The Biblical Story is Collectivistic

The Biblical Story is Collectivistic August 26, 2014
Credit: CC 2.0/wikipedia
Credit: CC 2.0/wikipedia

 

From beginning to end, the Bible primarily talks about groups, not individuals.

This is another reason why we should reconsider our traditional methods of evangelism. As I’ve said throughout this series, our typical use of the Adam story breeds an individualism that may not serve those with whom we speak.

Click on the following for Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four, Part Five of the series.

I want to focus on a particular advantage we gain by starting with the group (collective identity) rather than the individual (most usages of Adam). This approach more naturally fits the way the Bible tells its own story.

I’ll illustrate this point in three ways.

The Literary Framework of Genesis 12

Genesis 12 is foundational to the entire Bible.

I sometimes tell students that if one does not grasp the significance of Gen 12, he or she can hardly understand the central story of the Bible. If you think I exaggerate, then simply consider Galatians 3:8, where Paul cites the promise of Gen 12:3, calling it the “gospel.”

Genesis 12:1-3 says,

Now the LORD said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”

Genesis 12 directly links to the prior context, particularly Chapters 1 and 11. Whereas the nations in Gen 11 take the initiative to make a name for themselves (11:4), it is God who covenants to make a great name for Abraham. It is through this man that God will bless all the nations in Gen 11.

Accordingly, Gen 12 recalls God’s original design for the world — blessing. Abraham would become the means by which God will restore the human family. This family would consist of all nations.

This is a story about what God does with groups (fallen nations) in order to form a group (a family consisting of all nations).

Israel (vs. everyone else) is basic to the story

In addition, we should note the fundamental way in which biblical writers categorize the world. Again and again, the contrast is between Israel and everyone else.

By over stressing the individual, we may subtly undermine this critical observation, effectively nullifying the significance of much of the canon. I’m not just talking about the Old Testament. We could mention New Testament passages like Galatians 3 and Romans 4, which focus on the question of who belongs to Abraham’s one family.

Our Final Hope is Collective

Individualistic Christianity lays weight on the fact that we must leave father and mother to follow Jesus. The problem however is that the prior statement (concerning the cost of discipleship) is only half the story. Jesus also entices us to follow him with the promise of a much larger family in this age and in the one to come (cf. Mark 10:29-31).

We are not merely saved from death and judgment; we are also not saved merely to join God in his mission. In fact, when the mission is done and Christ has returned, we shall discover afresh that we are saved for membership in his family (i.e. a group).

Once again, we see that the church plays an important role in the gospel story. The Church is not merely the inevitable consequence of individuals believing the truth. It the one of the overt aims of the gospel (cf. Ephesians 2:11ff).

I’ve heard many times people speak about the “mansion” that each of us will get “in heaven.” That sounds depressing…..living isolated and lonely lives. We are not saved in order that we can then be alone for eternity.

Love is group activity.

Enhanced by Zemanta
"I am speaking about this soon. Shame is Internal and External. Here is my little ..."

Honor, Shame, and Imposter Syndrome
"It seems to me that some professed Christians are all too willing to offend through ..."

The Coddling of the American Missionary
"So how do you overcome that?"

Why a free gift almost cost ..."
"I've heard it said more than once that the FBI doesn't study counterfeit currency, only ..."

The Most Important Book I Read ..."

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!


TRENDING AT PATHEOS Evangelical
What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Great and important post! True the Bible story lays emphasis on group as opposed to individuals. We must ALL as the main reason for the mission of God. What if someone questioned the place or need for individual decision making to join the family of God?

    • Martin,

      It would be an over-reaction to somehow think that Christian collectivism diminishes individual responsibility. In fact, Christian collectivism increases individual responsibility in that one must then think about his or her obligations to those in the family of God. The seemingly “private decision” of the individual actually impacts those in his/her natural group (i.e. family, clan, etc.) as well as the Body of Christ. Thus, collectivism magnifies the significance of the individual’s decision.

      In addition, I think confusion often arises because people confuse worldly collectivism with Christian collectivism when it comes to what defines the group. In worldly collectivism, the boundary marker might be language, skin color, etc. In many respects, what is true of the group is true of the individual, regardless of the individual’s choice. For example, when there is war or economic sanctions, individuals suffer with the group, regardless of their personal ideas and convictions.

      However, by its very nature, those within a Christian collective (i.e. the Church) are those who have individually given their allegiance to Christ. Christ redeems our understanding of collectivism. People forget that when they too hastily object to the comments I and others have made on this topic.

  • Great and important post! True the Bible story lays emphasis on group as opposed to individuals. We must ALL as the main reason for the mission of God. What if someone questioned the place or need for individual decision making to join the family of God?

    • Martin,

      It would be an over-reaction to somehow think that Christian collectivism diminishes individual responsibility. In fact, Christian collectivism increases individual responsibility in that one must then think about his or her obligations to those in the family of God. The seemingly “private decision” of the individual actually impacts those in his/her natural group (i.e. family, clan, etc.) as well as the Body of Christ. Thus, collectivism magnifies the significance of the individual’s decision.

