Corporate & Individual Christian Identity, Pt. 2

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.

30 thoughts on “Corporate & Individual Christian Identity, Pt. 2

  1. Jon G

    So here’s where my struggle lies. I totally agree with what you are saying and feel quite strongly than Christian life necessitates communal life, however, I cannot ignore the individual hurdle involved in joining a community to share life with. With so much cognitive dissonance between myself and all the potential Christian communities I’ve tried, community building seems like an impossibility. All good relationships involve commitment, shared experience, and common interests but I’ve rarely found 2 of the 3 in past congregations I’ve attended let alone all 3.

    With that dilemma, I most often find myself outside of the community you are suggesting is so necessary to be Christian, and, rather, am forced to live as an individual follower of Christ (which is, as you say, an oxymoron). I do feel, with the rise of Emergent Christianity, that there is hope for such community, but they face a real problem overcoming the initial stages of developing the critical mass needed to sustain such groups.

    1. timgombis

      Jon, this issue is part of a much larger range of problems so that it’s hard to even begin to get a handle on it. The tragic condition of the church in America makes faithful pursuit of Christian discipleship a real dilemma. I don’t know that I have an answer, certainly not THE answer, but in order to live into the fulness of Christian identity the way the NT depicts it, participation in a church community and commitment over the long haul is essential.

      Whatever church you commit to will disappoint you fairly quickly and sustained participation will require the cultivation of Christian virtues.

  2. Kris

    These are some penetrating questions, Tim. I’ve been wrestling with similar thoughts lately as well. I am walking through interview an interview process for a position that will force me to articulate how I conceive of spiritual formation in the context of the Church.

    I think the individual is so hard to “leave behind” in evangelicalism because having a “personal, authentic, real, intimate, insert relational adjective here…” relationship with Jesus is such a pillar of evangelical piety and spirituality. It’s almost as if we don’t have the vocabulary to speak in terms of corporate identity only. We must always recover the “individual” because without it, the “corporate” can’t even exist. From the moment of conversion we are told that “our” (sg) relationship with Jesus is the modus operandi through which we conceive of salvation history.

    Great questions. Thanks for the post. They have been helpful in putting language to some of my own quandaries.

  3. gilsongraybert

    I whole heartedly agree that we find the emphasis on the church. We should think more corporately, so even in the sense of personal/hidden sin, the question becomes, “how am I hurting the body?” We generally even think of sin in light of our own person, yet ultimately, it harms the unified entity of the local church. This is the major reason I find the mindset of not attending church to be so heinous. Then, add those who only come on Sundays. How can they possibly be fed and nourished in the ways we are admonished if they neglect being part of a church, on Sundays and through the weeks in smaller avenues of fellowship? That even brings up the notion of fellowship though in how it is perceived; it is specifically intentional in the edification of those partaking. Fellowship goes much deeper than solely hanging out with church friends. It involves the transformative work implicated by the NT authors, and continual renewal of the mind.

    1. timgombis

      Yes, our participation in a new creation community goes far beyond “attendance.” The primary NT analogy is FAMILY, which includes but goes far beyond showing up for meals and holidays.

  4. aberdeenwriting

    Bernd Wannenwetsch’s book ‘Political Worship’ is incredibly helpful on this issue. He makes a case for seeing Christian ethics as springing from communal worship (not merely from the church as community). He convincingly shows how Christianity differs from communitarianism in theologically significant ways.

    1. timgombis

      Cheers, A. It very well may be the case that our individualized Christian worship industry is reinforcing individualism. Good, creative, worship composers are needed desperately by the church to help us orient our discipleship in fruitful directions.

  5. bobmacdonald

    Family is far more difficult to manage than solitude, but solitude loses its memory without shared experience, and its capacity without shared action. I am not at one with some people. If Hitler and Hirohito and I were all in the heavenly places, we might not even find each other in the same courts. One is an upstart in his society and wreaked more havoc than anyone other single person up to his time. The other inherited a crown that symbolized the unity of the Japanese. I would not, as a Canadian commoner, want to be associated with either community in the state they were in in the ’40s of the last century. I am in the unity symbolized by the Queen of England – a unity rejected by my southern cousins. Hem hem hem.

