No “I” in “CHURCH”–How American Evangelicalism Gets Its Pronouns Wrong


Lonely in a crowdI listened to a message recently that told me all the things I had to do so I could be godly.

For the most part, the words went sailing past me. Perhaps I’m like the hard soil and the birds are coming to eat up the message seeds.

Or maybe I’ve just reached a saturation point for being told what I need to be doing so everything will be perfect in my Christian life.

There’s a big problem with the approach so much of American Evangelicalism uses when speaking to people: It’s all I and you (singular) pronoun use. It’s as if there is no message to the collected Body of Christ. The plural you, we, and us continue to go missing. And with them goes most of the New Testament.

You hear the singular you used a lot in sermons. Someone is preaching at me what I need to do as an individual.

But if you read the New Testament, the you in it, almost all nearly 4,000 uses, refers to a group of people—a plural you. In almost all cases outside the Gospels, that you is the Church.

How is it then that so many messages directed at us aren’t to the genuine plural us, but solely to individuals sitting in one place? We somehow avoid all sense of a collected group of believers.

One problem with this is that it automatically creates legalism and moralism. Individuals are told to do this or that, but there is no greater sense of collected purpose in those admonitions. Whatever it is that I should do is relegated to me alone. It then becomes a personal performance issue. My success as a Christian is solely because of what I do; the greater Body has no influence at all in this—nor do I truly influence that greater Body.

Which is one major reason why the Church in America isn’t advancing the way it should be. We are in a state of every man for himself.

An example of how this individual focus fails…

Take the subject of giving. From an individual perspective, you (singular) and I are told biblical principles on how to give and save money. To live below our means so as to be able to give to others. To tithe. To be cheerful givers.

But when we take this up to the level of what the Church as a collected whole is supposed to do, a vast silence emerges. What is the Church’s financial responsibility?

The Scriptures make it plain in many places that the Church should ensure that no one within the Church body is in need. Goods are to be collected and dispersed to people in the local church body to ensure no state of want.

That asks something of the Church/church though. And you just don’t hear messages and sermons on what the whole Church responsibility is in a given situation.

In short, there is no you (plural), we, or us. There is no vision for anything beyond what the individual is asked to do.

The Bible says that you have died. Your life is now hidden in Christ. And His life is expressed in this world through His Body, the Church.

To the person who has died, the law says that he or she has lost the right to own. In the Church, there is no my or mine. There is ours. Jesus abolishes all personal claims. You are not even your own. All that remains is the collected Body. I, my, mine, you (singular), yours—these are remnants of what we must leave behind when we choose to follow Jesus.

What would happen if American Evangelicals, instead of devolving into what I or you (singular) should be doing as a Christian, focused instead on how the group of believers that comprise the local church and the greater Church operates as it is intended to function—as a unified whole? What if we stopped with the relentless granularity and started thinking of Christianity not as a personal belief but as one that achieves its vitality only within full community? What if we stopped preaching individual works and started focusing on collected works? What if we believed that sanctification wasn’t solely for the individual but for the group? What if we truly believed Jesus in His admonition that the herd of sheep was no longer complete in the eyes of the shepherd if even one was missing?

What if we Christians shifted all our pronouns toward you (plural), we, ours, and us, while moving away from I, me, mine, and you (singular)?

Can we at least start to think outside of the individual? Perhaps if we did, we’d actually live out the biblical plan for the Body of Christ.

UPDATE: See also the follow-up post, God of the Group.

32 thoughts on “No “I” in “CHURCH”–How American Evangelicalism Gets Its Pronouns Wrong

  1. Perfect: “What if we believed that sanctification wasn’t solely for the individual but for the group?”

    Holiness conceived of as a “personal achievement” is nothing more than religion-ized consumerism based on the aggrandizement of the strongest individuals. The only holiness there is, is in self-forgetting love. The body of Christ is the object of God’s work, his affection, his presence. The turning of this into primarily a “me and God” thing is one of the greatest crimes against the Bible in our generation.

