Many of the distinctive characteristics of Western society derive from its emphasis on the individual. Personal liberty, diversity of thought, and freedom of expression are fortunate results of this stress. In recent times, however, it seems that almost all forms of corporate identity are in the process of dissolution. We are reducing ourselves to the lowest common denominator of one. We are becoming a parody of ourselves, sometimes called the "me generation," in which everyone is ultimately looking out for number one. Yet number one is becoming the loneliest number; and isolation, alienation, and cultural fragmentation are becoming our heritage.
Maybe our bias toward the individual has led to a distorted perception of the gospel. I am convinced that there is far more emphasis on community in the Word of God than most people recognize. Jesus is often marketed as some sort of cosmic cola under the banner of "personal Saviour" (a term curiously absent from the Bible), with an emphasis on such rewards as happiness and fulfillment—compensations aimed at appealing to our culture of narcissism.
But this approach stems from a distortion of the gospel. Although we must reach people where they are, we also have a responsibility to lead them to where God wants them to be. An overpersonalization of the gospel not only offers no cure for our ills but may itself be symptomatic of the problem—selfishness! It is true that God loves us as individuals and that the Good Shepherd leaves the ninety and nine in order to rescue the one. Yet we have often neglected the biblical concept of the people of God.
To many people a relationship with Christ is an entirely personal matter, and a commitment to any congregation is an undesirable option. Although we recognize that the church triumphant is not synonymous with the church visible, we dare not imply that God's salvation takes place apart from His body. The Bible knows nothing of this sort of ultraindividualism. A quick review of certain key teachings illustrates how we have tended to overpersonalize God's word.
The too personal gospel
Protestants often perceive justification by faith as a purely personal transaction with little reference to the church of God. It is interesting to note, however, the communal context of Romans and Galatians, the key New Testament works on this subject. The crisis that initiated these letters was not a personal one, but a corporate one; not Paul's struggle to find peace with God, but Paul's desire to bring harmony to the church; not even Paul's struggle with personal guilt, but the relationship between Jew and Gentile.
Paul's argument in Romans and Galatians probably has less to do with merit than with meritocracy. He argues that in spite of all the gifts, good works, and seniority of the Jews, God has chosen the Gentiles to be coheirs of Abraham: not through works, but by grace. The Gen tiles stand as equal to the Jews before God. Circumcision, which had been the mark of national distinction, has become meaningless because Christ has broken down every barrier between peoples. In Christ "there is neither Jew nor Greek, ... for you are all one in Christ Jesus" (Gal. 3:28).* Gentiles are now heirs of Abraham through faith, and thus, through God's mercy, have been accepted into the covenant community.
I am not trying to deny the personal applications of Paul's gospel. But we need to recognize that Paul emphasizes that justification by faith is the basis of the covenant community, the foundation not only for our peace with God but for peace among believers.
Notice again the book of Romans. Though we often lose interest after chapter 8, feeling chapters 9 through 11 are just a curious appendage of mainly historical interest, these chapters concerning the nature of God's true Israel are really the climax of Paul's argument! Not until Paul fully explores the purpose of Israel is his gospel complete. The gospel is not simply our personal rebirth, but it is the birth of a new community—not just a new person, but the new people of God. Christ is the sufficiency not only of individuals but of communities as well. God's grace covers not only persons but the en tire people of God.
The letter to the Ephesians is a rhapsody on God's grace and a psalm on our unity in Christ. It is a "togetherness" book: a "we-ness" cure for our "me-ness" ills. Paul carries over a theme hinted at in Romans: the purpose of the gospel is not simply our personal justification, but the vindication of God's character (Rom. 3:25, 26). Our salvation is "to the praise of his glory" (Eph. 1:14; see also verses 6 and 12). God's mercy has been revealed in the church so that "in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus" (Eph. 2:7; see verses 4-7).
The salvation of the church glorifies God. This is not simply a private transaction; the process involves as well our incorporation into the family of God: "So then you are no longer strangers and sojourners, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household [family] of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you are also [being] built [together] into it for a dwelling place of God in the Spirit" (verses 19- 22).
