The Individual versus the Community 

Excerpted from the book
Our Father Abraham: Jewish Roots of the Christian Faith
By Marvin R. Wilson

We now point to a third, and final, area where the Church has gone wrong, and for which the Hebrew writers of Scripture offer a corrective: The current display of rugged individualism and private Christianity seen within the Church must give way to a greater emphasis on the corporate life of the community of faith. The makeup or sociological structure of the Church has been a subject of debate for centuries. One of the earliest movements in Christianity was monasticism, a term that comes from the Greek verb monázein, meaning “to be alone,” “to live in solitude.” Monasticism stressed seclusion from the world and society by withdrawal to a private life of faith. There have been and there still are many different expressions of independent, separatistic Christianity. At the same time, the Roman Catholic Church has for years held before the world the concept of the Church as an indispensable community of which each individual Christian must be a member. Historical testimony to this fact is borne out by the teaching of the Catholic Church that extra ecclesiam nulla salus, “outside the church there is no salvation.”

From this brief introduction, several questions surface immediately. What is the Church? How are we to understand the relation between the individual and the community? Is there a model which emerges from our Hebraic heritage that may be useful as a pattern for correcting the imbalance evident in ecclesiastical circles today?

Independent Christians

Unhappily, one of the characteristics of contemporary Protestant Christianity is the emphasis on what might be called “Lone Ranger”  Christianity. That is, people seem to be losing their biblical sense of accountability to each other and think that they can, for the most part, operate on their own. This dominant and sometimes rather blatant Protestant emphasis on individualism in piety and life has rightly been described as callousness.[298] At the present time we may observe an assorted array of dominating and independent church leaders who, through pious language and intimidation, impose their will upon the group. These authority figures frequently punctuate their conversation with such phrases as “the Lord told me” or “God revealed to me” or “the Lord spoke to me and said....” And we need not limit our examples to cultic situations like Jonestown.

The community-centered focus of the Church as described in Scripture is now in danger of being replaced by the rugged individualism of a private kind of faith. The Church is responsible for bringing this danger upon itself. Let us think for a moment: Could it be that we have so stressed the freedom of conscience before God, the individual priesthood of the believer, the importance of personal devotions, the right of each person to interpret the Bible privately, the priority of private confession of sin directly to God, and the encouragement of independent churches and separatistic, autonomous parachurch agencies—could it be we have so stressed these things that we have come to believe that we can function, not only in these but also in other areas, as self-sufficient believers?

This issue was put in clear perspective by the Catholic priest who once was asked by a reporter of religious news if he could briefly delineate the major difference between Protestantism and Catholicism. “That’s easy,” the priest replied. “The Protestant Church says to people, ‘The church needs you,’ but the Catholic Church says, ‘You need the church.”’ Though such a reply obviously paints an overly simplistic picture of both Catholicism and Protestantism, what this priest said is in large measure true—namely, that the Church must be more than an ad hoc scramble of independent individualists, each going his own way. The individual can never survive apart from the group. Human beings were created to be social, and God has constituted his people to function within a body. A person’s true meaning derives from relationships with God and with other human beings (Mark 12:28-34).

A Corporate Body

Since Bible times Jews have generally embodied this concept in an exemplary way. God chose a people (Deut. 7:7), and, accordingly, the Jewish religion is characterized by peoplehood. Whereas Christians often define their faith primarily as a system of beliefs, Jews see doctrine or belief as only one—and not the most important—of several elements constituting the essence of Judaism. In the words of the Jewish scholar Nicholas De Lange, “To be a Jew means first and foremost to belong to a group, the Jewish people, and the religious beliefs are secondary, in a sense, to this corporate allegiance.”[299] This deeply rooted biblical emphasis upon folk—that is, the group—is underscored by the fact that most Jewish prayer employs the plural “we,” not the singular “I.” Prayer expresses the “cry of the whole community.”[300] One of the best-known biblical prayers expresses this communal factor in its opening words: “Our Father in heaven” (Matt. 6:9). In the words of an old Hasidic saying, “A prayer which is not spoken in the name of all Israel is no prayer at all.”[301]