    We have no grid for this really. No reference point for understanding the collective in the singular. We immediately default to “God says to YOU, Christian…” But there’s nothing but despair down that road. It’s just a hollowed out faith which houses the same old me-centrism we learned from the secular world. If we could conceive of, say, “do justice” as a command nott to personally do something for the world, but as a command to foster a culture of justice among the wider people, a collective expectation that needs will be met, we would have a lot easier of a time understanding what God expected from us individually. We would understand ourselves as organs in an organism, not entrepreneurs trying to climb the ladder faster than everyone else.

    • Nate, you nail it. We indeed “have no grid for this reality.”

      I wrote on another website that Watchman Nee has been a great disrupter of much of my thinking because he writes from an Asian mindset wholly unfamiliar to my Western way of thinking. I think this is one reason why a lot of American missionaries go overseas and come back seemingly “liberal” in their approach to community and relationships.

      I think the perpetual arms-length hand we hold up against anything that smacks of “socialism” is one reason why the American Church suffers so greatly when it comes to community or our ability to process “nonindividuality.” Again, no grid. And no willingness to explore, either.

  2. Eli

    great thoughts.
    coming back to a dialogue we had awhile ago… to my mind this is the true ‘lone ranger’ christianity. Whether we gather with 2 or ten thousand the issue is more so how we walk and live with those people. Whether its every man for himself as you say or we see our lives inextricably interconnected with relevant practical outworkings.
    I do feel for americans as the culture seems to be aggressively individualistic and celebrity & business driven.

    • Eli wrote: I do feel for americans as the culture seems to be aggressively individualistic and celebrity & business driven.

      Indeed. It finds its nadir when we worship celebrity business leaders, because those leaders never get to where they are without a lot of help and luck, yet they always claim how they did it all through their own smarts and talent. Could not get more individualistic (and deceived).

  3. linda

    Hi Dan,
    When we think of that early time in Jerusalem just after Jesus ascended into the heavens, the believers were certainly not ‘individualistic’ in their following of Christ. They supported one another as the times got more severe and problematic for people confessing Christ in the city.

    However, the selling of property by Barnabas and other believers who ‘gave’ to support one another during these hard times was voluntary. Ananias and Saphira were struck down not because they didn’t give all of their assets and money to the ‘church’, but because they (lied) to the church, the leadership, and the Holy Ghost. Peter says they had the right to hold back, the land belonged to them. ‘While it was in your hand was it not yours?’ Peter says.

    So, giving and sacrificing for one another in the body is voluntary as the Spirit moves us. (singular or plural, I think). The Bible speaks about the need to give willingly, and not being compelled to.

    You say “What if we stopped preaching individual works and started focusing on collected works”? Leadership in the church is using this ‘collected works’, I believe, to put God’s people into slavery to the world. Free labor. Leaders then become union bosses for unpaid workers in the church. There’s nothing wrong with collected works, but it’s being corrupted right now in the teaching coming from books, pulpits, and other places. The church has rich resources in its people. It’s teachings encourage good works, sacrifice, and blessing.

    This is right down the devil’s alley for deceiving god’s people by teaching that providing free labor is a ministry that God has commanded from them. This is a distortion of the truth. God frees from slavery, he does not place his people under the authority of false teaching and this kind of deception.

    Deception is the word today. The devil is deceiving and distorting Gods’ Word. Believers are being taken in by the teaching of ungodly people.

    • Linda,

      The American insistence on “mine” reflects the mistaken sanctity with which we hold private property. I would argue that the voluntary aspect you mention is not as voluntary as one might imagine. I can’t voluntarily say that I won’t help my brother when I see him in need. For the Christian, there is no voluntary in that respect.

      Regarding “free labor,” no one should take advantage of another person’s willingness to help. If they are, then they need some correction.

