But if we walk in the light, as he also is in the light, we have fellowship one with another, and the blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanseth us from all sin. 1 John 1:7
“I believe… We believe…” Modern English language is densely rich, but one shortcoming rests in addressing a whole bunch of people. We have no linguistic way of differentiating singular and plural “you”. It wasn’t always this way. In English at the time of the King James Bible, “ye” was the second person plural pronoun (i.e.- not the performer previously known as Kanye West). As in, “prepare ye the way of the Lord”. To make that distinction today, English speakers need to resort to awkward work-rounds like “y’all” or “you guys”.
I’m not trying to inflict a grammar lesson; this linguistic deficit affects how we interpret the Bible and our approach to faith. The majority of St. Paul’s epistles, for example, were addressed to congregations, to be communally received. We can easily misread passages where Koiné Greek expresses the collective you. Especially given our hyper-individualized evangelicalism, which embeds the assumption that the Apostle’s instructions were addressed to “Me”, “Mine”, or “I” rather than as pluralized instruction to a community.
The collapse of American community has been recounted in Robert Putnam’s “Bowling Alone”. The disconnectedness of our society influences how evangelicals relate to one another. Or, to be more precise, how they don’t. The message of the gospel becomes a message “for me” personally. This branding of the idealized modern American Christian begins as the sale is closed, typified by the “I have decided to follow Jesus” style of proselytizing popularized by Billy Graham in his mass crusades. My religion is exclusively between me personally and Jesus.
Asking Jesus into your heart – just say the magic words, and now you’re totally free in Christ. What more is needed after that? The problem with retail grace is that Jesus did not say go and make Christians, but disciples who were to be baptized and taught. The magic words spoken in a crusade do a great job answering what I need to be saved from; what I am being saved to – not so much. John Stott comments: “We tend to proclaim individual salvation without moving on to the saved community.” Jesus didn’t tell people to accept him, but to follow him. And that needs to happen within the loving arms of a body of believers, whose practices embody the biblical story.
When Paul the Apostle speaks to the Galatian church about growing “… until Christ is formed in you” (Galatians 4:19), he wasn’t talking about weekly meet-ups for religious consumers, or feeding the fast food aggregate of “I”s. He meant a new identity lived out in community. It is where Christians (“we”, “us together”, “among”, “in common”…) put into practice the habits to live Christianly, to encourage each other in godliness, and invoke mutual obligations of care and concern. Worship is connection; brought together with God and each other. Bonhoeffer describes this in Life Together (Gemeinsames Leben). Other cultures have excellent words for this concept English can only vaguely approximate, like the Russian word Sobornost (Собо́рность) or the Greek Koinonia (κοινωνία).
Now, worshipping apart from the evangelical tradition, I’ve begun to think in terms of corporate spirituality, gaining a fuller perspective on life together. In worship we pray, “Our Father in heaven…” We also profess our faith publically with the Nicene Creed, starting with “We believe (pisteuomen) in one God …” The “we” of the Creed’s opening statement is not only a recitation of doctrinal unity, it also implies obligation and responsibility to one’s neighbor. What is true for me applies to each member of my family of faith, standing together as the church.
Some time ago, the military came up with a recruiting slogan, “An Army of One”. “If you want to be an ‘Army of One’”, one critic noted, “you probably want to join the Hell’s Angels, not the U.S. Army.” The same can be said for Christianity, where there is no single-person church. The plural use in Nicaea dates back to the early church, and given the post-modern primacy of the individual and its jettisoning of common identities, is especially relevant today for the self-centered “my faith” in isolation from the church, versus the allness of “our faith” as corporate witness to the Living Word, re-enacting his presence among us in water, bread and wine, and being the vehicle through which the Holy Spirit moves.