Over the last few days I’ve been reflecting a bit on the character of Christian identity with reference to its corporate and individual dimensions. After introducing it in class a few times, I’ve been struck by some of the questions I’ve encountered.
As I indicated previously, students from communal cultures (e.g., parts of Africa, Asia, S. America) think this is normal, whereas N. American students are often discomfited, casting about anxiously to establish some place for the individual.
I’ve often wondered about what motivates some of these questions. Is it that our imaginations have been so thoroughly shaped by Western individualism that we want to have full and sole control over future possibilities? Is it that notions of “freedom” as the absence of coercion create in us discomfort when the realization dawns that we belong to and are obligated to others?
Getting under the skin of our deeply embedded individualism reveals impulses, inclinations, habits of thought, and modes of imagining and longing that need to be identified and refined in the light of Scripture.
At any rate, here are a few (still-in-process) thoughts about Christian identity:
First, Christian identity is neither communal at the expense of the individual, nor individual at the expense of the community.
Second, it may be most helpful to think in terms of “individuals-in-community.” Many acknowledge that communities are indeed made up of individuals, but it’s equally important to note that individuals have their identity as part of the Christian community. We are who we are in relation.
Third, dynamics of renewal do not work exclusively from individual-to-community, or exclusively from community-to-individual. Both dimensions are at work. Paul assures the Philippian church that God, who has begun a good work among them will bring it to completion (Phil. 1:6). He informs the Corinthian church that they are the temple of God’s Spirit, who dwells among them (1 Cor. 3:16). In much of that letter, Paul appeals to them to forego their individual rights and privileges (even to be wronged!) for the sake of the church. Attempting to resolve the conflict between Philemon and Onesimus, Paul addresses the whole church (Phmn 1-2).
One could easily argue that for Paul, the Spirit’s work is primarily corporate, identity is fundamentally corporate, and that the dynamics of renewal work from communal-to-individual. It seems, however, that the wider witness of Scripture indicates that both dynamics are at work and that they sometimes work in this direction, and at other times, in that direction.
In Revelation 2-3, the exalted Lord Jesus rebukes and comforts churches, but also confronts individuals in need of repentance. In fact, it’s interesting to see the interplay of corporate and individual dynamics in the messages to the churches, though there again, one wonders if some of the individual notes (i.e., the promises to “the one who conquers”) are directed at whole churches to persevere.
All of this is to say that for Westerners in general and for Americans in particular, faithfully grasping the contours of the Christian faith is no straightforward enterprise. We tend to think of salvation as the order of events that happen to me rather than my participation – along with a redeemed community — in God’s movement to reclaim creation for the glory of his name.