Scripture and Collective Identity

In the Bible we find concern for both individuals and groups:

Rugged individualism is a hallmark of modern Western culture. It is every man for himself. The social good is seldom considered. The family unit is certainly collapsing, and concepts like the extended family mean far less than they once did (and still do in many other cultures).

So it is me against the world in many respects for most folks in the West. Some people of course have even celebrated and promoted this. The novelist and philosopher Ayn Rand for example championed the “virtue of selfishness” and pitted rugged individual self-interest over against altruism. See my article on her here: billmuehlenberg.com/2010/09/03/why-i-am-not-a-randian/

But one need not ever have heard of her to know all about selfishness. As sinners we are all about self, and looking after number one. Sure, we Christians and conservatives stand against the collectivism of statism, and we do champion individual liberty and civil liberties as opposed to the modern totalist state.

But the biblical view of persons takes a somewhat mediating position: every individual is unique and different, is created in God’s image, and is of intrinsic value and worth. But the biblical worldview also highly values family and society. It tends to view people in terms of corporate solidarity, or collective identity.

Instead of the naked individual, the Bible emphasises the family unit and the social unit. While every individual person is responsible for how he or he responds to God, there is also this sense of corporate identity, whereby a larger group is often taken into account.

We see this for example in the book of Acts, where often we read about an individual becoming a Christian, but then we see that the person, along with his entire household, gets baptised. Here is just one example of many, from Acts 16:14-15:

One who heard us was a woman named Lydia, from the city of Thyatira, a seller of purple goods, who was a worshiper of God. The Lord opened her heart to pay attention to what was said by Paul. And after she was baptized, and her household as well, she urged us, saying, “If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come to my house and stay.” And she prevailed upon us.

In God’s economy we have both aspects (the individual and the group) emphasised. We are told that ‘the soul that sins shall die’ and one person should not be punished for the sins of others (Ezekiel 18:20). And yet we also find that sometimes this concept of group identity certainly does get played out, especially in the Old Testament. We all recall how the Second Commandment for example speaks to this. As we read in Exodus 20:4-6:

You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.

However exactly we are to understand those remarks about future generations and the like, there is some connection between what one person does, and how that might be played out with those who follow him. And the good thing is, the wrath of God only goes to a few generations, while the mercy of God extends to thousands.

And this concept of group identity is played out in various ways – both in a positive sense and in a negative sense. Having just read again from the book of Joshua today, let me share two back-to-back stories that illustrate this. The first one is found in Joshua 7:22-25:

But to the two men who had spied out the land, Joshua said, “Go into the prostitute’s house and bring out from there the woman and all who belong to her, as you swore to her.” So the young men who had been spies went in and brought out Rahab and her father and mother and brothers and all who belonged to her. And they brought all her relatives and put them outside the camp of Israel. And they burned the city with fire, and everything in it. Only the silver and gold, and the vessels of bronze and of iron, they put into the treasury of the house of the Lord. But Rahab the prostitute and her father’s household and all who belonged to her, Joshua saved alive. And she has lived in Israel to this day, because she hid the messengers whom Joshua sent to spy out Jericho.

As is so often the case with the household baptisms found in the book of Acts, we are not here told anything about the others – in this case, Rahab’s family. Were they all people of faith? Were they all on Israel’s side? Only she is mentioned in the three New Testament texts about her, and not her family (Matthew 1:5; Hebrews 11:31; James 2:25).

And then we come to Joshua 7 where we read about Achan’s sin and its impact on others. There we learn that his family also paid the price for his sin. Were they involved in the evil? Were they all in on this sin? Again, the text does not tell us, so we cannot answer these questions with certainty (although to complicate things, his punishment extended to his livestock).

Many other examples of group identity are found in Scripture. As I say, ultimately each one of us is responsible to God for the life we live and the choices we make. God will judge each one of us individually. But God also looks at the larger group and is concerned about it.

So believers should avoid some various extremes here. The social and political implications should be apparent – and not just in terms of public policy and the like. Christians today who are on the far libertarian extreme who think of only the individual may need to moderate their views somewhat in light of the biblical ideal here. Social concerns are also very important, and we must not ignore them.

And those who may champion statism and collectivism also will need to recalibrate their views, and not forget the importance of the individual. The leftist view of things too often ignores the individual in the name of some vague ‘collective good.’ That also is not how God wants us to think about people and their best interests.

Afterword

When I was already some 500 words into writing this article, based as it was on my morning reading, I discovered that I wrote on the very same passages exactly a year ago! Hmm, good minds think alike? Or perhaps my mind might be turning to mush. Oh, well, I nonetheless finished this article as it is a bit different from what I wrote last year. That piece can be found here: billmuehlenberg.com/2021/03/09/divine-justice-and-corporate-identity/

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3 Replies to “Scripture and Collective Identity”

  1. Of course now with identity politics the west is embracing the collective and erasing the individual. It seems extremes are are we know. Proper balance seems to be a foreign concept to Western ears. Same for middle ground.

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