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Group Orientation of the New Testament

by Joel Comiskey

Spring 2012

The Bible was written to people who naturally gravitated toward community. Jesus and all the New Testament writers would not have understood modern individualism. For them, the individual was always a part of a larger social world and this social world was primary. To become a follower of Jesus by necessity meant joining a community, becoming part of a new spiritual family.

Bruce J. Malina writes in Understanding the Social World of the New Testament, “Some 80 percent of the people on our planet are collectivist [group oriented]. The significant fact for those individualists who read the Bible is that biblical writers and the people they depict were also collectivists, including Jesus.” Malina goes on to say, “Individualist cultures are a rather recent phenomenon.They didn’t exist before the 16 or 17th century” (p. 18).

Sadly, in many cultures today, we have removed from the gospel what the Bible views as central to the sanctification process, namely, commitment to God’s group. When we do this, we set ourselves up to be relational shipwrecks (Sunday attendees who focus on individual satisfaction over loyalty to God’s group). The mentality of so many today is, ‘I can leave my church and my personal savior will go with me wherever I go.”

God, in contrast, desires to make disciples who are growing in their relationships with others. He wants to grow disciples who love one another, are growing in the one-anothers of the Bible, and are committed to the group. God, the Trinity, wants to conform us to his community nature, rather than to the pattern of the world, which exalts individualism, materialism, and self-aggrandizement.

Moving from a life of individualism toward one of community requires a powerful inner transformation. The good news is that God can do it through us, and it will then flow out to others.