Reading Through a Corporate Lens

We've discussed this miracle called the Body of Christin terms of a corporate One-ness from which we draw our personal identity where we are at the same time collectively both one in union and one in singularity. If this is true, it changes how we read and apply scripture.

Begin With Community

There is a widening discussion underway that such a corporate identity was surely forefront for the Jewish community who shaped the mindset of the early Church and, as we're coming to recognize, was central to the Apostles who gave it form and substance. Paul's letters to the churches bear this witness. Contrary to our knee-jerk habit of first wrapping his directives and exhortations tightly around our individual particular lives (and, perhaps as an after-thought, making a larger corporate application), Paul turns that upside down and spends most of his time speaking not to individuals, but to and about the church communities as the singular Body of Christ. Only after first establishing this larger corporate context does he address individuals, and then as their response to who they are as a community as in Rom. 12:5.

As Tom Holland says, "Paul begins his theology with the community and notthe individual. There has been a fundamental error in traditional methodsof exegesis in which the NT text especially has been interpreted as thoughit spoke of the experience of the individual believer. We have found that this is a mistake of massive proportions which has left Christianity with anenormous emphasis on the individual with hardly any texts to support itsdoctrine of the church.” [1]

Y'all Are the Body of Christ

Fact is, whenever Paul uses some variation of the word "you" in his letters to the churches, it is usually plural, not singular. But even when it's singular it's intention is plural, such as in Rom. 2:5 where he's talking to the Jewish Christians stirring the pot on one side of the room, and then later in Rom. 11:18 when he turns his attention to the like-minded Gentile Christians on other side of the room. Likewise when he brings forward the exhortations of Moses (Rom. 10:8) or of God Himself (Rom. 13:9), the "you" is singular but addressed to all of Israel.

As Holland mentions, our knee-jerk habit is to immediately wrap these and other "you" scriptures around our personal life as if they were written first and foremost for our individual application when, in truth, that was not at all the author's original intent. In his church letters, Paul was speaking to distinct communities, not to individual persons.

Yes, it takes individuals to make a community, and there remains personal application to everything he said, but many well-worn exhortations like "be transformed by the renewing of your mind" (Rom. 12:1) were corporate, not an individual, directives.

This is where distinguishing betweenthe two traits ofOne-ness- union versus singularity - can be both helpful and life-altering. To read Paul through a corporate lens is to appreciate when he's referring to the union of y'all (as we say in Tennessee) that serves as the foundation for a yet larger, singular One-ness with a singular identity. The many-in-one (1 Cor. 12:19-20) begins with the many, but ends with the One.

As he said, "Your [plural] body [singular] is a temple [singular]" (1 Cor. 6:19) where God makes His dwelling [singular], (1 Cor. 3:16) because "you [plural] were called inone[singular] body" (Col. 3:15). That is, the singular corporate Body of Christ which is God's singular dwelling on earth is us, all taken together - not me or you, by ourselves. This should give us pause.

Shining As Lights

Helpful in understanding the need and benefits of this mindshift is Holland's Beyond Individualism: A Radical Reconvery of the New Testament's Corporate Context.If scholars like Holland are correct, our much-loved Bible is more about our corporateOne-ness than about our individual alone-ness, which means that both our personal and collective identity and response "as lights in the world" (Phil. 2:15) is missing something when we're not responding in kind as the singular-minded union that is the "fullness of Him who fills all in all" (Eph. 1:22-23).

It also calls us, when reading and making application of scripture, that we apply it first to the collective y'all that is His Body. Only after we have done so can we fully comprehend how to make our indiviudal application as a response to the corporate One.The question becomes first not who I am in Christ and how it applies to me, butwho we areand what it is speaking to us; and given this, what is the part I am to play.

Perhaps this is good in theory, but what might it look like in practice? We'll begin to delve into that next.


[1] Contours of Pauline Theology, Chapter five-The Paschal Community and the Body of Sin, Tom Holland,p. 110