Sociologists sometimes talk about a person’s “spheres of life,” wherein one has a private life, a shared life with a small community (village, family, clan, etc.), and a sense of unity with a larger group (nation, ethnic group, etc.). Today, things aren’t that simple because of our vastly increased mobility – now one can belong to multiple communities (work, school, clubs, other hobbies) which don’t necessarily intersect much. But it can still be (over-)simplified back down to the “local community” category. Basically, the distinctions are as follows: the private sphere is the space in which an individual is most freely an individual, the local community sphere is where an individual interacts with others and seeks/establishes a sense of home, and the larger group sphere is where an individual though one’s local community derives a larger sense of shared identity on a grander scale.
This shows up in ancient Middle Eastern polytheism (well, probably in most polytheistic cultures?) in the form of patron deities. In the general course of life, an individual would interact with three categories of deities: their national god, their tribal/village/family god, and their personal god. The national god would generally be associated with the king (either through claims of divine ancestry, or just the king’s patron deity), and be treated as the god who protects the whole country. The family or village god would be a more localized version of that, and the personal god an individual version.
So, in the course of the Old Testament, Israel’s many instances of falling out with God were not so much cases of their ceasing to believe in Yahweh, but relegating him to being simply their national god. Sure, Yahweh was the God of Israel, but their flirtations with idolatry meant that they were accepting other gods alongside him in their worship and ordering of life.
Although we don’t live in a polytheistic culture today, the same type of problem remains very real to us. Too often it’s easy to “believe in God” and even acknowledge him as the Creator of everything, the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, yet we still hold back from submitting the entirety of our personal lives to him. In other words, we consider him the God of creation, and even the God of our local church, but we don’t make him our personal god. Employment status, money, human relationships, hobbies, or personal goals too easily become our personal patron gods in place of the one true God.
The opposite has also become a problem in today’s world: making God our personal god, but not acknowledging him as the God of all. This is the result of overblown individualism – “god is like this to me, but may be different to you.” It’s equally dangerous to the previous situation, because God isn’t being acknowledged as sovereign in all spheres of life. A generalized god who has no sovereignty in one’s personal life reveals a lack of a personal relationship with Christ wherein one can say “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.” A personalized god who is thought to have no bearing on the lives of others reveals a lack of appreciation for the covenant community where in one can say “Since there is one bread, we who are many are one body.”
As I am often wont to do, I tried to think about different traditions & denominations of Christianity that may lean one way or another on these challenges, but I could think of too many exceptions to the general trends I thought I could identify. Instead I’ve realized that this is an interesting extension to the question of how one becomes a Christian. A while ago, I spoke (and subsequently blogged) about how the roles of Baptism and regeneration should be considered in parallel to one another with respect to how one becomes a Christian, but now I see that these reflect some of the different spheres in which God needs to be sovereign.
1. One needs to accept God as the sovereign God of their individual life. This includes a personal conversion experience, faith commitment, or otherwise some form of individual affirmation.
2. One needs to accept God as the sovereign God of their faith community. This includes membership in a local parish/congregation so one can learn to use one’s personal gifts to build up others.
3. One needs to accept God as the sovereign God of the One Holy Catholic Apostolic Church. This includes being accepted into the fellowship of the apostles, and participating in the Church’s overall work of worship, edification, and mission.
As usual, I would say that a balance of these needs to be retained in order to promote a healthily holistic understanding of what it means to be a Christian, but when it comes down to it, you have to pick one as at least nominally on top, because people only get baptized once! When people get baptized tends to reveal which of these are the most important: believer’s baptism usually emphasizes the personal commitment, though in some places I suppose it could also be emphasizing the local congregation commitment, and infant baptism emphasizes the covenant community commitment (joining the universal Church). However, there are other ways to celebrate these various spheres of commitment besides Baptism: child dedication (assuming believer’s baptism), confirmation (assuming infant baptism), local church membership vows/commitments, and so on.
Anyway, I don’t intend on diving into a deep theological investigation of Baptism, Confirmation, and such from a sociological premise such as this. But it is a valuable frame of reference to realize the multifaceted relationship with God that we have: personal, in community, and through the whole Church. Too much or too little of any of these connections will unbalance our religion and threaten our faith. …huh, in other words, heresy. Wow, first time I’ve whipped out that strong word on this blog.