  4. Franklin N. Ampah-Korsah

    Well said dear brother. Nonetheless THE CHURCH….CANNOT…..LIVE CHRIST if individual members ……DO NOT….LIVE CHRIST. Surely we are admonished to encourage each other in Living THE CHRIST-LIFE, not to LIVE CHRIST for the other person,how can this be possible ? No one drinks the medicine for a sick person, but him/herself ; how can one member LIVE CHRIST for the other, except by SHOW OF EXAMPLE only? If each member should PLAY HIS/HER PART WELL, THE TRUE CHURCH would begin to shine forth. I would say it again that ; no one can LIVE CHRIST for the other, however we can HELP to bear each other’s burden.
    On the issue you raised that seemed to point out that individual pursuits of the morals of Christ leads to “legalism or works righteousness” ….hmm….I think it rather leads to the edification of THE BODY , rather than tje individual. Christ in you, Christ in me, leads to THE HOLY BODY OF CHRIST.
    Due to the above , we should do all in our power to help each other in THE BODY….AND IN THE WORLD….to live Christ. Lets share our experiences with each other….on HOW WE LIVE CHRIST. This is Charity in its PUREST FORM.

  5. Franklin N. Ampah-Korsah

    “Thou shall love the Lord thy God with all your heart and mind and soul and strength, and also love thy neighbour as thy self”. We interact with God INDIVIDUALLY and also among OURSELVES. If we TRULY love God, would it be DIFFICULT to love our fellow man? NO. If we overtly or covertly keep each other at arm’s length in all phases of THE LIFE CHRIST LIVED FOR US( in matters of the body, spirit and soul) we only trumpet our unGodliness loudly before God and man. We should strive INDIVIDUALLY to LIVE CHRIST…but share our experiences with each other; but NO ONE CAN LIVE CHRIST…..FOR THE OTHER.

    • “We should strive INDIVIDUALLY to LIVE CHRIST…but share our experiences with each other; but NO ONE CAN LIVE CHRIST…..FOR THE OTHER.”

      This is a good example of the individualism that is not found in Scripture. The highest commandment is so high because it’s goal is the oneness of the Body under God through Christ- the implication of “thy neighbor as thyself” is a total unity of mind and purpose- thy neighbor is now a “member” of thyself. The late-modern moralism most of us are floundering in is because of an understanding of “living Christ” as an individual pursuit.

    • Franklin,

      While I agree to a point–since the Book of Life contains the names of individuals–one of the aspects of salvation is that we are saved out of individuality and saved into a family. We tend to forget that transition.

  6. linda

    Hi Dan,
    Our walk with Christ is indeed an individual walk. God didn’t call a team, he called an individual in Abraham to leave all that he knew and be obedient to God. God asks for obedience. Individual obedience provides obedience for the collective.

    Some people think that to attend a large church with many people is to insure their voyage to Heaven. Get on the big ship liner rather than the liferaft to cross the ocean so to speak. This isn’t true.

    If we look at living for Christ as a group effort only, then what about Judas Iscariot? He was the only one that betrayed Christ. Is he going to heaven because he was part of a faithful group? No, individually he failed, and individually he will account for it to God.

    We, individually, will stand before God and give an account of our days. Nothing in scripture indicates that we will stand before God in a group (as believers) and give an account as a group other than the indication of cities and kingdoms ruled by the wicked in scripture.

    Another example is the Holy Spirit. He does not inhabit groups. He inhabits individuals only on this earth, in our day. It is an individual walk with God, and we are exhorted in scripture to provoke one another on to love and good works. We can also pray for one another, encourage one another, help one another with the functioning of the gifts from God, etc.

    • Didn’t God call Abraham as the “father of many nations?” Isn’t the entire history of Israel and the Church found in that one man?

      And I believe the Holy Spirit does indeed inhabit groups. this is exactly what Paul means when he addresses the church in Rome and tells them to “walk according to the Spirit.” (this is where Dan’s note on Biblical syntax is crucial) For instance: exhorting one another to good works. That means a unity of purpose and destination among many persons. They are walking “as one” in accordance with Christ’s spirit in doing that. All of the “one another” statements in the New Testament bear this reality out.

    • Linda,

      The promise to Abraham was that his descendants would be like the stars in heaven. God was calling an individual and building a family out of him. Abraham felt like he was nothing without a family. That’s where the truth lay for Abraham: it was all about moving beyond himself to something larger.