The temple in which God abides is not just our individual persons, but the people of God collectively. Our individual identity assumes meaning in relationship to the whole body (cf. Eph. 4).
In chapter 3 Paul tells us that the salvation of the church is a source of instruction to angels: "that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the principalities and powers in the heavenly places" (verse 10). In chapter 4 he develops the metaphor of the church as Christ's body in connection with spiritual gifts. (Paul discusses gifts only in the context of Christ's body. If we see a poverty of gifts, it may be because we've for gotten the context in which they are to be revealed.)
We've tended to overpersonalize other teachings as well—for instance, prayer. The Lord's Prayer (Matt. 6:9-13) is a "we" prayer that we turn into a "me" prayer in our minds.
Note: "Our Father"—recognition of God among us
"Give us this day"—prayer for others
"Forgive us"— corporate confession
"Lead us"—prayer that God may guide the church
''Deliver us "—prayer for the salvation of souls
Once again, I am not denying the personal application of this prayer, but simply pointing out that we gain a whole new perspective when we take the literal words seriously.
Our "me" culture looks upon judgment as a personal matter. But the Bible speaks of it in corporate terms (e.g., Matt. 25:31-46). Popular opinion tends to personalize eschatology focusing on the "flight of the soul" to its heavenly reward. The Bible emphasizes resurrection, and corporate resurrection at that: "For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, shall not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the archangel's call, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first; then we who are alive, who are left, shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air; and so we shall always be with the Lord" (I Thess. 4:15-17).
None of us will see the Lord before the other members of the church. God has ordained that even the resurrection be a festival of togetherness!
Any talk of corporate destiny for Christ's church in general and the Adventist Church in particular sounds like manifest destiny and chauvinism to the modern mind. We are warned against pride and vanity, and certainly these are enemies of righteousness. Yet the Bible is clear that God desires to glorify Himself through His people. "The glory which thou hast given me I have given to them," Christ says (John 17:22).
New Testament ecclesiology derives directly from God's expressed purpose for Israel. "The people ... I formed for myself that they might declare my praise" (Isa. 43:21). "He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name's sake" (Ps. 23:3). A beautiful passage in Ezekiel 36:22-32 tells of how God will vindicate His holiness by saving Israel, giving them a new heart, and causing them to walk according to His laws. The New Testament doctrine of the church might be summarized by saying that the apostles saw God's promises and purposes for Israel being fulfilled through the church.
"Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven" (Matt. 5:16). "By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit, and so prove to be my disciples" (John 15:8). Christ is glorified in us (John 17:10), and whatever we do we are to do to the glory of God (1 Cor. 10:31). We are not exhorted to earn heaven—as if we were slaves—but to glorify God because we are His children.
"Christ is waiting with longing desire for the manifestation of Himself in His church. When the character of Christ shall be perfectly reproduced in His people, then He will come to claim them as His own" (Christ's Object Lessons, p. 69; italics supplied).
What a difference it makes to see this statement in the light of the New Testament teaching of God's glorification through His people! Our perfection is in the context of our connection with Christ's body. We are in Christ, in His body, a part of the whole that is working out God's purposes on the earth. I have a gift and you have another, and together we help complete each other. And lest we become proud, the Scriptures remind us that our glorification of God is always in the context of God's love and mercy, "that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus" (Eph. 2:7).
No doctrine can be taught adequately without reference to the biblical doctrine of the church. Whether it be in the realm of ethics, in which people must be taught that our consciences are not fully educated unless we can discern the effect of our lives upon the lives of others, or whether it be in the Christian life in general, in which we must teach people that the struggle against sin is not purely personal, we must constantly be aware of our relationship to one another. We need to hear more preaching on being a part of God's army, and on how we are to bear one another's burdens and pray for one another. Our lack of victory may be because we have gone too far into our closets; we need to "confess [our] sins to one another, and pray for one another," so that we may be healed (James 5:16). We will not be filled with God's Spirit while we neglect to gather with the saints and pray fervently with one accord for God to use us (see Acts 1:13, 14). Let us cal forth the "we" of the gospel as an anti dote for the selfishness that is poisoning the "me generation."
*All Bible texts in this article are from the Revised Standard Version.