The Collective Body of the Church

Have we lost our love for the church? Why have we given up saving it?

In 2010 novelist Anne Rice (famous for her book Interview With a Vampire) made a rather controversial post on facebook claiming she was leaving Christianity. This is what she said:

“For those who care, and I understand if you don’t: Today I quit being a Christian. I’m out. I remain committed to Christ as always but not to being ‘Christian’ or to being part of Christianity. It’s simply impossible for me to ‘belong’ to this quarrelsome, hostile, disputatious, and deservedly infamous group. For ten years, I’ve tried. I’ve failed. I’m an outsider. My conscience will allow nothing else.”

I certainly feel for her, in fact, I’ve been there myself many times over. Yet, it seems the more I delve into the world of the Bible the more apparent it becomes that our love for the church has dissipated. This fault doesn’t lay exclusively in Christianity, but rather in the Western culture that has surrounded it. Allow me to lay it out.

Western culture is individualistic. Our identity and decisions lie in us as individuals. We’re an incredibly introspective culture, focused on being “true to self” than true to a collective group. In individualist cultures, the decision to follow Christ is an entirely personal one. This is apparent in a lot of Christian art. The timeless hymn, “I have decided to follow Jesus,” is an excellent example.

 “I have decided to follow Jesus;
No turning back, no turning back.”

On the other hand, collectivist cultures, those of Biblical times and of countries such as China, ground their decision to follow Christ as a collective body. It was rarely an individual decision. One of the most profound examples of this in the Bible is in Acts 16. Paul and Silas are miraculously freed from their chains in prison and the jailer, most likely in shock and awe at the supernatural event, asked, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” (Acts 16:30). They replied, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved, and thy house” (emphasis mine). It wasn’t merely an individual conversion, Paul promised that the jailer’s entire family would be saved with him. Further down the passage records them going to his house, preaching the word of God, baptizing everyone, and finally rejoicing “with all his house.” This is how collectivist cultures work. One’s identity was rooted in his/her family, not in himself. Just look at how people in Biblical times were addressed:

“Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary, the brother of James, and Joses, and of Juda, and Simon?” (Mark 6:3)

Which brings me to the modern church and Anne’s statement above. Today we feel most content when we’re able to choose who we bond with and who we are connected to. Our identity is rooted in our decisions and our preferences. If we don’t approve of something or someone we simply abandon them. Jesus, however, had a different idea and expanded the collectivist thought further than mere bloodlines when He said in Matthew 12:49-50,

“Who is my mother? and who are my brethren? And he stretched forth his hand toward his disciples, and said, Behold my mother and my brethren!”

This was profound and unheard of in a culture limited to bloodlines. Jesus expanded His family to all who believed and did the will of God.

In reference to the modern church, Paul uses Jesus’s teaching to set its intended function.

“Rebuke not an elder, but intreat him as a father; and the younger men as brethren; The elder women as mothers; the younger as sisters, with all purity” (1 Timothy 5:1-2).

In essence, the church was treated as a single body, a family. Along with this came obligations to one another. This included encouraging and instructing each other to live according to the works of the Gospel. This obligation to serve and instruct one another is seen in Titus 2. Thus we were and are bound to others who follow Christ and carry out His will. No person is but a rag we can use and throw away. Our identities are bound in the church because we are no longer ourselves, but one in Christ Jesus.

Yet today we see the church as a temporal group. A group we choose to associate ourselves with, and since we choose when to come, we can also choose when to go. We choose when we want our identities bound with theirs and when we don’t want them to be. Thus the term Christ-follower was born. As soon as the church (remember, not merely a group in a building but every believer around us) fails to satisfy or lose its vision, we disconnect ourselves and hope over time we will never be associated with them again. Friends, this isn’t Christianity. When we enter into the covenantal bond with Christ, we become spiritually bound to the family of God and to the responsibilities and obligations that a family requires outlined in Timothy and Titus. Our identities are not our own.

What? know ye not that your body is the temple of the Holy Ghost which is in you, which ye have of God, and ye are not your own?” (1 Cor 6:19)

Again, note the original Greek of the word “you” in this verse. It is plural. Paul wasn’t emphasizing an individual, but the whole collective body as the “Temple of the Holy Ghost.” Together we make the temple of the Spirit.

“In whom all the building fitly framed together groweth unto an holy temple in the Lord: In whom ye also are builded together for an habitation of God through the Spirit” (Eph 2:21-22).

With respect to those who have separated themselves from Christianity, this simply isn’t a Biblical stance. Despite the despicable things done in the name of Christianity, we cannot disassociate ourselves from them or our religion. They are loved as much as you and I. Jesus didn’t come for only me, but for the church, His bride, and in the face of their sin, He never gave up on them. In His final prayer before the crucifixion, as He sat with the disciples, Jesus said,

“Neither pray I for these alone, but for them also which shall believe on me through their word; That they all may be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us: that the world may believe that thou hast sent me.”

It’s one of the most beautiful truths. Christianity is a community forever bound in the relationship of the trinity. We cannot love Christ if we don’t first love His people.