      I’m sorry, but we will have to disagree. The NT is filled to overflowing with imagery of the collected Body of Christ. The living stones bound up into a whole. The church as the city of Jerusalem. And I strongly disagree about the Holy Spirit NOT inhabiting groups. Something happens spiritually in the group that does not happen in the individual. If you’ve not experienced that as a Christian, then you are missing out.

      • linda

        Hi Dan,
        You’re going to have to find an example of the Holy Spirit ‘inhabiting’ groups before you should espouse this doctrine. I can’t think of a time. In the days of the prophets and the judges God indwelt an individual man or woman for this task.

        At Pentecost, the Holy Spirit came down on ‘each head’. They were congregated as 120 believers in the upper room. They were not inhabited by the Holy Spirit as a group.

        The Holy Spirit can ‘hover’ (I’m not sure if this is the right word) over a group. He can move in a group setting but He is not inhabiting a group of people. He is moving over the waters, so to speak, as he did at the beginning of creation.

        The Bible says that God is looking for ‘man’. Isaiah said ‘send me’. Jesus said ‘I come to do your will O God’
        Samuel said ‘Your servant is listening’ (singular)

        God worked through individuals in the NT. Paul, Peter, John, Barnabas, Appolos, and others. Paul’s authority and power was within him. Not in the group of people that he travelled with. He makes it clear “When I come, I will set things straight”

        Sin came by one man, Adam, and salvation comes by one man, Jesus Christ. I know what you are saying I think, Dan. I’m not diminishing the value and the purpose of the collected body of believers. But if we believe that joining a group of people is where we will find God, then the Catholic church has correct doctine about salvation. The Catholic church says you must be part of us, or you cannot be saved.

        We know that this is false. Individual people are saved. Not a church denomination.

  7. So much of our legalism stems from the singular “you”. That never hit me before. No amount of emphasis of grace over works can overcome legalism so long as the lessons we are preached to are focused on you and me individually, rather than what we can do as the Body of Christ to bring glory to God.

    Great post. A lot here to chew on.

  8. linda

    Hi Dan,
    Legalism is believers trying to follow after God in the flesh and not the Spirit. The flesh was the old system of Law and regulations under Moses. The Law is spiritual and righteous. However, people in the OT were not. Regulations were put into place to make the OT believers outwardly righteous by the application of the blood of goats and bulls to cleanse them of their sins. These sacrifices were for innocent sins, not intended for intentional sin. Intentional sin the NT says in Hebrews has no more sacrifice for cleansing once Jesus died and applied his blood on the mercy seat.

    We have distorted idea of what Grace is in our day. We are saved by faith and grace the Bible says. Grace is not provided by God so that a Believer can sin. Far from it. Grace is provided to deliver someone from sin. To adorn believers with skills and understanding that they do not normally have. To endow a ‘new creation’ not cover the sins of the old man. The old man has died. If we continue to live as the old man in Christ, Hebrews says there is only judgment waiting for the believer at the end of days. We are to turn away from sin and set our lives aright. We do this bythe power of the Holy Spirit, the Word and our testimony (or faith).

    The church Body is important. There is no doubt of this. We are a part of the house of God. Part of the Body of Jesus Christ.

    We are saved when we are abiding in the vine so to speak. When we refuse the ‘vine’ or we become unfrutiful (sinful and wicked) we will be cut off from eternal life. The example is given of the branches that God will cut off. He cut the nation of Israel off, and he will cut believers off too if we are disobedient, and living for God in our flesh. The flesh puts us back under the law.

    Paul to speaks to this to the Galations. “Having begun in the Spirit are you now returning to the flesh?” I think that is is what is happening in many churches today. Believers are being taught to
    ‘live in the flesh again’.

  9. I would love to see this. Thing is, most of the people I know who would agree with this point of view have given up on “church” as an institution. This includes me. I do consider myself part of the church that is the body of Christ, however. I would love to “be the change,” but I’m not sure how.

