Corporate vs. Individual Christian Identity

I’ve had a number of discussions recently about the differences between modern and first-century conceptions of being Christian. The paragraphs below represent what I’ve taught in classes on the NT. How do these thoughts strike you?

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 usWe 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.”

How do these thoughts strike you? Do they seem to wrongly marginalize the individual? Does it appear that a corporate conception of Christian identity is nearly impossible to imagine? What objections could you anticipate from others?

40 thoughts on “Corporate vs. Individual Christian Identity

  1. Ted M. Gossard

    I agree (not that that is important, ha) with this in the main. And it surely does involve a shift (this computer won’t let me use a particular letter, so I have to reword things strangely, to me) in the way we are oriented, we are so steeped in individualism. But I would gently push back with the thought that it can’t be either/or, but and/both. We are individuals by nature interdependent on each other as well as dependent on God. And we’re to carry each other’s burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ. But each of us is to carry our own load, as well. It seems to me there is clearly something of both across the New Testament. “What is that to you, you must follow me.”

    1. timgombis

      Indeed, Ted, I hope to get at this in the next few days — the “both-and” character of identity. I think Paul assumes ‘individuals-in-community’ rather than either the community or individuals. I may have to deal with those verses in Gal. 6, too — ‘each one carrying his own load’ seems to run counter to carrying each others’ burdens, but it doesn’t necessarily. See Hays’s great comments on this, if you’ve got his commentary.

  2. Brian Tucker

    Ben Dunson suggests, at least for Paul in Romans, that the ‘body of Christ’ is the key to this. Paul never conceived of an individual ‘Christian’ outside of the ‘body of Christ’ but he did view them as persons in that body. I know you are not denying the individual component just pointing out the imbalance in contemporary Christian identity – a much needed corrective.

    1. timgombis

      Cheers, Brian! Yes, both in Romans and 1 Corinthians, Paul’s “body” talk is multivalent, referring to individuals, the corporate body, and, in 1 Corinthians, Jesus’ actual body. And this wonderfully captures how identity is both-and, which I’ve been trying to capture in recent days.

  3. Tim Cole

    Herr Professor:

    Thanks for posting on this topic. If I was sitting in the back of your classroom, I’d be cheering you on and saying, “bravo…encore…or the more mundane “amen.” Hopefully you have experienced such encouragement.

    Changing deeply held but erroneous mindsets does seem impossible at times (perhaps the most erroneous and hardest mindset to change is the concept of the “Pastor” of a church; after 30 years of attempting to dismantle that traditional concept, it continues to rear its diabolical head). But I digress.

    One of the contributing factors to the problem of individualism is that the Authorized Version of the Bible makes no distinction between the singular “thou” and the plural “you.” The effect is that we read everything addressed to us personally. But when Jesus said, “You (plural) are the light of the world….you (plural) are the salt of the earth”, he was referring to the impact of believing communities on the culture. I.E, you, in the way you relate to one another as a team of disciples and order your community life, you are a demonstration to the world of the Trinity, working together in the context of love.

    Last week I was in England for some academic studies and heard a “Pastor” say that his preaching was for the purpose of “building community.” I don’t hear that ideas much on this side of the Atlantic. But he is surely correct.

    So–Herr Professor, don’t give up. The seeds you are planting will one day produce fruit–but it may take a few years before you see the buds rise above the soil. Warren Wiersbe once said to me: “It’s always too soon to quit.”

    1. timgombis

      Thanks for this, Tim. Indeed, the new NIV does a wonderful job of attempting to capture the 2nd person plural addresses. See its rendering of 1 Corinthians 3:16-17 — it’s awesome!

      And yes, only a flourishing community can ‘image’ the God who is three-in-one, right? Provokes the question, Are American churches ‘imaging’ a Unitarian God?

      1. Tim Cole

        Per your advice, I did examine the NIV rendering of 1 Corinthians 3:16-17; good call on your part: the NIV does reflect the plurality of “you.” Sure helps.

        I also noticed that the HCSB uses “sanctuary” instead of “temple” in the same verses; another improvement in communicatng an OT concept.

      2. johntjeffery

        Of course, the archaic 17th century 2nd person plurals and subjective and objective endings preserved in the KJV made this quite clear! The lack of precision in the majority of modern translations has resulted in everyone thinking that they are a bunch of little “temples” running around, despite the fact that temple/sanctuary is not itself in the plural!

  4. imaginewithscripture

    Well said, Tim. Obviously there are stories in the Bible where the individual’s relationship with God are in focus. But I hear you, and agree with you totally.