Central to the Hebraic concept of community is the idea of corporate personality.[302] This concept means that the individual was always thought of in the collective (family, tribe, nation) and the collective in the individual. This corporate solidarity [303] was reinforced by the fact that the entire community (past ancestors and future members) was viewed as one personality, “a living whole, a single animated mass of blood, flesh and bones.”[304] God’s covenant was made not only with those physically present in the wilderness but also with future generations, “those who are not here today” (Deut. 29:15).

That the Hebrew language is full of what we refer to in English as “collectives” gives additional undergirding to this concept of organic solidarity.[305] For instance, in the Hebrew Bible the word adam may refer to man as an individual or to mankind in the collective sense. All Israelites are mutually accountable for one another, and they participate mutually in the life of one another. A striking example of this interrelatedness is the ancient biblical practice of blood revenge.[306]

In the modern Jewish community, each Jew at Passover is obligated to regard himself as if he personally—not simply his ancestors—had come out of Egypt (see chapter twelve below). In addition, each Jew is taught to think of himself as personally standing at Mount Sinai in order to receive the Torah. Thus the Law is given to every Jew, not simply to one Jew, Moses.[307] In a similar way, the concept of the sacredness of human life is basic to the idea of corporate personality. In the Mishnah we read, “He who destroys a single life is considered as if he had destroyed the whole world, and he who saves a single life is considered as having saved the whole world” (Sanhedrin 4:5).

World Jewry has long been a model of community. The Hebrew word mishpahah means “family.” But mishpaah refers not only to parents and children; it is a whole social unit that includes uncles, aunts, and even remote cousins. Furthermore, each mishpahah sees itself as part of a single worldwide Jewish family. Thus it is clear why the concept of family solidarity has been one of the chief reasons behind the stability and survival of the Jewish community over the centuries.

Jewish people also customarily refer to themselves as am (“a people”), haburah (“community”), and qehillah, (“congregation, assembly”). These terms emphasize togetherness and accountability. Synagogue membership is never figured on an individual basis but rather according to the number of family units. Furthermore, even the poorest Jew in a community is not exempt from giving to charity; he still has communal accountability.

From time immemorial Jews have also taken seriously the biblical teaching that everyone is his brother’s keeper (cf. Gen. 4:9). Thus each senses a responsibility for his neighbor’s shortcomings and needs. Indeed, no one lives in total isolation from his neighbor. A dramatic story illustrative of this point has been passed down from talmudic times. The tale is about three men in a boat. Suddenly one of the men begins to drill a hole beneath his seat. When his friends immediately plead with him to stop, he replies, “What are you worrying about? I’m only drilling under my seat.” The moral drawn by the rabbis has been repeated again and again: “We’re all in the same boat.”[308]

The Church as Community

How does the above concept of corporate personality in Hebrew thought apply to the life of the Church? First, the New Testament teaches that when one comes to saving faith one is incorporated into Christ so as to eat his flesh (John 6:35, 54), to be baptized into him (Rom. 6:3), and to exist in him as a “new creation” (2 Cor. 5:17).[309] Furthermore, as a visible body of believers, the Church is spiritually grafted into the family of Abraham (Rom. 4:11, 16; Gal. 3:26-29). “There is no mere individualistic experience for Christians, but a corporate one.”[310] In Paul’s words, “We were all baptized by one Spirit into one body—whether Jews or Greeks, slave or free” (1 Cor. 12:13). Thus the Pauline idea of the Church as a body is firmly rooted in the Old Testament concept of corporate personality. Accordingly, for Paul, as in the Israelite community of old, the individual incorporates in himself the group and illustrates in his person and life the ideals that the group professes, making its identity his own. But at the same time, the group derives its life and its distinct identity from the individual.[311]

