Have you ever used Google’s Ngram Viewer? It’s an online tool that searches Google’s library of books to see how often words or phrases appear in texts over time.
I was playing around with it recently, and searched the term “personal lord and savior.” This way of describing Jesus (“my personal Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ”) is so common, and so pervasive, that we don’t reflect on it.
But what I discovered when I did my search on that term is that it has only been in use since about the 1960s.
Perhaps, then, we should give the phrase some consideration.
Individualism and the Church
It’s a truism in the church that we live in a individualistic culture. Consider the icons of American culture: the lone cowboy, the self-made entrepreneur. We celebrate the individual and individual achievement.
We say, of course, that this individualism is bad for the church. Yet the language of “personal lord and savior” perpetuates that individualism.
“But,” you object, “how can that be? The church is by definition a corporate thing!” Yes, and gloriously so!
But is that how we actually see it?
We tend to see the church like a coal pile: a huge collection of things that are more or less the same. From that perspective, the church is a collection of saved individuals, and Jesus is the personal savior of each one.
Now, I don’t dispute that we come to Jesus, and to faith, and into the church, as individuals. Christianity, however, is not an individual endeavor. Ephesians 5:23 describes Jesus as the savior of the body, and the larger passage (Ephesians 5:21-33) envisions the relationship between Jesus and the church as that between a body and its head.
Furthermore, this church-as-Jesus’-body imagery is prominent in Paul, and it suggests that the primary relationship Jesus has is with his body, the church, and not with individual Christians.
“But,” you object, “that is insane! Christianity is about my personal relationship with Jesus, and through him, with God.”
Yet should we be so confident about that? After all, language like that simply isn’t in the Bible.The language of “personal #lord and #savior” perpetuates that #individualism. Click To Tweet
So What Does the Bible Actually Say?
We use modern, Western eyes when we read the Bible, and as a result interpret it individualistically, and not corporately, in spite of the fact that every one of Paul’s letters (for example) is meant for churches, and not for individuals alone.
No matter how hard we look for clear instruction on the personal relation between the individual Christian and Jesus, we just won’t find it. That simply is not the relationship the New Testament has in mind.
Instead, the New Testament gives rich material on the relationship of believers to the church, and the relationship of that church—that body—to Jesus, its head.
These are the primary relationships in view in the New Testament, and we would do well to give pride of place to these relationships as we interpret the New Testament and strive to apply it in our own context.
*Note* I am not ruling out the possibility of the “personal relationship” between the individual and Jesus—unless that relationship causes us to neglect the Bible’s teaching on the church and its relationship to Jesus.The primary relationship #Jesus has is with his body, the #church. Click To Tweet
The Right Perspective of the Savior
And the phrase perpetuates a warped view of the Christian faith, taking the focus off the church, and centering it on the individual.
It is the church, and not the individual, that is the body of Christ.
It is the church, and not the individual, through whom “the manifold wisdom of God” is made known (see Ephesians 3:10).
It is the church that is the household of God, that ministers to its own members, for the purpose of growth in maturity.
Jesus gave himself not to collect a bunch of individual disciples, but to “purify for himself a people of his own, who are zealous for good deeds” (Titus 2:14, NRSV, emphasis added).
If we would commit ourselves to God and his purposes, we would do well to shed ourselves of our individual perspective on the faith, and commit ourselves to church, Christ’s body, and to the purposes he ordained for it.
Also published on Medium.