked me, “You are a Christian, aren’t you?”
I answered, “Yes,” and asked in turn, “Are you?” He answered yes. I don’t remember that we said anything else to each other. He turned toward his work area, and I continued toward mine.
I don’t remember ever having seen the man before that day, nor do I remember ever seeing him again. How did he know I was a Christian? I had long hair and a beard and listened to rock and roll. I didn’t go around whistling hymns or buttonholing potential converts. What gave me away?
I suppose it was that I didn’t use profanity, which filled the atmosphere there like smog filled the Los Angeles sky. Or perhaps it was because I had recently stood up for a non-English speaking Muslim man who was being verbally abused by a foreman. Whatever the reason, my questioner somehow recognized me as a Christian.
I have come to believe that Christians should be distinguishable from others. I base this not on personal experience – too seldom have I been so distinguished or distinguishable – but rather on the Scriptures. It seems that God always intended his people to be different.
After Israel was rescued from slavery in Egypt and even before they arrived in their Promised Land, God gave them instructions on how to live. If they followed these instructions, which they sometimes did and sometimes didn’t, they would be different from their neighbors. The instructions included dietary laws, observing religious festivals, Sabbath-keeping, and circumcision. Anyone who followed these instructions would be readily identifiable.
Another distinguishing mark of ancient Jews was their refusal to create images of their God for use in worship. Other ancient peoples thought Israel “godless” because they had no idols. The idea that people could worship a god without the help of some image was a radical departure from the norm.
At times, Israel’s people were virtually indistinguishable from their neighbors. Whenever this happened, their great mission – to be a source of God’s blessing to all the peoples of the earth – was seriously hampered. In 587 BCE, the mission seemed to terminate in failure: Israel lost its national identity and went into exile.
After 70 years, the exiles returned – though far fewer in number – with a determination to live by the instructions they were given and maintain their identity as a people of God. They focused especially on the distinguishing marks of circumcision and Sabbath-keeping.
The coming of Jesus as Israel’s messiah and the world’s savior did not fundamentally change the necessity of being different, though it deepened it beyond ethnic and ceremonial distinctives. Circumcision, Sabbath-keeping, and kosher food laws continued to distinguish ethnic Jews from others, but with the inclusion of Gentiles among God’s people, new and transcendent identity markers were needed.
The Bible recognizes two of these. The first is faith in Jesus, which the New Testament scholar James Dunn describes as “the primary identity marker” of God’s people. But people, as St. James pointed out, cannot see faith. They can only see how faith acts – what St. Paul referred to as “the obedience of faith.”
One aspect of this obedience, which serves as a second layer of Christian identity, is a love for Jesus’s people. These two layers, faith in Jesus as Lord and a loving commitment to his people, serve as a virtual fingerprint for all Christians.
Some groups have preferred to rely on negative markers. They place great emphasis on the absence of certain practices. Hence, the absence of alcohol and tobacco use becomes evidence of God’s acceptance. At different times in history, the absence of dancing, playing cards, listening to popular music, wearing beards, and the use of force have been sufficient evidence for Christian identification.
But there is no substitute for the presence of the biblical markers. Faith in Jesus and love for his people remain the principal indicators – and the biblical standard – of Christian identity.