This makes sense when you think about it - we're a community of believers who are commanded to love one another, bear each others burdens and encourage each other towards the Kingdom. We're reminded of this each time we remember Christ at the memorial meeting and partake of the bread - we're one body of believers, not a group of individuals.
The documents of the NT, with a few exceptions, are addressed to communities and not to individuals. Many of us know this and it may not be too shocking, but the significances of this reality must continue to transform how we envision Christian identity.
Nobody in the first century had a Bible. Most people in the first few Christian generations were illiterate and couldn’t have read their Bibles even if they had them. When Scripture was read, it was read to communities who listened to it. When NT letters were circulated and read, they were read aloud by individuals to communities.
Consider just one significant aspect of this. When communities heard, “Jesus said, ‘I say this to you…’,” groups of Jesus-followers gathered together looked around at each other and thought, “he’s saying that to us. We need to…” After hearing the Scriptures, they would begin to ask each other, “how are we going to follow these words of Jesus? What do you think we ought to do in light of what Jesus said?”
They did not conceive of being Christian as something that they did on their own when they left the church gathering. They did not consider their Christian discipleship as something separable from the community.
Grant Osborne rightly points out that:
Gombis notes that modern evangelicalism appears to have missed the point that the NT was aimed at a community, not an individual, and attempts to frame the NT as an individual-centric text miss the original intent:
...the final goal of hermeneutics is not systematic theology but the sermon. The actual purpose of Scripture is not explanation but exposition, not description but proclamation. God’s Word speaks to every generation, and the relationship between meaning and significance summarizes the hermeneutical task. It is not enough to recreate the original intended meaning of a passage. We must elucidate its significance for our day. Exposition means a Bible-based message, usually a series taking the congregation through a book like Isaiah or Romans. A topical message can be expository provided it asks, What does the Bible say about this issue? and then takes the congregation through what God’s Word says on that issue.
Grant R. Osborne, The Hermeneutical Spiral : A Comprehensive Introduction to Biblical Interpretation (Rev. and expanded, 2nd ed.; Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 2006), p 29
It will be left as an exercise to the reader to see how this spiritual narcissism has affected contemporary Christianity.
American evangelical Christian identity is completely shaped by individualism for a variety of really fascinating historical and cultural reasons. I’ve discovered that it’s almost impossible to pull people out of the mindset that considers the Bible as “God’s love letter to me.”