    Oh, and I had a dream that clearly told me to stop with all the reading and analyzing and worrying if I’m doing everything right. The beginning of this post reminded me of that. I wrote about it in my latest blog post, if you’re interested.

    The main thing is to trust the Spirit, not man, amen? And then perhaps things will begin to fall into place.

    • Michelle,

      The Spirit often communicates to others what He does not communicate to me. This is one reason why the assembly is critical. If I am not gathering with other Christians, then I will not receive what they have to offer me by the Spirit. We tend to forget this.

  10. I actually believe that our rhetoric is dissonant with our practice, at least to a great degree. We talk very individualistically about the faith, but like any people, the collective has the day. Ideas sweep through populations. For better or worse, Christians are socialized according the group norms, and they act out lives that they believe make sense in the group context. It’s just that we need to wake up and see that the individualistic mindset is not compatible with the created nature we’re defaulting to. We’re collectivists by nature, it’s just that our rhetoric, our institutions, and the judgments we make are individualistic, and thus we can’t actually live up to the expectations before us. It’s cognitive dissonance, and it does a terrible number on people when they fail to do what’s expected.

    A good example of this is success rhetoric, be it secular or religious. The assumed goal (and this goes largely unquestioned; it’s like the water we swim in) is that we’re all supposed to be trying “rise to the top” of whatever field, ministry, or holiness pursuit we’re a part of. We begin pouring on the methods and helpful tips to “make yourself a better _____”. It’s really atrocious. To come to terms with the collectivism of the New Testament is to understand that we DON”T all need to be rising to the top, and the endgame ISN’t a “personal” success at all. It’s that the Body, which is many members in one organism, is imaging Christ, and that it is Christ’s singular dwelling place. It’s his home. It’s his bride. Each member provides a different function, no member plays all the parts. No member is a universal expert on holiness, or theology, or the Christian life. A hand isn’t an eye, and shouldn’t try to be. And neither will function well unless the other is sharing its gifts to the rest of the members.

    Try to explain this to people and you usually get blanks stares, or maybe an affirmation with the well-intended exhortation that we need to do more community-building events. We don’t really, we need to totally overhaul our understanding of what the Church IS.

    I love Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s “Life Together.” He’s great for deconstructing Western assumptions about Body life.

    • linda

      Hi Nate,
      I agree “It’s cognitive dissonance, and it does a terrible number on people when they fail to do what’s expected.” This cognitive dissonance happens because of the false teaching, and subseqent unpowered walk of the Believer. If you don’t have God and his Holy Spirit, we cannot walk with God, because we don’t have the ability.

      Believers have to be careful about what they are ‘receiving’.
      Also, the inheritance of Abraham (the promise) was inherited down by an individual. First Abraham, then Isaac, then Jacob, then Israel (God changed his name from Jacob). Every man will stand accountable for his own sins. This is the teaching of the OT. The children will not be judged by the sins of their fathers.

      I’m on my way to work right now. I will try to think more on this. I think I’m understanding some of your concern, because believers have been through the mill (so to speak) over the past couple of decades or so.

      I think you are saying that we default to social norms. What is acceptable to the society in which we live. This is collective bargaining. Which is the new idea in our day of how to decide what is ‘right and wrong’.

      • Abraham may have been only one person, but he wasn’t chosen FOR only one person- he was chosen to be the seed of a holy nation, a royal priesthood. After the patriarchs (who were collectivists, by the way) came the nation of Israel, the people whom God called by his name. No one’s saying there are no individuals. It’s that individuals, in God’s design, exist for a community, through Him, who is Himself a community of three.

        There’s certainly plenty of examples of ungodly collectivism, Linda, but that doesn’t mean that the basic biblical understanding of God’s creation and his chosen people is individualistic. You don’t have to uncritically accept the collectivism of just anyone, but a healthy understanding of it would certainly be the antidote to he “culture of Me” in which we live.

