It’s a loaded question, one that probes my very existence. Jesus faced it (John 8:24-25, 28). When I face it, I usually answer with the name from my earthly family. But we each have an identity from a larger family that draws its identity from the Father “of whom the whole family in heaven and earth is named” (Ephesians 3:15). We have multiple layers of identity that overlap, but hopefully they are complementary.
But what if they contradict? What if my human family doesn’t identify with my heavenly? Both the fifth commandment and Jesus’ counsel in Matthew 10:35-38 show the importance and the limitation of earthly familial ties. Those closest to us on earth can be the greatest threat, as well as benefit, to our bigger identity in God.
Consider with me the importance of our core identity, the danger of conflicting identities, and the amazing corporate identity given to Seventh-day Adventists. Learning the unfolding story of God is the key to knowing who we are.
In 2 Corinthians 5:14- 6:1 Paul addressed our most important identity, using unlimited, inclusive (and even exclusive) terms like “all,” “they which live,” “no man,” “any man,” “all things,” “the world.” Paul tells us we each have an identity that died in Jesus at the cross (verse 14), and another that arose in some sense with Him at His resurrection, which is reflected in unselfish living (verse 15). This new identity changes how we view all others (verse 16), realizing the “new creature” identity conceived and crafted “in Christ” (verse 17).
We want an identity that is consistent with our deepest needs, to be known and loved…
There is a staggering paradigm shift, for each one of us personally, as well as for how we are called to view each other. It is a shift to which we must voluntarily submit at some point. Then, from that point forward we grow to “the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (Ephesians 4:13). This changes everything. As Paul wrote, “all things are become new” (2 Corinthians 5:17).
But we are constantly tempted to divide life into contradictory segments. Even if we have begun to grasp this new identity, we have portions of our existence—how we think and feel and act—that effectively oppose the new identity. Jesus addressed this divided self by simply saying, “No man can serve two masters” (Matthew 6:24). So our identity must be complete and integrated, and it eventually will be. In the end we will be on one side or the other, though many will still be deceived. There are no fence-sitters at the end of Revelation 20.
Post-modernism illustrates the danger, one we could describe as individualism run amok. In an article I found over twenty years ago titled, “To Thine Own Selves Be True,” it is boldly declared that “a new breed of psychologists says there’s no one answer to the question ‘Who am I?'” They claimed that a “disparate groups of selves… inhabit us all…. There is the sense that we are often, if not always, playing,… the sense that each of us can switch roles as easily as we switch costumes” (Los Angeles Times Magazine, August 23, 1992). Can we hear distinct echoes of the answer Jesus received to His question, “What is thy name?”, to which the answer came, “My name is Legion: for we are many” (Mark 5:9).
But let’s leave fantasyland and come back to reality. We want an identity that is consistent with our deepest needs, to be known and loved, to finally meet Him who made us, and redeemed us at infinite cost, and not have Him say, “I don’t know you” (Matthew 7:21-23; 25:11-12). To know Him we must dwell in the land of genuine stories, not the realm of make-believe. As Israel was instructed, we must repeat constantly the stories that make us what we are (Deuteronomy 32:7; 6:6-9). We must hear them, believe them, and remember them.
Over 120 years ago the issue of our corporate identity as a movement, what makes us what we are as Seventh-day Adventists, became a recurring theme in Ellen White’s writings. It was a refrain she continued to repeat for the last two active decades of her life (download PDF). It is clear from the history of these twenty years that an attack was being made on our identity as a people, from within even more than from without. History has a way of repeating itself. Seventh-day Adventists were raised up to possess a special identity and execute a special mission consistent with that identity. Have we truly embraced our identity and mission? Do we know who we are?
Fred Bischoff became involved in Adventist history while working as a preventive medicine physician in southern California for Kaiser Permanente and serving on the clinical faculty, School of Medicine and School of Public Health, Loma Linda University. He found his greatest joy in exploring and explaining "the simplicity that is in Christ" in relation to history and prophecy, which culminate in the Adventist mission.