“Have you accepted Christ as your personal savior?”
Anyone who has been around born-again Christians and Evangelical churches long enough has heard this said. A Christian mantra of sorts, this question often makes it into comedy routines, as both Christians and non-Christians poke fun at its overuse.
Anyone who fancies himself on the cutting edge of ministry would carve that phrase to pieces and come up with enough loaded Christianese in its eight short words to gag the most ardent deconstructionist. “What does it mean to accept Christ? Doesn’t He instead accept you? And just what is a personal savior?”
While all the deconstruction going on in 2013 can get a little tiresome, I still find it worthwhile to ask that final question.
What is a personal savior?
Anyone who has read ancient Christian texts will find that the language used by the Church for most of its history has been the collective you and we. When Paul wrote, he wrote to entire churches. When Church leaders created policy, they aimed it at the collective Church. Even when the Church as a whole spoke about something as personal as sin, it maintained a corporate language. In other words, it wasn’t just individuals who sinned, but the assembly of those individuals.
I contend that one of the most destructive changes in the history of Western Christianity was the abandonment of a collective understanding of sin in favor of an entirely individualistic model. That individual model is driven by individual-focused language such as personal savior.
I grew up in the Lutheran Church, and one of the statements I can still recite today, despite leaving that Church decades ago, is the corporate confession:
“We confess that we are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves. We have sinned against You in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done and by what we have left undone.”
We. Not I. We.
Approaching sin in terms of the collective changes everything. Sin doesn’t just become the collected sins of individuals, but something that the group may participate in as a group.
This is not American thinking, though. The closest most of get to thinking that a group has sinned is when we consider that a collection of people roots for the wrong sports team. “You guys are Steelers fans? Get thee behind me!”
But what does it mean that a group of people may sin by commission or omission?
What if an entire local church fails to show mercy? We can say that each individual in that church has failed to show mercy, but does the Lord always judge with that granularity?
Consider this: When the churches in Revelation receive their rebuke from the Lord, isn’t it the sin of that entire church that receives condemnation for what it did or didn’t do as a whole?
Another thought: At a time when we talk and talk about strengthening community in our churches, what does a better understanding of corporate/community sin do for building that better community?
It seems to me that the rise in the concept of Jesus as Personal Savior came at the same time that a more corporate understanding of sin and its effects on the community of faith were being abandoned.
What if the Church in America moved away—at least in part—from emphasizing Jesus as Personal Savior in favor of adding more of Jesus as Community Savior? What does that change in language do for how we Christians actually practice our faith? How might it reinvigorate certain aspects of the Body of Christ and how we see ourselves as believers linked by the Holy Spirit? And how would it possibly open our eyes to areas of corporate/community sin within the Church—as both a local body and as a whole entity—that we have routinely overlooked (yet unbelievers often notice first)? And what does it mean for you and I as individuals that the corporate body to which we belong is capable of sin as a collective?
Because it seems to me that the Golden City is both a complete building as a whole and is comprised of individual bricks of gold. That we have for too long focused on the bricks at the expense of the building has hurt the Church immeasurably.