But in the Christian universe, the individual is not the vital unit of ethical meaning. For Christians, the most basic images, metaphors, and signs are corporate, and the basic unit of ethical meaning is the Body, the community. Israel experiences covenantal fidelity as a people, and the People of God is a collective-not merely an aggregate of individual persons, each doing his or her own thing, but a body. In the Bible, God elects the People of Israel as a body. He sustains them as a body. And, finally, He redeems them as a body.
This talk about community is not mere metaphorizing. The community has a role in making ethics. Paul makes this clear when he instructs the Galatians to hold one another accountable for sin: “Brothers, if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently. But watch yourself, or you also may be tempted. Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.”
That passage in Galatians, if we construe it uncharitably, can lead us to envision a community that functions primarily as a police force: Christians’ responsibilities to one another begin and end with peering into other Christians’ bedroom windows and sounding the alarm if something illicit is going on. While one task of any community is to enforce its own codes when they are being violated, perhaps the prior task of the community is to make sense of the ethical codes that are being enforced. Here the community is not so much cop as storyteller, telling and retelling the foundational stories of the community itself, sustaining the stories that make sense of the community’s norms.
This storytelling is part of the working out of God’s grace in the church. We, the church, retell our own story-we do this every time we read scripture, every time we celebrate the Lord’s Supper, and (hopefully) every time we minister to one another. And that retelling is part of what enables us to live into the story. It is the community that ensures that ethics is not about the dispensing of cut-and-dried answers to moral questions, but that ethics is a story with meaning and power.
Sociologist James Hunter gets at this point in his study A Death of Character. Character-the making and sustaining of character-is a communal event, not an individual possession. Contra the psychologists, who would say that character accrues autonomously in individual people, Hunter shows that character is a social thing. Far from innate and purely natural, character is formed and learned in societies, and when the social prerequisites for character formation disappear, no amount of individual striving will culminate in character. “The story implicit within the word `character,”‘ writes Hunter, “is one that is shared. It is never just for the isolated individual. The narrative integrates the self within communal purposes, binding dissimilar others to common ends. Character outside of a lived community, the entanglements of complex social relationships, and their shared story, is impossible.”
Christians have to work hard to overcome the pervasive message that my sexual behavior is none of your business. Though we are willing to talk about sex from the pulpit, we are often less comfortable initiating hard conversations with our brothers and sisters about sex in people’s real, day-to-day lives. The Christian community senses that sex is a matter of communal concern, but we are hard-pressed to articulate exactly why. We have understandably absorbed the story our surrounding culture so forcefully tells us, trading our vision of community for American notions of individuals and free agents.
A story that my friend Carrie shared with me may illustrate. Carrie was two years out of college, living in Minneapolis in a funky, rambling Victorian with six other Christian women. Her boyfriend, Thad, lived down the block. Carrie and Thad were not having sex, but they were doing everything but having sex, including spending the night with each other regularly. And of course none of Carrie’s roommates knew for sure that they weren’t having sex-all they knew was that Carrie and Thad spent a lot of nighttime hours together in his apartment. But not one of Carrie’s roomies ever asked her a single question about what was going on behind closed doors. No one ever posed a loving inquiry, or a gentle rebuke, or even an oblique offer of an ear. Probably Carrie and Thad’s friends were simply made uncomfortable by the prospect of raising the tough issues of sex and chastity. They probably did not want to intrude, or seem nosy. But the Bible tells us to intrude-or rather, the Bible tells us that talking to one another about what is really going on in our lives is in fact not an intrusion at all, because what’s going on in my life is already your concern; by dint of the baptism that made me your sister, my joys are your joys and my crises are your crises. We are called to speak to one another lovingly, to be sure, and with edifying, rather than gossipy or hurtful, goals. But we are called nonetheless to transform seemingly private matters into communal matters.
Of course, premarital sexual behavior is just one of many instances of this larger point. Christians also need to speak courageously and transparently, for example, about the seemingly private matters of Christian marriage-there would be, I suspect, a lot fewer divorces in the church if married Christians exposed their domestic lives, their fights and tensions and squabbles, to loving wisdom, advice, and sometimes rebuke from their community. Christians might claim less credit-card debt if small-group members shared their bank account statements with one another. I suspect that if my best friend had permission to scrutinize my Day-timer, I would inhabit time better. Speaking to one another about our sexual selves is just one (admittedly risky) instance of a larger piece of Christian discipleship: being community with each other.
-Lauren Winner in Real Sex, p. 51-53.