    Personally I have encountered objections about the kind of Christian identity you mentioned, and that’s frustrating. But it’s even more frustrating when people agree with me in principle and then they fall back to an individualistic theology immediately. For example, they may agree that individualism is not good, but then they say that at the end of the day that’s who we are––individuals! Or, they say that we should love one another in the community, but ultimately it’s up to the individual to choose to sin.

    By the way, in his book The Next Evangelicalism (Downers Grove: IVP, 2009), Soong-Chan Rah skilfully describes what individualism looks like. Here are a few quotes.

    “In an individual-driven theology, individual sin takes center stage. Individual sin leads to a sense of personal guilt: I, the individual, did something personally wrong and I feel guilty about my actions. I am responsible for my personal, individual actions and nothing more. Therefore, I can personally confess my sins and be absolved of my individual sinfulness and my personal feelings of guilt. Because the individual is only responsible for an individualized and personal guilt, there is no sense of shame for corporate actions that are also expressions of human sinfulness.” (p. 40)

    “Our reduction of sin to a personal issue means that we are unwilling to deal with social structural evils, and this reduction prevents us from understanding the full expression of human sinfulness and fallenness.” (p. 40)

    “However, lacking an understanding of corporate sin, we are unable to feel, perceive or understand the impact of the shame of corporate responsibility.” (p. 40)

    1. timgombis

      Thanks, I.! To my mind, it’s easy to assent to the reality of our individualistic culture, but extraordinarily difficult to identify the practices that embody it and to imagine alternative practices and corporate habits that embody a Christian communal identity. But that’s the job of church leaders, isn’t it!? To pray and discern and discuss and create and haltingly but perseveringly generate a new way of life, embodying a community’s new lord.

      Thanks also for the Soong-Chan Rah quotes!

  5. Pingback: links: this went thru my mind | preachersmith

  6. BradK

    Do these thoughts seem to wrongly marginalize the individual? I’m not sure that is possible for our American individualistic culture. 🙂 The mindset is quite firmly ingrained. A lot more of what you have written here is needed in the U.S. before there is a danger of marginalizing the individual.

    However, in many other parts of the world a more community-oriented mindset more like that of the first century church is much more common.

    1. timgombis

      Indeed, Brad. It’s part of an ongoing discussion in a class. Interestingly, students from other parts of the world see this reality as obvious whereas students from the U.S. really struggle to get their heads around it.

      1. johntjeffery

        Resources on the Concept of Corporate Solidarity
        (original footnoting inserted where appropriate as notes)

        G. K. Beale, A New Testament Biblical Theology: The Unfolding of the Old Testament in the New (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2011), pp. 179, 192-193, 395, 713. Beale refers to “the biblical concept of “the one and the many” or of “corporate representation.”” Op. cit., pg. 179. “The concept of corporate personality rightly has been qualified by later critics; it is better to speak of corporate solidarity and representation.” Ibid., footnote 56. See also pg. 395, footnote 24.

        Abner Chou, “Corporate Solidarity: A Heuristic Grid For New Testament Use of the Old Testament,” Paper delivered at the Far West Regional Meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society, May, 2, 2003, at Sun Valley, CA. Available from TREN: ETS-1613 [11937].

        E. Earle Ellis, Paul’s Use of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1957), pp. 58-60, 72-73, 95, 132-133, 136, and 139.

        Mehrdad Fatehi, The Spirit’s Relation to the Risen Lord in Paul (Mohr Siebeck, 2000).

        David Noel Freedman, Allen C. Myers, and Astrid B. Beck, eds., Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2000), pp. 285-287, s.v. “Corporate Personality”.

        Morna Dorothy Hooker, Jesus and the Servant: The Influence of the Servant Concept of Deutero-Isaiah in the New Testament (London: SPCK, 1959).

        Aubrey R. Johnson, The One and the Many in the Israelite Conception of God (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1960). Noted by Beale, op. cit., pg. 179, footnote 56, and pg. 395, footnote 24.

        Arthur H. Lewis, “Resurgent Semitisms In The Testament Theology”, Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 17:1 (Winter 1974), pp. 3-10.

        Kenneth D. Litwak, “The Use Of Quotations From Isaiah 52:13-53:12 In The New Testament”, Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 26:4 (DEC 1983), pp. 385-394.

        Richard Longenecker, Biblical Exegesis in the Apostolic Period (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1975).

        John Murray “The Imputation Of Adam’s Sin”, Westminster Theological Journal 18:2 (MAY 1956), pp.146-162, and Westminster Theological Journal 19:1 (NOV 1956), pp. 25-44.