    So what is this unity in the Anointed One who teaches humanity knowledge that we call Church? What is the New Humanity of Ephesians that I should desire that unity of Spirit in the bond of peace? Peace reminds me of the shalom motif and frame of the Song of Solomon – the little foxes of chapter 2 and the Shulamite of chapter 7 – not to mention Jerusalem, city of peace – but more like a pomegranate wrapped in razor wire – and I am not quoting Psalm 122.

    Immediately I am reminded that the unity is broken. I just have to think TNK and the elect ancient people and where Christendom failed. It was the wall of partition that was supposed to have been broken down! The unity of the testimony of the Scriptures is broken by those who call themselves Christian. They say it all points to Christ but they break the heads of those who bore the anointing for our sake. How can the One who Anoints, the Anointing Spirit, and the Anointed human be so divided! It was the king who was anointed and enthroned – seated as an image of ruling. The king led to partisanship and division in history, to war, dearth, age, agues tyranny, despair, law, and so on (courtesy John Donne), Neither the monarch, nor the oligarch, or any rule you would name today inside or outside a church is at one within itself. How can such divisions stand?

    It is God from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named. Is God then divided? No – we refuse, if we are called by that Name, to allow that the Shema or its New Testament equivalent implies division in God. Yet we cannot hold up the tabernacle alone. If we try, will we not be struck down as the strong Uzzah was? Now there’s an individual acting on behalf of the Ark – and he dies. And so our strength (uz) must die.

    There’s a lovely Anglican collect somewhere which speaks of ungovernable men (16th c English) – I don’t see it in my BCP for Lent 5 but this is it from an online source:

    O Almighty God, who alone canst order the unruly wills and affections of sinful men: Grant unto thy people that they may love the thing which thou commandest, and desire that which thou dost promise; that so, among the sundry and manifold changes of the world, our hearts may surely there be fixed where true joys are to be found; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

    The collects are to collect us into that unity that we cannot achieve by ourselves.

      1. bobmacdonald

        Tim, this has been a good post to ponder, relating as it does to personal experience and corporate realities – we are all part of several corporate realities and we individually benefit in 1000’s of ways from collective cooperation – political, business and religious projects, from garment manufacturing to the excellent discoveries of science and research. Admittedly too, we are complicit in the sin that some bodies perpetrate, political and business as well as dogmatic religious bodies.

        I read this post on resurrection and revelation this morning from JDR Kirk. It strikes me that the ground that we are, rocky or otherwise, whether alone or together, requires both faith and revelation – since, like the disciples, we don’t ‘get it’.

        When we do begin to ‘get it’, where does it lead us but to a recognition that Hashem is the sovereign (Psalms 96-99 etc), and that his Anointed, whom we know as the new Joshua and new Adam, is ruling as his agent. This is a different governing Spirit than that of all the corporate bodies we are part of, so it is a new body leading to a new humanity. At times this Spirit has informed the policy of many of the corporate realities we share.

        That is why I started with the realities of the second world war and the bodies we were engaged with at that time. The allies who opposed the axis, as we know, had their own interests as well. And these conflicting and poorly resolved interests from the first two world wars have not solved the inherent sin of our world. – How then should we behave?

        I suggest that we should behave as if the Lord, whom we know through the risen Jesus, were in charge. Such knowledge must inform all our prayer, reading, devotion, and correction.

  6. joey

    There is no such thing as an individual Christian. I am not a Christian independent of the Body. I do not have my own, individual quota of the Holy Spirit. I have the Spirit only in as much as I am part of the Body and the BODY is indwelt by the Spirit. The Body is not a mass of individuals.
    “Give us this day our daily bread” is not about the well-being of the individual. It is about US and our KINGDOM function: give US what we need to perform our Kingdom function (which sometimes means that we will go hungry).

    1. Jon G


      I don’t think it’s helpful to dogmatically draw such lines in the sand. Sure, it is optimal to be in community, but are you really saying that one who isn’t CAN’T be Christian?

      Aren’t there periods (of varying lengths) of solitude necessary to gather up strength or training before joining community? Even Jesus sought out such times (40 days in the wilderness, going off alone to pray, etc). Or what about someone in which the community has rejected?

