The Old and New Testaments emphasize “the people of God.” They focus on people of faith living in community. Does American individualism undercut the growth of Christianity and hasten the decline of the church?
The idea of the people of God begins in Genesis 12. God visited Abraham and called him to a new land, promising to make him a great nation. This great nation would have a special relationship with God. When Abraham arrived in the land, God established a covenant with him (Genesis 15).
The idea of covenant was essential to the identity of God’s people. They were in covenant with God and each other. Later, God established a covenant with Abraham’s descendants, the nation of Israel (Exodus 19).
Corporate covenant identity
Joshua 7 provides a great example of the strength of this corporate covenant identity. Achan violated the rules of holy war by taking spoils for himself. His actions brought guilt to the whole community, as God held everyone accountable for what one person did.
Ezekiel 18 moderates this concept. The prophet quoted people who believed God was unjustly punishing them for their parents’ sins. The Lord responded by saying, “The soul who sins is the one who will die” (18:3). Although Israel remained God’s people, sharing a common identity in his covenant with them, individuals were responsible for their own sins. God doesn’t punish people for the sins of others.
In the New Testament, the church carries on this strong corporate identity. Acts 2:42-47 records the church devoted itself to “the fellowship.” The Greek word used here is koinonia, which refers to sharing things in common. The passage gives evidence of the church’s koinonia as it reports members sold their possessions and goods, giving to anyone as he had need, and they ate together “with glad and sincere hearts.” In 1 Corinthians 12:27, the Apostle Paul describes the church as the body of Christ, demonstrating the vital connection between church members.
Decline of the American church
The decline of the American church is the result of a “perfect storm” of various factors. Among these are the advent of postmodernism, the loss of Christian culture and growing individualism. Some Christians go so far as to become devoted followers of Ayn Rand, who taught a philosophy of radical individualism.
Sadly, many believers today regard the church as a vendor of religious goods and services for their benefit. They don’t see themselves as parts of the body of Christ, vitally connected in covenant with other believers. If they feel the church to which they belong no longer meets their needs, they start looking for another that will do a better job. Their first question is, “How can the church serve me?” instead of “How can I serve in this church?”
Our churches would gain greater strength to weather the “perfect storm” of this age if individual Christians saw themselves as members of a local body of Christ, called both to give and receive ministry.
Robert Prince, pastor
First Baptist Church
Right or Wrong? is co-sponsored by the Texas Baptist theological education office and Christian Life Commission. Send your questions about how to apply your faith to firstname.lastname@example.org.