        C. R. North, Isaiah 40–55 (London: SCM, 1952).

        C. R. North, The Suffering Servant in Deutero-Isaiah (London: Oxford University Press, 1948).

        Douglas A. Oss, “The Interpretation Of The “Stone” Passages By Peter And Paul: A Comparative Study”, Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 32:2 (JUN 1989), pp. 181-200.

        Johannes Pedersen, Israel: Its Life and Culture, Vol. 28 in South Florida Studies in the History of Judaism (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1991).

        Henry Wheeler Robinson, The Christian Doctrine of Man (1934).

        Henry Wheeler Robinson, Corporate Personality in Ancient Israel (1935; reprint Philadelphia: Fortress, 1973, 1980). Beale refers the reader to the bibliography attached to the 1980 ed. of this work by Robinson for “discussion of this concept”. Op. cit., pg. 179, footnote 56.

        Henry Wheeler Robinson, The Old Testament: Its Making and Meaning (1937).

        Henry Wheeler Robinson, The History of Israel: Its Fact and Factors (1938).

        Henry Wheeler Robinson, The Religious Ideas of the Old Testament (1956).

        H. H. Rowley, The Servant of the Lord and Other Essays on the Old Testament (London: Lutterworth, 1957.

        Thomas R. Schreiner, Paul, Apostle of God’s Glory in Christ: A Pauline Theology (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2001), pp. 156-159, s.v. “In Christ”. Schreiner uses the phrases “representative or corporate christology” and “corporate personality”. Op. cit., pg. 158.

        Russell Phillip Shedd, Man in Community: A Study of St. Paul’s Application of Old Testament and Early Jewish Conceptions of Human Solidarity (London: Epworth Press, 1958).

        Klyne Snodgrass, “The Use of the Old Testament in the New”, in New Testament Criticism and Interpretation, eds. David Alan Black and David S. Dockery (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1991), pg. 416; cited in Robert L. Plummer, 40 Questions About Interpreting the Bible, in 40 Questions Series, series ed. Benjamin L. Merkle (Grand Rapids: Kregel Academic & Professional, 2010), pg. 206-207.

        Thomas F. Torrance, Incarnation: The Person and Life of Christ, ed. Robert T. Walker (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2008), pp. 137-138. Torrance uses the phrase, “incarnational solidarity”. Op. cit., pg. 137.

        Sang-Won (Aaron) Son, Corporate Elements in Pauline Anthropology (Rome: Pontifical Biblical Institute, 2001). [Cited in E. Earle Ellis, “Perspectives On Biblical Interpretation: A Review Article”, Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 45:3 (SEP 2002), pp. 489, note 134.]

        Roland de Vaux, Ancient Israel: Its Life and Institutions (London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 1973).

        Objections (Noted by Beale, op. cit., pg. 395, footnote 24):

        Joshua R. Porter, “The Legal Aspects of the Concept of ‘Corporate Personality’ in the Old Testament”, Vetus Testamentum 15 (1965), pp. 361-380.

        John W. Rogerson, “The Hebrew Conception of Corporate Personality: A Re-examination”, Journal of Theological Studies 21 (1970), pp. 1-16. Also noted by Schreiner, op. cit., pp. 158, footnote 11.

        Stanley E. Porter, “Two Myths: Corporate Personality and Language/Mentality Determinism”, Scottish Journal of Theology 43 (1990), pp. 289-307.

  7. Dan Jr.

    Tim, I find there is no greater cultural force than Individualism. It’s the most difficult point of discipleship. Joseph Hellerman’s book “When the Church was Family” does some good NT work on this subject.

    Still, the idea of this creates all kinds of inner temper tantrums. Some Progressives see it as a way to excersize control while Conservatives see it as way to take away personal responsibilitity. It’s a long work to massage this mindset into a community. Here is an old short post where I spouted on this topic.


    1. timgombis

      Thanks for this, Dan, and the link to your excellent post. Hellerman’s rightly narrowed in on this topic and has done some great work over the last decade or so hitting this and related issues crucial to the church. Thanks for bringing him to mind.

  8. gjohnston2244

    I completely agree that the corporate dimension of the purposes of God has been neglected, especially in our concept of mission and ministry. We tend to read and apply our Bilbes in a very individualistic Western way. We all expect individual “callings” and “leadings,” the “will of God for my life” modeled after the callings of Isaiah and Paul. Ministry is viewed in this light. This explains (in part) all of the lone-wolf and loose cannon ministries out there. Instead of the church having a corporate evangelistic mission, we are all a bunch of individual personal evangelists sharing individual variations of personal faith.

    And yet there is a dimension to faith that is extremely individual, beginning with belief itself. The transformed mind and heart. The willingness to love and forgive. Humility and meekness. Obedience on a corporate level must begin on the individual level. Final judgment and salvation is almost certainly on a person to person basis. I would respectfully caution against overstating the case for the corporate dimension.

