We live in one of the most autonomous, individualistic cultures in the history of the world. This is at least in part, because it’s the first time in history that substantial amounts of people could survive apart from their immediate family network and local social networks. We do not need a family farm to eat or make money. We do not need our local network to provide our material goods. We do not even need to sit on our porches, or go into town to make social connections. As a result, Christians live their lives believing the lie our individual spiritual life can flourish apart from Christian community – the church.
The ancient Israelites lived and died by their ability to work collectively as a community. Families farmed together; communities shared wealth and resources. Your identity was tied to your family’s name, not your own individual merits.
God tended to deal with whole people group, rather than individuals. He made covenants with representatives of the collective people group – Moses represented the collective tribes of Israel before God, David represented the collective kingdom of Israel, and eventually Jesus would represent the collective church. God never made covenants with mere individuals, he always made covenants with a person on behalf of a people (or a people to come).
Before the temple, the only way people could hear God’s word and come into God’s presence, was visiting aplace where a levitical priest sacrificed to God and taught God’s covenant law. After the temple, the prescribed way to come before God was to visit the temple in Jerusalem, make sacrifice to him, and hear his word read. Purely individualistic faith could not exist, because God’s means of dispensing his grace occurred only in corporate settings.
It is good to acknowledge every individual bore the responsibility to obey God’s covenant – worshipping no gods before him- pray and worship. So individual aspected existed, but never displaced the corporate aspect of faith. A Jew who never came to the temple, never came before God. This was God’s incredible grace to the Jews! No one was expected to earn God’s presence by individual works, instead all people could draw before God by his gracious covenant to his people. By faith in his covenant, sinners could propitiate their sins at the temple, and draw into God’s presence.
Now, you might think, “That was the God of the Old Testament. What about now?” Well, thankfully God does not change.
In the New Testament we read several passages that call the church God’s temple (1 Cor. 3:13-16, Eph. 2:21). In other words, one major way believers come into God’s presence is by coming into the presence of believers. Paul goes as far to say, “In [Christ] you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.”
Unfortunately these passages often confuse us, because English has no plural “you”. We think this passage speaks to me, but it actually speaks to us. Paul is actually saying “In him you [all] are being built into a dwelling place for God”. Plural you! Which means that collectively we are becoming a dwelling place for God, not individually. To separate yourself from the church, you would have to separate yourself from God.
This theme runs 1 Peter, in Romans, in Ephesians, 1 Corinthians, and Colossians. The church is the body of Christ – so it is naturally the place where we expect to meet him.
My point here is not that the individual aspects of our face do not matter (although, I challenge anyone to find the phrase “personal relationship with Jesus” in the Bible), but to emphasize that our faith is crippled when we ignore God’s church.
First, we tend to fall into a moralistic faith that emphasizes individual works over God’s gracious covenant to all the people who Christ represents by his death. Second, we sever ourselves from God’s presence – no one who lives apart from God’s temple will fully experience the blessing of his joyous presence in our lives. Third, our sinful flesh rarely perishes, because we starve ourselves of one of the Holy Spirit’s primary means of transforming us.