This blog records my transition from the Churches of Christ to Eastern Orthodoxy.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Corporate vs. Individual

i've been thinking for at least a year or two now that the Bible presents a concept of corporate bodies of people that we are unfamiliar with in the modern West.

Consider how often in the Bible God addresses groups of people and holds them accountable or marks them in a special way. Israel is the most ubiquitous case of this. It's true we get stories about individual Israelites who were good and bad, but far more times God simply addresses the nation of Israel as a whole and pronounces them good or bad, faithful or unfaithful, due to receive promises or punishment. Should we really assume that in each case each and every individual was "bad" if Israel was condemned as "bad"? God sent the nation of Israel into Babylonian and Assyrian captivity due to their idolatry; should we really assume that every single individual in the nation was an idolater? That seems like too great a stretch to me. i think it'd be a safe assumption that at least some Israelites weren't idolaters or at least weren't nearly as corrupt as others. Yet God sends the whole nation into captivity.

When God dealt with Gentile peoples in the Old Testament, this seems to hold true as well. Jonah was sent to Nineveh. God didn't say "Go straighten out just the few bad individuals," nor did He say "Everyone is rotten except this small handful of individuals." Should we then assume that every single person in Nineveh was a rotten jerk? Yet God had Jonah tell the people that the entire town would be destroyed in 40 days.

Maybe God's punishment of the Canaanites through Israel's warfare is even clearer. When He told Israel to attack Canaanite towns and villages, He commanded them to destroy every living thing. Really? Even each individual toddler and pre-schooler was so wicked that he or she deserved to be slaughtered? First, i admit to you that i am of the opinion that children are "safe" until a certain age of accountability. Thus, i don't think any of them individually meritted this punishment. But secondly, even if these children were born with some sort of "original sin" (pick whichever version you like), notice that God has brought upon these children a distinct punishment; it's not as though He treats all children this way. These children were included in the group of people who received retribution via the sword of Israel. God held all the Canaanites responsible.

The same trend is present in the New Testament as well. True, individuals are singled out for correction (Euodia and Syntyche in Phillipi; Hymanaeus and Philetus in Ephesus; etc.). Nevertheless, groups of people are addressed and dealt with. The book of revelation contains letters from Jesus to churches, and in those letters (with little exception) each congregation is held faithful or unfaithful collectively. Jesus in Matthew 25 talks about a large-scale separation and judgment of 2 collectives of people: "sheep" and "goats." Jesus also pronounces judgment on entire towns for how they responded to His earthly ministry (Matthew 11:21f). [Maybe this is a stretch:] Each of Paul's epistles is addressed to and deals with an entire city's church.

Anyway, i say all that to make the following points: We seem very bent on making every point of praise or accountability or redemption or salvation or election etc.--we speak as though all of it comes to bear on individuals only. It appears to me that God doesn't deal with people or accomplish His purposes as individualistically as we've made it seem. There seems to be such a thing corporate accountability and corporate election. [i think Calvin and other reformers have especially missed the latter boat.] But i admit to you that the correlation between corporate and individual dealings isn't entirely clear to me. What does seem fairly clear to me, as i argued above, is that corporate dealings do not imply equivalent dealings with each individual within that corporate body.

i'm not even sure what all this difference entails or what all we need to change about ourselves faith and practice because of it. The point i mean to make is that this exclusively individualistic thought-trend present among us 21st century people is not a biblical thought-trend.

1 comment:

Tim Archer said...

I don't know if you read John Mark Hick's series on salvation. He addressed salvation at an individual, corporate and cosmic level. Very interesting.

I definitely think we've been too individualistic about our faith.

Grace and peace,
Tim Archer

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