As a child, I often heard statements like, “Stand on your own feet” and “You can do it yourself.” My parents were trying to instill in me a can-do attitude, a sense of self confidence. As Westerners, we think that is good. We praise the self-made man or woman. We look up to people who can pull their own weight and tend to admire anyone who can pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. Our society puts a premium on individualism; it’s woven into our culture. We see someone seeking help as either immature, weak, or manipulative.
Individualism is not the only means of personal problem-solving. People in other lands take an approach that is communal. (The anthropological term is ‘collective’ rather than ‘communal,’ but I am trying to sidestep the communist connotations we associate with that term.) They highly value offering and seeking help from family, friends, and neighbors. In a communal culture, people who don’t offer or refuse to seek such help are regarded as callous, selfish, and apathetic. One missionary who had just arrived in a communal culture was soon labeled “the man who needs no one.” It was not a compliment.
Our communal Bible
The authors of the Bible were all members of communal cultures, and the narratives and commands they reveal to us are written as a part of that communal worldview. We distort them, however, if we read them as if written from an individualist worldview. We can easily make this mistake, especially if we are unaware of the problem.
Modern English, for example, does not distinguish between the singular and the plural second person pronouns. We say, “You should cut your hair,” and also “You must make budget cuts for your city to survive this fiscal year.” The first ‘you’ and ‘your’ are singular, the second plural. You often cannot discern which is which, even in context. This singular/plural ambiguity often occurs in Bibles rendered in modern English. (The King James Version, for all its other shortcomings, at least made this distinction clearly, conveying the singular with ‘thou,’ ‘thee,’ and ‘thy,’ and the plural with ‘ye,’ ‘you,’ and ‘your.’)
For instance, immediately after Jesus tells Peter as an individual that he will deny Jesus three times, He says to all of the apostles (except Judas Iscariot), “Do not let not your [plural] heart be troubled” (John 14:1). The word ‘heart’ is singular, but it is a collective singular, referring to the shared attitude Jesus anticipates that the disciples might have as a result of the approaching events of His arrest, trial, and death. We might miss the switch from singular to plural and take the whole as Jesus’ exhortation to the individual.
Even when we are aware that the ‘you’ of a text is plural, we tend to apply it individualistically. For example, when Paul says in Romans 12:1, “I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercies, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice…” we tend to conceptualize an individual Christian offering himself or herself to God’s service, rather than all of us by combining our efforts offering a single sacrifice to the Father. Similarly, when Paul says “You yourselves are God’s temple” (1 Cor. 3:16), he refers to a single temple composed of a group of believers, not to one temple per person.
Communal concepts in the parables
When Jesus tells the Parable of the Friend at Midnight (Luke 11:5-8), He couches His scenario with the cultural expectations of a closely-knit community, which values hospitality much more highly than most Westerners. We have all-night grocery stores and refrigerator-freezers. The neighbors of a village in first-century Palestine sought to avoid the embarrassment of turning away a friend in need. Some scholars are convinced that the term ‘shamelessness’ refers, not to the audacity of the person knocking on the door, but to the as yet untarnished reputation of the friend roused from sleep. To preserve that reputation, he will get up and provide the bread his friend requests. In an argument from lesser to greater, Jesus would be asking, will not God, who jealously defends His own reputation, not respond to our requests?
When Jesus tells the Parable of the Sower and the Soils (Mark 4:3-9 and parallels in Matthew 13 and Luke 8), he does seem to particularize the application with the words, “Let the one who has ears hear.” But the parable itself has communal elements inherent within it. We tend to think of the Sower’s actions as placing a single seed in a particular soil. In reality, the Sower casts many seeds simultaneously. Those seeds tend to take root and grow in multiples.
Likewise, when we read of the primitive church’s efforts at evangelism, the conversion of an individual seems to be the exception; the rule is the conversion of groups. Three thousand respond to Peter’s call for a shared repentance, followed by the baptism of each individual (Acts 2:38’s “Repent [y’all], and let each one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ….”). Many priests become obedient to the faith (Acts 6:7). The Samaritans become convinced at the preaching of Philip (Acts 8:12), and whole households together respond to the gospel, such as those of Lydia and of the jailer (Acts 16:14-15, 30-34).
When Acts reports the content of the prayer of the Jerusalem disciples, we might assume the modern format of an individual’s “leading in prayer,” despite the actual words of the text, “They raised their voices together in prayer to God….” (Acts 4:12). When Paul pleads for us to pray for our country’s leaders, he says, “I urge… that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made…” The plurals of the four descriptive terms (including ‘intercessions’ and ‘thanksgivings’) indicate a communal offering of prayers at a Christian assembly: many voices are involved.
Want to go deeper?
Look for places in Scripture where you have misunderstood a communal passage as if it were individualistic. Share your findings with the rest of us in the comments section below.
For more on the differences between individualism and communalism, both in culture and the Bible, see the following:
Randolph Richards and Brandon J. O’Brien, “Captain of My Soul: Individualism and Collectivism,” 95-112 in their book, Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understand the Bible (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 2012).
Dale A. Meyer, “Why go to church?” Concordia Journal 36, 2 (Spring 2010): 89-96.
Explains how postmoderns are alienated from one another, seeing church as little more than the meeting of individuals, each with a private connection to God. The communal nature of Christ’s church is the antidote to this tendency toward isolation.
Meyer says, “[T]he church is more than a voluntary association of like minded individuals… Our life with the congregation is qualitatively different from every other earthly association. By stressing the corporate nature of the church as body of Christ, we’re teaching and preaching something counter-cultural to modernism but attractive to postmodern America.”