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 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.”
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?