In effect, the Church is a community of faith, learning, and living, just as the Synagogue serves as a house of worship, study, and assembly. Thus a Christian’s actions within that fellowship are not solely a private matter. When one member suffers, the whole body shares the grief. When one rejoices, all share in that joy (cf. 1 Cor. 12:26). A body of Christian believers is only as strong as the sum of its individual members, for the Church, like Israel, functions as a corporate personality. The lives of its members are intertwined and find their truest meaning in a network of relationships within this body. As a Jewish sage once observed, “There is no room for God in him who is full of himself.”[312] In the Bible, piety is always oriented toward community. Like Israel of old, the Church is called “the people of God” (1 Pet. 2:10) and is expected to function with communal self-awareness. Whenever the Church has forsaken this aspect of its Jewish roots—the so-called democracy of the synagogue—and become authoritarian or hierarchically centered, rather than lay- or people-centered, its social consciousness has been greatly blunted.[313] In Christianity, God and one’s neighbor belong inseparably together. The Church must never become so self-centered and self-sufficient that it fails to grasp this fact, for the concept of the priesthood of the believer means that each Christian functions as a priest not only unto God but also unto his neighbor.

In ancient as well as modem synagogues, when the congregation completed the reading of one of the books of Moses the entire congregation exclaimed loudly, hazag, azaq, ve-nithazeq! (“Be strong, be strong, and let us strengthen one another!”). It is with this same sense of mutual dependence that today’s Church must learn to stand in the full strength of its Hebrew heritage.


Wilson Marv 2008 11 19 02 55 441 2009 09 16 05 18 15

Wilson, Marvin R. (1989-04-01). Our Father Abraham: Jewish Roots of the Christian Faith (pp. 184-190). Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing. Kindle Edition.


[298] W. D. Davies, The Gospel and the Land (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1974), p. 388.

[299] Nicholas De Lange, Judaism (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986), p. 4.

[300] David de Sola Pool, Why I Am A Jew (Boston: Beacon Press, 1957), p. 93.

[301] Martin Buber, ed., Ten Rungs: Hasidic Sayings (New York: Schocken Books, 1947), p. 31.

[302] See H. Wheeler Robinson, Corporate Personality in Ancient Israel, rev. ed. (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1980), pp. 25-44.

[303] For a more recent discussion of corporeality in Judaism, see Michael Wyschogrod, The Body of Faith (New York: Seabury Press, 1983). Wyschogrod holds that the Jewish people is the dwelling place of God in the world. He stresses that while the Christian idea of God incarnate in the Jew Jesus concentrates all incarnation in one Jew, Judaism holds to a far more diffuse indwelling of God in the whole people of Israel.

[304] Robinson, Corporate Personality in Ancient Israel, p. 28. The quotation is from W. Robertson Smith, Lectures on the Religion of the Semites, 2nd ed. (London: A. & C. Black, 1894), pp. 273-74.

[305] See Thorleif Boman, Hebrew Thought Compared with Greek, trans. Jules L. Moreau (repr. W. W. Norton & Co., 1970), p. 70.

[306] See Albert Gelin, The Key Concepts of the Old Testament, trans. George Lamb (New York: Paulist Press, 1963), p. 64.

[307] Samuel Umen, Jewish Concepts and Reflections (New York: Philosophical Library, 1962), p. 39.

[308] See Morris N. Kertzer, What is A Jew? (New York: Collier Books, 1961), p. 39.

[309] E. Earle Ellis, Prophecy and Hermeneutic in Early Christianity (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1978), p. 66.

[310] Joseph A. Fitzmyer, Pauline Theology (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1967), p. 66.

[311] John McKenzie, “The Significance of the Old Testament for Christian Faith in Roman Catholicism,” in The Old Testament and the Christian Faith, ed. Bernhard W. Anderson (repr. New York: Herder and Herder, 1969), p. 113.

[312] Quoted in Buber, Ten Rungs, p. 102.

[313] Davies, The Gospel and the Land, pp. 384-87.

© Bill Weaver 2012 - Email Bill at Heartland