    But I completly agree that the corporate dimension has been neglected and reinterpreted as individual responsibilities.

    1. gjohnston2244

      I should have read the other comments before posting mine. A lot of good feedback. One thought I forgot. I often say that we must respond on an individual basis but our response is in a corporate context. I must individually respond to the cross in love, but that love is lived out corporately. Jesus didn’t say you are the lights of the world.

    2. timgombis

      The notions that faith or belief is individual, and that obedience must begin on the individual level is what I’m wondering about. It seems to me that many of us can grasp what you’ve articulated in your first paragraph. What I’m trying to think through is whether in your second paragraph you’ve articulated a thoroughly Western conception of things or whether you’re rightly capturing aspects of Christian discipleship.

      1. Greg Johnston

        Good to question one’s paradigm and presuppositions. I’ll cobble together my case and see if you can disassemble it. For now, I’ll just say that Nicodemus and the rich man of Mark 10 (for example) seem to put the individual front and center.

  9. gjohnston2244

    Tim, here’s what I’ve got for starters. These suggest to me that faith, repentance, obedience must begin on an individual level. See what you think.

    In Luke’s gospel, John the Baptist told the crowds not to presume that “children of Abraham” status was sufficient to prepare them for receiving the kingdom. This suggests that the presumption existed, that entrance into the kingdom would be granted on a corporate basis of ethnic origin. John’s reply was that God could create ethnic Jews from rocks, and that actual fruit of repentance would be necessary. This suggests that the determining factor will be more of a case-by-case basis, depending on repentance.

    Consistent with this, Jesus pointed out to Nicodemus that one must be “born from above.” I think Jesus had Ezekiel 36 and 37 in mind, but that is not crucial to the evidence. Jesus’ remarks about being born from above and entering the kingdom is all done in the third person or first person singular. This suggests that it is on an individual basis. Jesus seems to scold Nick for being a teacher of Israel and yet not understanding this point.

    The question from the rich man in Mark 10 was about his own personal “eternal life,” the presumption being that eternal life would not be granted on a wholesale, corporate basis but depended on something the individual could do. Jesus’ response seems to proceed to corroborate that presumption. The individual went away upset because apparently the cost was too high.

    The faith and conversion of the Ethiopian eunuch was completely out of the context of a corporate identity. The same is true of the Phillipian jailer, who asked what he individually must do to “be saved.” The response of faith was also instructed in the second person singular, although his household was somehow included. We may conclude that his individual faith would cover his household or that anyone in his household who responded with faith would also receive the same “salvation.”

    1. timgombis

      Thanks for this, Greg. Yes, individuals are mentioned in the NT as needing to repent and enter the kingdom (a corporate reality). But their taking on a new identity involves adopting their taking a place within a new and renewed community. It’s an entering of a communal reality so that they no longer live for themselves, but for the flourishing of everyone in the community.

      Beyond that, in the first cultures in which the gospel was heard, identity was communal anyway. So, the gospel was calling others to leave behind A WHOLE LOT MORE THAN WE TYPICALLY IMAGINE to take on a completely new identity, one shaped by the new family into which believers are baptized by the Spirit. These new loyalties and the new corporate mode of life are what generated pushback from loyalties left behind.

    1. gjohnston2244

      I will go on to add what logically seems to follow. Paul’s exhortation (for example) to the corporate assembly “to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called” will require “all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love” on the part of each individual. This only happens when each individual does what Paul individually did: “I have been crucified with Christ so that it is no longer I who live but Christ living in me.” Faith, new birth and obedience starts with the individual and works itself out in community (Ephesians 4:1-16), where the rubber meets the road. The corporate light shines brighter than the combined individual lights.

      1. timgombis

        I don’t see that it follows that discipleship moves from individual to corporate. It seems to me that both dimensions are crucial to note and that dynamics move back and forth between the two dimensions with neither necessarily having priority.

  10. Andrew T.

    Individualism is/was always a feature of Greek democracy. How many PhD have been earned tracing back Western notions of liberty to Greek democracy? Very many, likely.

    But Greek democracy arises from Hellenistic humanist philosophy, not Hebrew theology. Hebrew theology is not to trite as to confine its worry to the freeing individuals.

    From Genesis onwards, Hebrew scripture emphasis suggests it’s role is to document the Creator’s relationship to His creation, though because of sin, that documentation turns towards the creators intended relationship to His creation; namely it’s restoration.

