Conceiving Christian Identity

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.

7 thoughts on “Conceiving Christian Identity

  1. johntjeffery

    I would posit that apart from the supernatural healing of grace sin inevitably fractures true community relationships. Even in cultures that are not inherently as individualistic as modern America their native/natural “groups” may, due to sin, often interfere with true supernatural body life in fellowship with other believers. This was evidenced in the 1st century church at Corinth (e.g., 1 Cor. 3, 6, 11), and elsewhere (e.g., Gal. 5; Jas. 2-5; 3 Jn.; Jude).

  2. imaginewithscripture

    Thank you for your reflections, Tim. About a decade ago I did some work on Galatians 5:13–6:10 regarding Paul’s understanding of the Spirit. It became quite clear to me that everything in the text indicated that Paul was dealing with the communal life of Christ-followers. The Spirit-flesh contrast and the fruit of the Spirit (and works of the flesh) were not so much about the individual but life in community. Therefore, you are right to say that “the Spirit’s work is primarily corporate, identity is fundamentally corporate, and that the dynamics of renewal work from communal-to-individual.”

  3. Andrew T.

    The hardest influence to ‘shake off’, recognize and peer beneath, when attempting to read the bible objectively, isn’t theological – since the source of a theological idea is easily traced. The hardest influence to eliminate, or neutralize for the sake of restoring biblical objectivity is cultural. With respect to Christian identity, this is especially true, since most Westerners self-identify based upon their citizenship – which is unfortunate, since ‘state’ is an artificial construct. Civic identity is Babylonian.

    Of all of the themes, you’ve covered recently Tim, this one is the most important; this one, if we can get it biblically, is the most fruitful; the one most revolutionary with respect to restoring our eyes to see, and ears to hear; and the one we’ll recognize most truly as having been absent in our thinking, and most welcomed in our discovery, since belonging to a community with a name is far more definite than belonging to one that is nameless.

    Not only is Christian independence a phenomenon unanticipated in scripture, the Kingdom to which we are called (back to) is also not nameless. The ‘bridegroom of the bride’ is to be known by the ‘name of the bride’. So strongly did the bridegroom wish His bride to carry His name that he wrote:

    I shall give in my house and within my walls a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; I shall give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off.” [Isa 56:5].

    More than saying it is an anathema for a believer to try to have faith apart from the community of believers, let’s go further and precisely recognize the name of the bride-kingdom believers are called to be a part of since Jesus was precise in saying he was coming to redeem a specific people found in history, a community with a name, one given as part of the Abrahamic promise [Gen 12:2] and named by God Himself [Isa 43:7; 45:4]

    The new name [lsa 62:2] bestowed upon the bride in [Acts 11:26] certainly pointed back to the bridegroom; but that it was given at all is astounding given that the bridegroom was jealous of His name [Eze 39:25]. ‘Christian’ means ‘little Christs’, but what did ‘Christ’ mean,since it was not a proper name? It meant ‘anointed’. So like the bridegroom named ‘anointed’, the bride was also named ‘anointed’ ([Psa 105:15]). So who in History did YHWH anoint?

    In old covenant scripture, the community had a name; one that also pointed back to the bridegroom Himself, Israel [Gen 32:28]. Developing a sense of community is much easier when it’s name is known. Wouldn’t it be a miracle if all believers not only knew their place in this marvellous Kingdom, and acted accordingly, but also recognized its name?

  4. jacksonwu

    I think your most important line here may be: “We are who we are in relation.”

    I’ve written on my own blog about this topic, pointing out that human identity consists both of how we are the same and how we are different than others. Easterners usually focus on the former. Westerners tend to highlight the latter.

    We could twist Descartes’ words and say, “We relate therefore we are.”

  5. Joy Felix

    A good 70% of the world comes from communal cultures and individual ones are a more recent development. From everything I have studied, it would seem that Paul and Jesus and their contemporaries – indeed the whole Bible are operating from a communal cultural stance. That I think is an important distinction that needs to be noted in the American church today – perhaps a reorientation to the communal standpoint of certain passages would be beneficial for us to grasp the depths of them?

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