May 23, 2008 Volume 22, Number 05
Let's not give in to corporate compromise
By Stanley Porter | ChristianWeek Columnist
I have lately heard a number of public Christians talking up the corporate dimension of Christianity, while at the same time putting down the personal dimension of faith in Jesus Christ. Sometimes they even seem to be ridiculing a personal relationship with Jesus by sneeringly referring to "Jesus and me" theology.
To be honest, I am very concerned that in the effort to recognize something good in the communal dimension of Christianity, such ridiculers are forfeiting something even more important by neglecting the personal dimension of Christian experience.
There is no doubt that there is a great deal about the Christian life that is corporate and communal in nature, and I want to encourage this. We gather together in groups, as we should, to worship God together. We remember the death of Jesus together, when, as a body of believers, we celebrate communion or the Lord's Supper-a dinner party instigated by Jesus Himself. We gather as a group to publicly witness in baptism the overt declaration of having died with Jesus and risen with Him.
The Church, in fact, was designed by Jesus Christ Himself as that communal organization that brings us together for a number of corporate actions that develop us together into the kinds of followers of Jesus that we are meant to be. There are things that we can do as followers of Jesus as a part of the Church that we simply cannot do in any other way. No other organization-para-church groups, educational institutions or whatever-can do what the Church was designed to do.
There is also, however, an undeniable personal and private element to Christianity. And we must not forget it. We are saved by God through faith in Jesus Christ one person at a time, exposed before Him as the sinner that each of us is. Our saving faith does not come by ritual acts, by the work of ourselves or others, by inheritance or example or by social do-goodism. Each one of us must come before God individually to receive forgiveness and be redeemed from sin. The New Testament is just as clear on this as it is clear that we should gather in groups to do some things that we can only do as the Church.
When Jesus heals and forgives, as we see repeatedly in the New Testament, He does it individually, instructing each one that his or her sins have been forgiven. When the thief is hanging on the cross next to Jesus, he comes to him alone, exposed and by faith. Jesus welcomes his repentance: "Today you [singular] will be with me in paradise" (Luke 23:43).
The disciples are chosen by Jesus as individuals. When Peter addresses the crowd at Pentecost he implores them all to repent, but specifies that each one must be baptized. As a result, 3,000 individuals are added to the Church.
Even in tricky passages like the conversion of the Philippian jailer, faith is individual and personal. The jailer asks, "What must I do so that I may be saved?" (Acts 16:30). Paul's answer is for him to have faith, but he lets the jailer know that others can come to this saving knowledge through faith as well: "you [singular] will be saved, and your household" (Acts 16:31).
Why is it that some well-intentioned people seem to get so confused over this point? I think a lot of us, even those in the Church, no longer really believe that faith in Jesus Christ has the power to save individual persons. We don't believe any longer in the transforming power of the good news, and so instead find ways to avoid talking about it.
We have talked ourselves into thinking that if we can hide in the crowd, or get others to be a part of the crowd without having to do the personal soul-searching that such membership should require, we are actually doing them a favour and we can pacify our own doubts. That is my greatest concern.
We have lost the fundamental belief that our God is powerful enough to save souls, and so we hide behind corporate membership and good acts. We do so at the peril of ourselves and others.
Stanley E. Porter is president and dean of McMaster Divinity College in Hamilton, Ontario.