        I’m very interested in this idea, because it’s widely missed by American BIble readers, and it offers a pretty high critique of the way we do things. Not only do we know about the church’s self-understanding from theology in the NT, we know it from historical study- middle eastern culture has always been far more collective-oriented than individualistic. Again, that doesn’t mean it’s without problems, but it does mean the ancient Jews, and thus the early Church, conceived of communities vastly differently than we do, and wrote the Biblical texts out of THAT understanding, not ours. They did not see a community as just a cluster of individuals who happened to be in the same place, but as a singular unit that lived and moved, one organism with many parts, no one person simply going about some “personal relationship with God” for their own benefit. This is well-known even about modern middle-eastern cultures.

        The early church’s collectivism wasn’t a top down mandate. It wasn’t a democracy. It wasn’t a unity under a charismatic leader or a logical argument. It was a people movement that began with a Galilean rabbi who drew people to him like flies to jelly. Crowds of them followed him, wondering what he would do next, hanging on his every word. This has always been the purpose of God- to call a people, not a bunch of individuals, to himself. This is the ongoing work of the Spirit- to assemble the community of the saints under the headship of Christ.

        The first thing the disciples did under the power of the Spirit is to reverse Babel. The point of the tongue-speaking of Acts 2 is not that the Spirit was giving them a prayer language, nor simply to amaze people with some supernatural show. It was to undo God’s curse on Babel- they spoke one language and all nationalities understood. The reunification of the nations under the Gospel. Instead of scattering people and frustrating communication, the Spirit unites people from across boundaries. Disunion to union, in Christ.

        You’re not wrong that people are individually accountable, but that’s not really an explicit theme that’s taught in the Bible- we aren’t really given an explicitly “individualistic” understanding of accountability for sin. In fact, much of how sin is addressed in Scripture, and thus its consequences, is as if people are being swept along in a human tide, not just making individual choices. It’s like a cancer spreading through a body. Jesus wept for Jerusalem because Israel had ignored his call, he foretold judgment on the entire nation, he spoke of “the world” as being in opposition to him, and his calling to “convict the world of sin, righteousness and judgment.” He’s not ignoring individuals here, but he is conceiving of Creation and the people of God as unified objects- whether it’s the saved people or the lost people. On the way to his goal of unifying a people around him, he certainly interacts with many individuals. So there you have it- he loves the individual. It’s just that the endgame is much bigger than that.

        I’ll stop there, because I could go on forever. But I’m glad you’re throwing your two cents in. You make good points. It’s not even that I entirely disagree with your individual points. It’s just that I believe most people’s understanding of God’s movement in individuals needs to be summed up in an understanding of the church as a “temple of living stones,” “the body,” “the Bride of Christ.” And verses like:
        “…maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call— one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all.”

      • linda

        Hi Dan,
        The New Age philosophy and the new world order are all about collectivism in their thinking. The ‘whole’ matters much more and is all important rather than the ‘individual’. This is the mindset that the world is now espounding and looking for in people going into the ‘future’.

        This is not godly and not scriptural. Collective bargaining amongst groups would decide if there even was a ‘God’. If the majority decided there wasn’t a ‘God’ the rest of the group would be required to aquise to this and support it in it’s entirety. The majority rules so to speak.

        This is New Age. This is what the ‘thinkers’ of our day are espounding and will be requiring in the days ahead. We have to have the mind of Christ, not the mind of intellectual man, nor the mind of New Agers.

        This New Age philosophy is all about ‘defifying’ the intellectual mind, and making slaves of ‘inferior’ people. This type of attitude and philosphy goes straight into hell.

  11. Veronica

    Since I read this post, I’ve been thinking that perhaps this is the most important thing you’ve ever written, Dan. It seems to be such an integral part of the NT church, and so alien to the church in the US. Tonight I received what I consider confirmation of this idea, from an unexpected place: watching “The Colbert Report” online. Guest Bill Moyers pointed out that The Lord’s Prayer is not a “personal” prayer. It’s a prayer for “us.” The whole thing is plural. Interesting that when the disciples asked Jesus, “Teach us to pray,” He responded with a prayer that was “we” focused, not “me” focused.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *