The documents of the NT, with a few exceptions, are addressed to communities and not to individuals. Many of us know this and it may not be too shocking, but the significances of this reality must continue to transform how we envision Christian identity.
Nobody in the first century had a Bible. Most people in the first few Christian generations were illiterate and couldn’t have read their Bibles even if they had them. When Scripture was read, it was read to communities who listened to it. When NT letters were circulated and read, they were read aloud by individuals to communities.
Consider just one significant aspect of this. When communities heard, “Jesus said, ‘I say this to you…’,” groups of Jesus-followers gathered together looked around at each other and thought, “he’s saying that to us. We need to…” After hearing the Scriptures, they would begin to ask each other, “how are we going to follow these words of Jesus? What do you think we ought to do in light of what Jesus said?”
They did not conceive of being Christian as something that they did on their own when they left the church gathering. They did not consider their Christian discipleship as something separable from the community.
If a group heard someone read, “a new command I give to you, that you love one another,” two or three people who were involved in conflict would glance at each other, knowing that Jesus was commanding them to reconcile. Two more people would look on, knowing the situation, committing to be part of a reconciling effort.
American evangelical Christian identity is completely shaped by individualism for a variety of really fascinating historical and cultural reasons. I’ve discovered that it’s almost impossible to pull people out of the mindset that considers the Bible as “God’s love letter to me.”
Rightly regarding Scripture demands a complete transformation of the imagination and two great aids to this are (my doctoral supervisor) Bruce Longenecker’s wonderful book, The Lost Letters of Pergamum, and Colossians Remixed, by Brian Walsh and Sylvia Keesmaat.
Bruce’s fictional account of Antipas’ transformative encounter with a Christian community opens up the horizons of the imagination so that readers can begin to see how being Christian was embodied in the first century. It does this, of course, to invite readers to imagine how individualistic Christian existence must be redeemed and transformed in our day.
The final chapter or two of Colossians Remixed contains an account of Onesimus’ arrival in Colosse. Onesimus is carrying Paul’s letter to Philemon urging their reconciliation. One of the characters in that church records Onesimus’ arrival and talks about how Paul’s letter was received when read to the community and the response it provoked from Philemon. Paul’s letter is indeed addressed to Philemon, but also to several others. Paul set the situation between Onesimus and Philemon squarely within the context of the church community.
I’m sure there are many others, but these two very creative works go a long way to open our eyes to Christian identity as the NT envisions it.