Is the church here to help me grow in Christ as an individual? Or has God put me here to help the church grow?
The easy answer is “both.” Yet early Christians clearly prioritized the health and growth of God’s community over the goals and desires of individual believers.
This group-first mentality not only characterized the early church; it also characterized family life throughout the ancient Mediterranean world. This is why families arranged marriages. The goal of marriage in the ancient world was not the relational satisfaction of the individuals involved; it was the honor and ongoing viability of the two families who brokered the marriage. The group—in this case the family—came first.
When I emphasize with my students the “strong-group” orientation of the early church, they often push back as follows:
“Dr. Hellerman, ancient society was strong-group in orientation. Modern America is individualistic. Neither is better. Yet we will be more successful if we frame the church and the gospel in a way most appropriate to our individualistic culture.”
So goes the argument. What follows is an excerpt from my recent book, Why We Need the Church to Be More Like Jesus, which directly addresses this objection.
I want to challenge this kind of thinking from several angles. First, any theology of spiritual formation that purports to be biblical must begin with the nature of God as three persons in perfect communion with each other, sharing a single divine essence. Moreover, Scripture firmly grounds the practice of Christian community (the topic of this book) in the intimacy shared by Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
As early as the first chapter of Genesis, we find hints of the connection between God as Trinity and the social nature of human beings. A Christian reading of Genesis 1:26 finds an allusion to Father, Son and Holy Spirit in the plural pronouns: “Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness.’”
Could this imply that the image of God in humankind includes a relational component? The verse that follows appears to affirm the idea: “So God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.”
When we get to the New Testament, it becomes indisputably clear that (a) our relationships with our fellow Christians are at the very heart of our spiritual lives, and (b) these relationships are grounded in the nature of God Himself. Shortly before the crucifixion, Jesus prayed for His followers:
That they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in Me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that You have sent Me. The glory that You have given Me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and You in Me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that You sent Me and loved them even as You loved Me (John 17:21–23, English Standard Version, italics mine).
This is quite astounding. Note the italicized phrase: Jesus prays that His followers will experience the same quality of relationship with one another that He experiences with God the Father.
What cultural orientation to the Christian faith best supports and harmonizes with Jesus’ vision? The strong-group church of the early Christians? Or the “just-me-and-Jesus” take on Christianity that marks our lives today? The answer, I think, is obvious.
Christian community as family
A second consideration in this discussion about individualistic versus strong-group orientation relates to the primary New Testament metaphor used to describe Christian community: family.
Family was the No. 1 locus of relational loyalty in ancient Mediterranean society—the strongest group in a strong-group society.
It would be utterly counterintuitive for Jesus to have chosen family as His primary metaphor for Christian community if the relational values and practices associated with the metaphor were optional for Christians in other cultural settings. Many of the ethical injunctions (e.g., the “one anothers”) in the New Testament, in fact, assume as normative a strong-group, surrogate family setting. And Jesus identified His followers as a surrogate family (Mark 3:31–35).
It is important to note, in this regard, that Jesus did not hesitate to overturn those cultural values that were inimical to the gospel. He forcefully challenged the socially stratified honor culture of the Roman world—completely redefining what would be considered honorable behavior in God’s family (Mark 10:35–45).
Negative effects of individualism
Finally, the very message of the gospel is an expression of strong-group values—of the notion that the church is not here for me but, rather, I am here for the church. It is common for us to say, “Jesus died for my sins.” As true as this is, the Bible much more often asserts that Jesus died for our sins—the one for the many.
Paul writes in Romans 5:19, for example, “By the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.” According to John’s Gospel, the high priest Caiaphas prophesied “that Jesus would die for the nation and ... gather into one the children of God who are scattered abroad” (11:51–52).
It might help to move beyond the pages of Scripture to consider what individualism has done to our broader social environment.
Western individualism has had some positive effects on American society. It would be misleading to argue otherwise. However, in an article published by Michigan State University, Daniel Yankelovich1 outlines five negative effects of individualism on American civilization—each of which should give us pause as we consider whether to pattern our churches after the values of the surrounding culture:
- decrease in family cohesiveness;
- decrease in feelings of respect for other people and other moral virtues;
- sense that everyday life is becoming more impersonal;
- loss of a sense of community;
- loss of a spiritual dimension to life in the wake of the mundane consumerism and materialism of everyday life.
Each of these negative effects flies in the face of Jesus’ vision for His followers, as reflected in His High Priestly Prayer in John 17.
The strong-group approach to community that characterized early Christianity cannot be dismissed as a culturally relative option inappropriate for our churches today. It is grounded in the very nature of our Trinitarian God (John 17:21–23). It was affirmed by Jesus when He identified His disciples as family (Mark 3:31–35). And it was modeled when Christ “gave Himself up” for the universal Church—the one for the many (Ephesians 5:25).
A sanctified individualism
Although the biblical worldview clearly privileges the group over the individual, individualism and collectivism are not mutually exclusive options. The Bible does not commend a blind group loyalty that’s devoid of individual identity and autonomy. There remains a place in a Christian worldview for what we might call a sanctified individualism.
Some passages in Scripture, in fact, explicitly commend culturally subversive behaviors that privilege the individual over the group. Early in the biblical narrative, for example, God commanded Abraham to get up and leave his family (Genesis 12:1). It is hard to imagine a more counter-cultural expression of individual autonomy than this one, in a strong-group society like the Ancient Near East.
How does this square with a collectivist view of Christian community? Quite well, as a matter of fact. For God did not call Abraham to a private pilgrimage of spiritual self-actualization. God called Abraham to be the father of the nation of Israel. Abraham exercised his individual choice by choosing to leave one group in order to establish another:
Jesus, too, challenged His disciples to make costly counter-cultural decisions as individuals, decisions that would profoundly affect their lives (Mark 1:16–20; 10:17–30; Matthew 8:21–22). In every case, however, the decision was not a choice for independence. It was a choice for interdependence—a choice for the group.
In the same way, Peter exercised his will as an individual to exchange one family for another. When he said to Jesus, “See, we have left everything and followed you,” Jesus responded: “Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for My sake and for the gospel, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands” (Mark 10:28–30).
Like us, the early followers of Jesus exercised their wills and made choices as individuals. Unlike us, however, their choices were less frequently in the service of personal goals or desires. They chose for the good of the group, the family of God.
To return to our initial questions: Is the church here to help me grow in Christ as an individual? Or has God put me here to help the church grow—both qualitatively and quantitatively?
From what we’ve just seen, strong-group Christianity transcends the boundaries of culture and time. And it flies in the face of the individualistic, big-box, consumerist approach to church that has captivated the hearts of so many evangelicals in America today.
Consider: How might we respond to this teaching? How would an emphasis on “strong-group Christianity” alter our church? Respond below.
Adapted from “Is Group-First Christianity a Trans-Cultural Value?” published on The Good Book Blog, May 4, 2017, Talbot School of Theology.
Photo originates from Masha Danilova via Unsplash.
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