It’s no surprise that our theologies are made up in part by Scripture, and in part by us reacting to extremes. It’s also no surprise that the American church has so stressed personal salvation that evangelicalism is thought of as “personal” more than as “communal.” I appreciate Preston Sprinkle being a voice who wishes to maintain both the individual and communal dimensions of discipleship in his 2016 release Go: Returning Discipleship to the Front Lines of Faith in which he makes the important distinction that a personal relationship with God can never mean a private relationship with God (see here for my review).
I was reminded of my own over-reactionary tendency while listening to a lecture given by NT scholar Rikk Watts (given at Regent) in which he insisted that my generation has the tendency to so overemphasize community that we’re in danger of losing any sense of a personal dimension to the faith; he finds that we give “community” mere lip service but actually remain very individualistic in how we do things. His point? The NT points to the gospel as being both/and. There are communal dimensions that are rooted in the OT and assumed in the NT, but this does not negate the fact that the NT also presents us with a gospel that is highly personal because of a God who is highly personal.
We see this both/and tension fleshed out especially in Paul’s temple metaphor in 1 Corinthians. On the one hand, our bodies are temples (plural) of the Holy Spirit (=we are individual mobile temples housing the Presence/Spirit of God; see 1 Cor 6:19). On the other hand, the Corinthians make up one temple (singular) when they gather together according to 1 Cor 3:16. This means that each local church is a temple housing the Presence/Spirit of God wherever geographically placed.
I am grateful for the work of N. T. Wright and others who stubbornly push back against the notion of the gospel being private and without social dimensions. I personally thank God for this pushback. But what Rikk Watts seems to be getting at is the fact that my generation seems to be eating it all up and in the process throwing the baby out with the bathwater (that is, going to one extreme in reaction to another).
Can we overemphasize community to the neglect of the personal-ness of God and the gospel? Certainly. But we can also overemphasize the personal dimension of our faith. We can and we have in the American church. Yet the appropriate response is not to run far in the other direction, but rather to embrace a robust discipleship that is both greatly personal and greatly communal.
Scot McKnight, who has sometimes been accused of downplaying the idea of a personal walk with God, proves to be a voice of reason in this regard. Recently in an interview he stated that
“Yes, I believe in personal faith; and I have led dozens of students into personal faith in my years of teaching college students. … [But] how about if we call people to personal and corporate faith and see sin as both personal and systemic? (Which is biblical to the core.)”
Where do you find yourself on this spectrum? Do you tend to enjoy a private relationship with God while downplaying community? Do you love being in Christian community but find yourself having trouble spending personal time with God when others are gone?
How about sin? Do you view it as purely personal? Or purely systemic? What’s your reaction to McKnight’s thoughts on sin being both/and?