Yesterday I reproduced a blog post I wrote a few years ago about the first audience(s) of the New Testament. The recipients of NT letters were communities and not individuals (even in the case of Paul’s letter to Philemon!). I brought this up in order to generate some discussion and to clarify my own thoughts about individual and communal Christian identity.
Further, I’ve been puzzled by certain responses I’ve encountered when I’ve presented this material in class. For the most part, when I bring this up, students nod their heads as if I’m only saying that our culture is too individualistic (which most people affirm) and that the church is really important (who would disagree?).
But I’ve pressed the issue further, indicating that the communal dimension of things in the NT is more fundamental than that. I’m not simply saying that the church is important, but that the basic conception of being Christian is a communally-shaped and communally-oriented endeavor. It’s not that the church is the collection of all the people who are being Christian. Christian existence is participation in the body of Christ – the church – into which we are baptized and apart from which Christian discipleship does not exist. How we think about our identity must reflect that reality.
Now, to my point. Having discussed this in the past, I’ve been reflecting more recently on a question I’ve encountered occasionally. I’ve been asked, “well, what about the individual? Are we running the risk of losing sight of the individual in light of the community?”
My question is this: Where does that question come from? Is it coming from our individualized culture? Or, is it coming from the need to keep things in biblical balance?
If it is the case that Paul addressed his letters to churches, that there is almost no command that anyone can fulfill in the NT letters without being in community, that we are baptized into the body of Christ (and this occurs simultaneously to being united to God in Christ) – if all of these things are true, why is it that when someone highlights the corporate dimension of the Christian faith there is pushback about not leaving behind the individual dimension of things? Is that because we should be careful to also keep in mind the individualized aspects of Christian faith?
Or, is it that our lifelong discipleship in Western thought-forms and modes of life are being threatened and we haven’t yet become comfortable thinking in biblically-shaped categories?
Here’s a related question: When the Bible is read in cultures where identity is shaped communally, where they celebrate the faith and conceive of life corporately, when they hear the Bible read, does anyone stand up and ask, “hey, what about the individual?”
To this point I’m only stirring the pot and generating some discussion (thanks, by the way, to those who have responded!). I’m still chewing on this and will likely roll out some provisional thoughts over the next few days.