      I take your words to be inflated to make the point that community is optimal and, perhaps, the point of the spirit working in each one of us but I find such dogmatic either/or statements to be misrepresentative of reality. Yes, Christianity involves Community, but it is still possible to follow God as an individual.

  7. Craig Benno

    Could it be in our culture, we have to fight hard to ensure we are continually serving others..hence, our focus isn’t so much on the other; its still on us, who are doing the serving.

  8. Andrew T.

    Question – 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?

    Anticipating the question in the previous post it was argued that the source of this emphasis on individualization was ideas of Greek democracy (specifically Athenian; eg. Solon, Cleisthenes, and Ephialtes).

    Compare and contrast Athenian democracy with the Israelite model of governance (theocratic monarchy) espoused in Hebrew scripture.

    In Hebraic theocracy the force of power resided in God. The King was merely a steward of the people, a shepherd [2 Sam 5:2][2 Sam 7:7].

    In Athenian democracy the force of power resides in the people. The word ‘democracy’ itself shows this: δῆμος (demos) means “people“, and κράτος (krátos) means “force or power.

    Original Hebrew governance is God-centric; so the appointment of King as shepherd (or prince) caused angst because it masked the fount of all sovereign prerogative to reign with some ‘noble man’ as proxy [1 Sam 8:7].

    Athenian democracy goes further though. Not only does it ordain man with a sovereign right belonging solely to God [Rom 13:1], it doesn’t even exhibit decency enough to confine this privilege to ‘a man of virtue’; instead it ordains common man (the δῆμος) with a sovereign privilege not sourced in common man.

    Man’s proper understanding of himself with respect to God is expressed in [Psa 8:4], this because it exhibits appropriate creaturely humility before its creator. Our privilege of our election is that we bear the image of God. Moreover, all authority in heaven and earth (namely that belonging to our sacred sovereign) has been vested in one of our own kind [Matt 28:18].

    So, are individuals at the centre of God’s universe? Would it bruise our fragile egos to recognize that the source of this thinking is pride? One individual, at least, is at the centre of God’s universe, and he is like us. The question is – are we like Him?

    1. Jon G

      I’m not saying anything you’ve stated is wrong but I’m wondering how the Adamic mandate to rule and have dominion as God’s viceroys might come into play. Unless you take Adam and Eve as corporate entities, it seems there is something to the notion of each individual ruling as God would rule. Of course that doesn’t mean that they can’t fall into a larger corporate schema…just that there was the notion of the individual having power before the Greeks…

      1. timgombis

        There’s loads to say about this and your other questions, Jon, but when you read Gen 1-2, it is indeed Adam and Eve who are “image of God” as a corporate entity. That is, together and in their carrying out the commission as a community they bear the image of God. It isn’t good for Adam to do it alone. And the first wanderer in the biblical narrative is Cain. It’s his curse. So, by extension, wanderers and those unattached to a community are those who aren’t imaging God appropriately.

        Like I said, there’s much more to be said, including how American Christianity has created such situations, but Christians on their own apart from churches simply isn’t a phenomenon that is anticipated in the NT. It’s not something that is even conceivable, given what Christian discipleship is (i.e., participation in a new creation community).

      2. Andrew T.

        Insightful comments.

        Some also might worry “How about the unmarried?”

        There is a better community still than marriage of the flesh between mortal man and women since this marriage is only a shadow of heavenly things. This better community is the union of spirit with God.

        The unmarried have the greater blessing if they are in spiritual union with God since this barrage is the model of how marriage was intended. [Matt 22:29-30]

      3. Jon G

        Thanks for your reply and that’s a good point on Adam and Eve. Personally, I take them to be proto-Israel – characters used post-Exodus to describe the individual nation of Israel and its role in God’s Creation. So there is certainly a corporate aspect to them (the nation is made of individuals together) but still God is working (in the Genesis story) with individuals (Adam was working with God before Eve showed up). That might be nitpicking but I think it plays out with what I’ll say next.

        My sense is that a false dichotomy is being reflected in the comments. That is, properly imaging God is EITHER communal OR individual and I’m trying to say that God (or His followers) shouldn’t be limited in such ways. Instead, I believe we image God BOTH as a corporate community AND as individual persons made unique in God’s creative plan.

