Sunday, October 13, 2013

"community" vs "individual salvation"?

We in the church are fond of talking about "community".   (My undergraduate years at Houghton certainly taught me this: if there was one common theme to our discussions and chapel talks, this was it. ) Clearly Christian community is important.  Yet when we pause to consider why, do we find that our theology points in a different direction?  Too often I fear we preach both - community and individual salvation -  and manage to undermine each.
individual or community
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Have you been there?  During announcements at church we are told of the important "community" building things in the church - small groups, outreach, service, joint prayer.  But then the sermon or even the first worship song is all about what I call "me-and-Jesus" Christianity.  Personally, I find such situations a bit jarring.  Which is it?  Can it be both?

Yes, and no.

I don't think it too bold to say that if our preached theology is only a personal, legal transaction-type salvation or justification, then the scriptures which strongly encourage community are just that - strong encouragements.  When it comes down to it, community seems somewhat secondary, even perhaps optional.  We must consider carefully and honestly where the logic of our theology leads us.

Don't get me wrong here.  I do believe that God works with each person; the call of Christ to follow is one each person individually must head.  But if our understanding of our relationship with God stops there, I believe there are grave implications.

Thankfully, there is so much more.  And this "more" means that salvation and community become inextricably linked: God has chosen to work his salvation in covenant with a people.  Through the work of Christ, all can now be part of that people*! Salvation is not so much about saving from hell, but being brought in to God's kingdom community where all things are being made new.

Those who have gone through the waters of baptism have a new identity: one that is rooted in Christ's life, death, and resurrection, and in his body - the Church.  It is a corporate identity**; being saved means being part of God's people.  Suddenly connections leap out of the pages of the Bible, and passages about community are not optional and nice (or challenging, depending on how you look at it), but essential.

What do you think?  Do you feel tension between exhortations to community and calls to faith?  Do you agree or does this sound crazy to you?  Email me, post a comment, and let's discuss - especially those of you living in community with me!
*I've just been studying Galatians and Romans, and this is something that Paul is clearly super excited and passionate about.  So much so that he has strong words for those in Galatia who claim only Jews can be part of the people of God.  More for another day/post.
**There is so much more to say here!  Consider for a moment how different this is from typical Western culture identities, even in the church.


  1. This is the first I've thought about such a discontinuity between community and individual salvation in the same service, and it does sound plausible (I'm finding much easier to think of "I/You" praise songs than "we/You" ones). The churches I've gone to in the last several years have been pretty community-focused though, even in the sermons, but this can come with its own problems.

    You mentioned studying Galatians and Romans lately—Ephesians 2:11-22 is also a beautiful section centering on Christ's death uniting Jews and Gentiles into one nation, one family, even one building "in which God lives by his Spirit." (It comes right after a section on personal salvation, containing the familiar "It is by grace you have been saved" verses.) I love this vision of the church as a whole unit to be built up and cared for on every scale! What are some of the other connections you mentioned leaping out at you?

    1. I'm glad to hear you've been in churches with good community. I too have experienced good Christian community, and am thankful for it. My emphasis here is more that while we often know that community is good, we might not know why. And maybe at times our theology (or lack of it) even goes against the logic of community.

      Yes, that passage in Ephesians is a great example! Colossians 1 ("the mystery that has been kept hidden for ages and generations, but is now disclosed to the Lord’s people. To them God has chosen to make known among the Gentiles the glorious riches of this mystery..") is another.

      Also references to specific old testament passages, both by Jesus and by writers of the New Testament gospels and epistles make a lot of sense from this perspective. Consider, as just one example, Luke 4:16-30.

      To explain more, here's a paragraph from the essay on the church I wrote last year:

      "Additionally, it is quite possible that even as he refers to the well-known passages concerning God’s future judgment and restoration, Jesus is changing the commonly held view of future judgment. The strange story of Luke 4.16-30, where the jews in the synagogue first accept Jesus’ teaching, and then attempt to throw him off a cliff, can be explained in this way. He quotes Isaiah 61, stoping at “to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” without finishing the sentence in the original, which continues, “and the day of vengeance of our God” (Isaiah 61.2). This, combined with Jesus’ following examples of God working through Gentiles, likely angered the crowd, which was hoping for a revolutionary hero who would bring justice on their enemies. Thus, Luke highlights Jesus’ anticipation of the work of God, which, through the offspring of Abraham, will soon extend salvation - not judgment - to all peoples. Consistently, this theme is also central in the book of Acts.