      In addition, I think confusion often arises because people confuse worldly collectivism with Christian collectivism when it comes to what defines the group. In worldly collectivism, the boundary marker might be language, skin color, etc. In many respects, what is true of the group is true of the individual, regardless of the individual’s choice. For example, when there is war or economic sanctions, individuals suffer with the group, regardless of their personal ideas and convictions.

      However, by its very nature, those within a Christian collective (i.e. the Church) are those who have individually given their allegiance to Christ. Christ redeems our understanding of collectivism. People forget that when they too hastily object to the comments I and others have made on this topic.

  • Hi again Jackson,

    I have been giving quite a bit of consideration to your proposal to start the gospel story with Babel rather than the individualistic emphasis on Adam. There is a lot of context around me for me to reflect and consider this, since I am living and working in a ‘collectivistic’ society and studying/researching/producing materials re the honor/shame dynamic. I have valued your insights and thoughts, especially in regard to the difference between cultural and biblical collectivism and thoroughly agree there needs to be clarity and a new biblical understanding for most folks. I like how you say ‘Christ redeems our understanding of collectivism’ – AMEN. I also thoroughly agree with the value and importance of not ignoring the Babel story and the opportunity to explain man’s natural tendency to seek his own methods of self-honour and security individually or collectively rather than God’s honour, God’s way. I have found your recent posts very helpful in many ways.

    However, I still have my concerns and reservations with starting the gospel story just with Babel or even with Genesis 12 such as:

    1. even if we start with Gen 12 we still have an individual – Abraham as the ‘head’ of a family – which I feel is little different from Gen 1 with Adam as the ‘head’ of the human family – with either story wouldn’t it depend on what emphasis a person brings – the individualistic or collectivistic or a balance of both?

    2. Should we not take the ‘cue’ of where to begin from where God begins in the written record He has given us? He chose to start the written record of the ‘story’ at the beginning – is there any reason we shouldn’t? This may mean we can still do an ‘introduction’ to the story to stimulate a person/group’s interest, using another part of Scripture and then jump back to the beginning……but I think we need to be careful that if God wanted us to be clear about the beginning at the beginning, that we make the beginning clear to others. Maybe we are missing something, but in the honour/shame African context starting with the story at the beginning has been very powerful because shame is the first emotional concept in relation to sin that is mentioned (naked and not ashamed). It also gives clarity in introducing who God is – the Creator and as Creator, He is worthy of highest honour and we owe Him that honour…this brings opportunity to correct cultural mis-representations of who God is. It also gives a context of the start/origins of the human family. In a storytelling culture, to start at the beginning of the story is what is expected and sets the scene.

    3. We cannot change the fact that God created one man first – not a whole group, though the ‘in Adam’ nuances the concept of the collective included in the individual. We can’t avoid the fact that through ‘one man’ sin entered the world and through ‘one Man’ we were redeemed. I fully appreciate the fact that you are not saying to eliminate the individualistic side, but to draw attention to the collective side of the gospel, yet I know how all too easy it is to over-emphasise and over-correct one side to the detriment of the other, in an right effort to bring balance, and we need to guard against that. It is true though, that much of the ‘collective’ side of Scripture has been under-emphasised and somewhat even ignored in the Western individualistic society. However, I would not go so far as to say that the Biblical Story is Collectivistic over Individualistic – I think it is both, in perfect balance.

    4. How much sense does the story of Babel make if the context of the story, through the background of the first chapters of Genesis, is not clear? (ie who God is, what sin is and why man exibits sinful ways, why is he seeking honour for himself??) If Babel was used as the ‘introduction’, there still seems to be a need to jump back to the beginning to explain the roots of the story. Thus I would say that Babel, along with other parts of Scripture may be used as a springboard to the gospel and would be very good to use, and different cultural and personal contexts may find appropriate and beneficial use of those to introduce an awareness of sin and the need for a Saviour. But I strongly believe that to not make Gen 1-3 the beginning of the story creates a non-context for the Gospel. I learnt the importance of this not just from living in an honour/shame context but many years ago as a children’s worker in Australia, discovering the most effective ways of sharing the gospel with kids with no ‘christian’ background at all.

    I very much appreciate your blog…..whether it causes me to join with you in wholehearted agreement (which happens a lot!) or whether it means I end up in variance with you on some things. The latter has always also brought me blessing as it has caused me to think more deeply and analyse the honour/shame issues further especially within how they can be applied appropriately in the cultural context we are ministering in.

    But hopefully, even the variances can stimulate further conversation and provide greater clarity for looking deeper into the whole honour/shame dynamic, so that ultimately lives may ‘hear’ the gospel more clearly and hearts may be transformed more fully!…..for His Honour!

    God bless you….and I continue to look forward to your future posts.

