Wednesday, 17 July 2019

The Sociocultural Context of the New Testament (Part 4): Individualism Vs. Collectivism

A notable difference between our contemporary westernized culture and ancient Mediterranean societies concerns the individual in relation to the group. Autonomy, individualism, personal identity, personal belongings, personal space, self-esteem, self-determination, and self-sufficiency are all highly valued and embraced in our world. But in the world of the New Testament (like many non-western cultures today), consideration of the group takes precedence. 

Someone from an individualistic society (like N. America), privately reading Ephesians 6:10-18 in English translation, is more likely to interpret the second-person pronouns as singular and assume the paragraph is about how an individual Christian is to guard against Satan’s personal attacks. But is this how the passage was originally intended and received? Second-person terminology in reference to the reading audience is plural throughout the entire epistle, with much emphasis on “the church” as a whole (1:18, 22-23; 2:16, 19-22; 3:6, 10, 15, 18, 21; 4:4, 12, 16; 5:3, 23-32; 6:18), as well as “one another” (4:2, 25, 32; 5:19, 21). Irrespective of personal struggles each Christian might experience, this passage is about the spiritual warfare we all face together in a collaborative effort. See Putting on God's Whole Armor.

The primary emphasis in idiosyncratic religious cultures tends to be placed on personal salvation, with religion often viewed as a private experience. Yet a key term in God’s salvific plan is ekklēsia (“church”), occurring about 114 times in the Greek New Testament and always referring to a collectivity of people.The reciprocal pronoun allēlōn (“one another”) is found no less than 100 times and simply cannot apply to one person. Despite the modern inclination to think of the individual Christian as being “in Christ,” the biblical emphasis is mutual inclusion in Christ (cf. Gal. 1:22b; Eph. 1:1-14; 1 Thess. 2:14). Penitent baptized believers enter Christ and abide in him as part of and inseparably linked to his emblematic body—the basis of unity among all faithful disciples (Rom. 6:3; 12:5, 10, 12; 1 Cor. 12:13-14, 20, 27; Gal. 3:26-28; Eph. 5:23).

While individual conversions are documented in the New Testament,these are almost always special circumstances rather than the norm. We mostly read of group responses,including households.The book of Acts gives much more attention to corporate evangelism, reporting outreach efforts both publicly and “from house to house” (5:42; 20:20). 

W. A. Meeks goes too far by suggesting the “centrality of the household … shows our modern, individualistic conceptions of evangelism and conversion to be quite inappropriate” (First Urban Christians 77). This criticism fails to appreciate the fundamental concept of contextualization and the need to adapt one’s approach to the circumstances (see 1 Cor. 9:19-23). In addition to group evangelism (Acts 17:1-4), Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy worked with individuals in Thessalonica, while bringing them all together in a unified entity: “Just as you [all] know how each one [héna ékaston] of you [all], as a father his own children, [we were] exhorting and comforting and charging you [all] to walk worthily of God, who calls you [all] into his own kingdom and glory” (1 Thess. 2:11-12).

Each person is accountable to God,and the gospel is to be obeyed on an individual basis,irrespective of how many others may or may not respond. Nonetheless, every baptized believer is expected to look beyond self as part of a larger community of God’s people (cf., e.g., 1 Cor. 10:24; Phil. 2:4; Heb. 3:13; 1 Pet. 4:10). 

--Kevin L. Moore

     The noun ekklēsia essentially means ‘”called out [ones],” in most NT uses in reference to the community of the saved. In secular Greek this term was applied to a political body assembled to conduct the affairs of the state (Acts 19:39; Josephus, Ant.12.164; 19.332) or to any general gathering (Acts 19:32, 40; 1 Macc. 3.13; Sir. 26.5). In the LXX it was regularly used to translate qahal in reference to the assembly of the Israelites, especially when gathered for religious purposes (Deut. 31:30; Judg. 20:2; cf. Heb. 2:12; Acts 7:38; Josephus, Ant. 4.309). J. Murphy-O’Connor insists that any contemporary of Paul would have understood this term in a secular, political sense (Letter-Writer 50). But G. D. Fee argues that the word ekklēsia was ready-made for the Christian communities because “Paul saw the church not only as in continuity with the old covenant people of God, but as in the true succession of that people” (First Corinthians 31-32; Paul, the Spirit 65). See The Church of the NT.
     Acts 8:38; 9:18; [13:7, 12?]; 18:26; cf. Rom. 16:5.
     Acts 2:41; 4:4; 5:14; 8:12-13; 9:35, 42; 11:21; 13:43, 48; 14:21; 17:4, 11-12, 34; 18:8b; 19:5, 18; see also Acts 2:47; 6:7; 9:31; 19:26.
     Acts 10:24, 48; 11:14; 16:15, 33-34; 18:8a; 1 Cor. 1:16; 16:15; cf. Phil. 4:22; 2 John 1-4.
     5 Author's own translation, emp. added. While Christianity is very much a communal religion (1 Thess. 3:12; 4:9, 18; 5:11), inclusive of “all” the redeemed (1 Thess. 1:2, 7; 3:13; 4:10; 5:5, 26, 27), there is also the responsibility, contribution, and involvement of “each” member of the church (1 Thess. 2:11; 4:4; cf. Acts 20:31). Due to the collectivist nature and accompanying pressure of the surrounding culture, perhaps these subtle allusions to individuality serve to promote a more balanced perspective.
     Matt. 16:27; 18:35; 25:15; Rom. 2:6; 14:5, 12; 1 Cor. 3:8, 13; 4:5; 7:17, 20, 24; 12:11; 2 Cor. 5:10; Gal. 6:4-5; Eph. 4:16, 25; 6:8; 2 Thess. 1:3; Heb. 3:13; 6:11; Jas. 1:14; 1 Pet. 1:17; Rev. 2:23; 6:11; 20:13; 22:12.
     Acts 2:38; 3:26; 1 Cor. 7:24; Eph. 4:7; cf. Acts 17:27.

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