    When God created man (the species), he did not create individuals. Rather, male and female He created them in his image [Gen 1:27]. Just as the trinity is one, so too is the male and female made in the image of God one (flesh) [Gen 2:24]. So to break apart what God has joined together, to emphasis only part – as democratic individualism does – not only seems to be anti-scriptural, but it seems insensitive to the nature of scripture (or worse, ignorant of it).

    Out of the one flesh comes the seed that grows through time as a vine does with its branches. The Hebrew idiom is that a generation is not confined to a slice in time (horizontally) but weaves through it (vertically). The Hebrew emphasis on ‘this generation‘ is not “all people living ‘now’” as some type of horizontal slice; but the vine with its branches having come from a single seed, to weave its story throughout all time (so the emphasis is vertical).

    This is why in biblical language, linguistically son is the same as grand-son, is the same as great-grand-son, really any male descendant. Similarly daughter is the same as grand-daughter which is the same of any female descendant. God is timeless, so of course scriptural language and idiom also exhibits this character even when it is masked beneath the language of a Greek witness.

    Because of this, the corporate nature is the foundation for everything else. Adam and Eve’s sin was the first exodus, and it incorporated all of humanity. The first salvation was also corporate. In Noah and his family was a single vine elected to salvation, away from the wrath of the baptism of the water of life [1 Peter 3:30][2 Peter 2:5] in an ark, the mercy seat.

    If a man and woman pairing created in the image of God is corporate, the clan and nations that spring from their loins are also. If a spiritual promise is the inheritance of that man and woman (such as it was with Abraham and Sarah) than the children and grand-children through time are bound by the covenant that produced that promise just as marriage fidelity is a product of the marriage covenant.

    The child that is excluded from such a spiritual inheritance because of unbelief, is also a new seed when he becomes ‘one flesh’ with an unbelieving wife because unbelief cuts one off (or severs fellowship) from that vine’s source of life (namely the Holy Spirit).

    That is why “through Isaac” were the sons of Abraham reckoned [Rom 9:7]. Ishmael, like his nephew Esau after him, were children of the flesh (even though Esau had the same blood in his veins Jacob did). This is also why the promise fell to Joseph [Gen 48:16].

    All of this to point out that it isn’t ‘individuals’. It isn’t even simply ‘communities’ in some wild inclusive Babylonian sense. What constitutes the corporate nature of the Hebrew scriptural promises (including new covenant) are ‘communities’ related through time by a faith and a promise – made by a timeless God to His imperfect wife; a people given a great name, the sons (and daughters) of Abraham.

    1. timgombis

      Individualism may indeed have some roots in ancient Greece. It sure seems that way as notions of identity are quite different than ancient Near Eastern ones.

  11. Greg Johnston

    I did not say that discipleship moves from individual to corporate. I am simply replying to your question, “The notions that faith or belief is individual, and that obedience must begin on the individual level is what I’m wondering about.”

    1. timgombis

      Got it. It seems to me that while often Jesus and the apostles engage individuals, they are initially preaching to groups of people, going through towns, expecting whole towns, or groups within them, to repent and begin embodying and enacting the Kingdom of God — first in Israel, and then among non-Jews. So, in some instances, individuals hear the gospel message and receive it and enter the kingdom. In other instances (e.g., Acts 2), larger groups respond (“Brothers, what shall we do?”), repent and initiate obedience to Jesus. Just to say, we see both dynamics, even when it comes to faith and obedience, in the NT.

  12. Jaime Hancock

    Tim (and others),
    I’m a bit of a third culture person, having lived about equal amounts of time in the US as out of the US, and much of the time out of the US was during very formative periods of my life. I have to say that the individualistic nature of western Xianity is still hard for me to deal with. I feel that I need a community of faith in order to truly function as I should, just as a cell from the body can not thrive, nor even survive long outside the body. But I find the culture here in the West to be so individualistic, that it is hard to find right environment to grow as I feel I should be growing. Even though I came to surrender my own individual life to Jesus at a young age, I cannot separate my faith journey from family & church environment that I grew up in.
    My wife and I are trying to raise our children to understand that being disciples of Jesus requires vibrant family/community bonds that must be developed and nurtured if we are going to be the Body of Messiah.
    I almost think we couldn’t do too much to correct for the individualistic mindset in our churches & “Christian” culture. It’s not that I don’t see an individual aspect to faith, but that seems to be the only understanding of the Christian life here in the West.
    After reading the other comments, I would have to say that Andrew’s comments seem to harmonize well with the middle eastern culture I lived in for several years.
    I definitely think this is an issue that needs to be addressed not just in seminaries, but in our congregations. I believe proper corporate identity would help our congregations be able to bear witness more effectively to our culture of the Kingdom of God.

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