Yesterday, as I write this, one of the deacons in our congregation gave a split sermon that discussed the different identity of the New Testament Church from the inside and from the outside. This is something I had known before, at least intellectually, but it was fascinating for me to think of the implications of this for identity politics, and I would like to ponder these today. Let us note that there is a specific aspect of identity politics that is involved in the term Christian as it appears (only three times) in the New Testament. What is most important to realize about the term Christian is that it was not something that believers called themselves, but rather something that outsiders called believers, and that makes all the difference. For the record, believers called themselves followers of the way or the elect, that is, the chosen by God and those who followed God’s way, both of which are precisely the way that insiders view themselves.
In our own age, of course, identity politics have a high degree of contentiousness within society. One of those problems relates to the validity of identities that are defined by outsiders. It is frequently assumed by self-defined oppressed and marginal groups that their labeling by the majority is going to be negative, and thus such labels and terms and their usage is viewed with a strong degree of hostility. One of the biggest aspects of double standards in this issue is that the same people who reject labels and identities foisted upon them by others do not refuse to foist definitions on other people that are equally hostile and pejorative in meaning and intent to those labels that they reject. The identity politics of the Roman empire were slightly less toxic than our own, because even if Christian is a term defined by outsiders, it at least matches the perspective that heathen Romans had about their own religious practices. At least it can be said that the Romans were at least fair-minded enough to judge their own identities and the identities of others by the same standard at least.
There was no question of the heathen Gentiles of New Testament times calling believers by their proper names because those proper names presupposed a truth value that the heathens did not accept. To have claimed that believers were the elect would be to admit that they themselves were not called and chosen by God. This was something that they were unwilling to concede. Similarly, to admit that believers were followers of the way would be to admit that they themselves were not living the right way. Again, this was an unacceptable option because it presupposed the truth claims of believers. There is an approach to apologetics known as presuppositional apologetics, and one of the aspects of the names that New Testament believers called themselves was the presupposition of the truth of the belief system of the Bible, which involved also specific interpretations of the existing scriptures and also specific views of the various oral traditions that had been added during Hellenistic times. All of these interpretive stances presented conflicts with other people who had different approaches.