  • Hi again Jackson,

    I have been giving quite a bit of consideration to your proposal to start the gospel story with Babel rather than the individualistic emphasis on Adam. There is a lot of context around me for me to reflect and consider this, since I am living and working in a ‘collectivistic’ society and studying/researching/producing materials re the honor/shame dynamic. I have valued your insights and thoughts, especially in regard to the difference between cultural and biblical collectivism and thoroughly agree there needs to be clarity and a new biblical understanding for most folks. I like how you say ‘Christ redeems our understanding of collectivism’ – AMEN. I also thoroughly agree with the value and importance of not ignoring the Babel story and the opportunity to explain man’s natural tendency to seek his own methods of self-honour and security individually or collectively rather than God’s honour, God’s way. I have found your recent posts very helpful in many ways.

    However, I still have my concerns and reservations with starting the gospel story just with Babel or even with Genesis 12 such as:

    1. even if we start with Gen 12 we still have an individual – Abraham as the ‘head’ of a family – which I feel is little different from Gen 1 with Adam as the ‘head’ of the human family – with either story wouldn’t it depend on what emphasis a person brings – the individualistic or collectivistic or a balance of both?

    2. Should we not take the ‘cue’ of where to begin from where God begins in the written record He has given us? He chose to start the written record of the ‘story’ at the beginning – is there any reason we shouldn’t? This may mean we can still do an ‘introduction’ to the story to stimulate a person/group’s interest, using another part of Scripture and then jump back to the beginning……but I think we need to be careful that if God wanted us to be clear about the beginning at the beginning, that we make the beginning clear to others. Maybe we are missing something, but in the honour/shame African context starting with the story at the beginning has been very powerful because shame is the first emotional concept in relation to sin that is mentioned (naked and not ashamed). It also gives clarity in introducing who God is – the Creator and as Creator, He is worthy of highest honour and we owe Him that honour…this brings opportunity to correct cultural mis-representations of who God is. It also gives a context of the start/origins of the human family. In a storytelling culture, to start at the beginning of the story is what is expected and sets the scene.

    3. We cannot change the fact that God created one man first – not a whole group, though the ‘in Adam’ nuances the concept of the collective included in the individual. We can’t avoid the fact that through ‘one man’ sin entered the world and through ‘one Man’ we were redeemed. I fully appreciate the fact that you are not saying to eliminate the individualistic side, but to draw attention to the collective side of the gospel, yet I know how all too easy it is to over-emphasise and over-correct one side to the detriment of the other, in an right effort to bring balance, and we need to guard against that. It is true though, that much of the ‘collective’ side of Scripture has been under-emphasised and somewhat even ignored in the Western individualistic society. However, I would not go so far as to say that the Biblical Story is Collectivistic over Individualistic – I think it is both, in perfect balance.

    4. How much sense does the story of Babel make if the context of the story, through the background of the first chapters of Genesis, is not clear? (ie who God is, what sin is and why man exibits sinful ways, why is he seeking honour for himself??) If Babel was used as the ‘introduction’, there still seems to be a need to jump back to the beginning to explain the roots of the story. Thus I would say that Babel, along with other parts of Scripture may be used as a springboard to the gospel and would be very good to use, and different cultural and personal contexts may find appropriate and beneficial use of those to introduce an awareness of sin and the need for a Saviour. But I strongly believe that to not make Gen 1-3 the beginning of the story creates a non-context for the Gospel. I learnt the importance of this not just from living in an honour/shame context but many years ago as a children’s worker in Australia, discovering the most effective ways of sharing the gospel with kids with no ‘christian’ background at all.

    I very much appreciate your blog…..whether it causes me to join with you in wholehearted agreement (which happens a lot!) or whether it means I end up in variance with you on some things. The latter has always also brought me blessing as it has caused me to think more deeply and analyse the honour/shame issues further especially within how they can be applied appropriately in the cultural context we are ministering in.

    But hopefully, even the variances can stimulate further conversation and provide greater clarity for looking deeper into the whole honour/shame dynamic, so that ultimately lives may ‘hear’ the gospel more clearly and hearts may be transformed more fully!…..for His Honour!

    God bless you….and I continue to look forward to your future posts.

  • I’m intrigued to read more of your work. The term ‘collectivistic’ is not one I’ve employed as I’ve thought of the church, or the ways that God interacts with mankind.

    I see God looking for a people who are defined by their faith-based position in Christ, and this is described with a variety of images. Interestingly, your allusion to the mis-application of Jesus’ words in John 14 is one of those key pictures. Not that we have our individual mansions some day, up there; but rather that we together are a dwelling place for God. As Peter puts it, we are living stones being built into a spiritual temple. This is a big deal! It needs more thought and discussion, as we continue to learn what it means to be the church.

    I will continue reading your blog with interest!

  • I’m intrigued to read more of your work. The term ‘collectivistic’ is not one I’ve employed as I’ve thought of the church, or the ways that God interacts with mankind.

    I see God looking for a people who are defined by their faith-based position in Christ, and this is described with a variety of images. Interestingly, your allusion to the mis-application of Jesus’ words in John 14 is one of those key pictures. Not that we have our individual mansions some day, up there; but rather that we together are a dwelling place for God. As Peter puts it, we are living stones being built into a spiritual temple. This is a big deal! It needs more thought and discussion, as we continue to learn what it means to be the church.

    I will continue reading your blog with interest!