        I feel as if the commenters are saying that an orchestra playing a symphony is only, truly, a symphony when all instruments are playing at once. However, any good composer knows that some periods of the music need contrast and others need cohesion in order to add dynamics to the piece. Some parts need a solo, others need only strings or percussion or woodwinds, while some need every instrument available. But during a solo, you would never say the soloist isn’t imaging the composer…nor when they perform a solo concert or are even practicing alone.

        Similarly, in parts of a Christian’s life-symphony, there will be times of individualism as well as community. It’s not that one is good and the other is bad, but both necessary and can reflect the Creator. Again, Jesus took time to be outside of community in order to strengthen himself with the Father…I don’t think he wasn’t imaging God in those times.

        But, I think the real point being made by you and others is that we, in the West, have ignored community and I would totally agree. It is undervalued and the Body of Christ suffers because of that.

      4. timgombis

        I’m pressing beyond merely highlighting the importance of community. It seems to me that the NT equates Christians existence with participation in a new creation community. It’s not that it’s merely important, it’s vital. In fact, in describing what it means to be Christian, you almost can’t do it without talking about conduct within corporate body.

        Again, ‘on the ground’ realities of a culture steeped in individualism (and mobility) and a fractured, compromised church, I do realize that at times we may be ‘homeless’ viz. a church, but that’s not a situation to be tolerated or explained as ‘understandable’. In NT terms it is, very definitely, ‘not understandable’. That is, it doesn’t make sense.

  9. imaginewithscripture

    Growing up in a non-Western culture I tended to read the Bible in terms of my behaviour within a community. It’s a more shame-based culture than a guilt-based one. I have to admit that the discovery that God did relate to individuals in the Scripture was liberating for me. That is, I as an individual could have an intimate relationship with God. I have come to love God through a personal relationship with him.

    But that never meant that I approached the Scripture from an individualistic mindset. It seems to me that everything in the New Testament is about embodying the crucified Christ and risen Lord in our relationships with the people around me.

    Now I have spent over two decades in the West, I find myself greatly puzzled by the individualistic approach to the Bible. I have come to realise that individualism may well be fundamentally “Idolatry” (“I” in capital). That is, we fashion God after our own image. I hope I am not offending anyone here. But individualism does appear to be a very horrible thing to me, for it seems to be the direct opposite of Christ self-giving way of life.

    S Wu

    1. Andrew T.

      S Wu – well said!

      Individualism is a form of idolatry since it places something of creation where only the creator should be.

  10. Ted M. Gossard

    Yes, indeed. We are members not only of Christ, but of each other. In a recent comment about the balance needed to not only carry each other’s burdens, but to carry one’s own load well, also, I would think as I thought further on that, that the context of community remains. It is in community. (Have not been able to read Hays on that yet, but will).

    I wonder if one way to grow more in this regard is with more of a liturgical worship commitment together, and more sacramental. We are in Christ and that is communal and sacramental. Other ways of worship in evangelicalism are easily caught up in what are the ways of the world, about one’s experience of the “worship,” how good the sermon was, what programs the church offers, etc. Instead our gathering should reflect what we are in Christ, with Christ and the gospel in Trinitarian terms, kept at the forefront. Trying to think on this. Thanks.

  11. bobmacdonald

    Psalm 33:8-15 is an interesting commentary on this thread: e.g. verse 15 he fashioned together their heart. In this psalm there are many nations, many peoples, (v10) and lots of human children רָאָה אֶת כָּל בְּניֵ האָָדָם (beni ha-adam) – and one heart.

    Psalm 33 is unique in Book 1, being the only psalm without inscription. It precedes the acrostic Psalm 34 which marks it as important (as are all 7 psalms that precede the acrostics). Psalm 33 is the first psalm to mention the new song. While one could limit verse 5 to ‘the land’, I prefer to translate it as the earth. חֶסדֶ יְהוָה מָלאְָה האָָרֶץ – the earth is filled with the loving-kindness of the Lord. No parochial limits. Also the individual gets a note in verses 18-19 (plural but several, I think). Check out your favorite translation.

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