Muslim tribalism with the commitment of radical Islam to conquer the world has grown into a mighty, fearful and destructive world force.
Tribalism and the Individual in Ancient Israel
However, many have pointed out that the Bible presents us with a tribal orientation. Ancient Israel was a tribal society. I have noted in many writings that it is important to see life through the dimension of the corporate and not only the individual. We are called the Body of the Messiah and Yeshua is our head. The Spirit forms us into a covenant community with leadership described as a Body. We are part of one another (I Cor. 12-14). The New Covenant community is more than a collection of individuals. We must counter the radical individualism of many believers and the resulting fragmentation of the community. We seek to build lasting covenant community and to recognize and honor families and cultures.
Yet, having said this, it is crucial to note the development of a profound understanding of the place and worth of the individual in the Bible. The Bible brings the dimensions of the corporate-tribal and the individual into perfect balance. This is the foundation of Western liberties which are unknown in the Islamic world.
The first chapters of the Bible provide the foundation of this developing understanding. In Genesis 1:27-28 we read that Adam was created in the image of God. From then on, each individual bears the image of God. He or she has capacities analogous to God’s, for the function of ruling upon the earth. Adam makes an individual choice to rebel and his descendents share in his corruption. The New Testament says that there is one corporate humanity that is under the penalty of death in Adam. Yet the individual can transcend this evil and walk with God. Noah maintains an individually righteous walk in contrast to his society. Abraham is called and individually responds to God’s call. From him comes a new tribal nation, the people of Israel. The conscience of the individual with the gift of freedom can choose righteousness against family and tribal wickedness.
The corporate is again asserted in the passage on Achen. The nation suffers because of his sin. Yet, when the nation later falls into sin, individuals can still choose righteousness. Prophets are raised up, who stand individually against the evil nation. In fully tribal societies this is not possible. Indeed, in ancient nations, the King is the law. Today people question the depth of the corruption of the leaders of Palestinians or perhaps African or other Arab societies. The answer is in the prevailing idea that the tribal leader is free to take what he sees fit. A prophetic voice standing alone against the corporate reality of the nation and its corruption was unique to Israel.
Ezekiel 18 and Individual Judgement
The greatest statement on the importance of the individual with regard to justice in the Hebrew Bible is found in Ezekiel 18. The people quote a proverb,
“The fathers eat sour grapes and the children’s teeth are set on edge.”
The meaning is that the son is part of the father in his guilt or righteousness. However, God says,
“The soul who sins is the one who will die.”
Yes, there is a judgment of nations, families and tribes, but ultimately judgment is individual and the individual can transcend the corporate, if not in this life, then in the judgment of the Age to Come. Individual choice means that a wicked person can turn from wickedness and be accepted by God, and a righteous man can turn from righteousness and become wicked and be rejected by God. So in Torah, the son is not to be put to death for the father or the father for the son (Deut. 24:16). Contrast this to radical Islam today.
The Corporate and the Individual in the New Covenant Scriptures
The pages of the New Testament bring great balance. The Gospels emphasize the decision of the individual. Matthew 10 exhorts individuals to make a decision, to take up one’s cross and follow Yeshua. This will bring family and tribal division. Again and again, the individual is exhorted to abide in the vine (John 15), to persevere in faith, and to seek righteousness. Yet this abiding is done in a corporate context of community. Romans 10:9 states that if the individual,
“Confesses with his mouth that Yeshua is Lord and believes in his heart that God raised him from the dead, he shall be saved.”
In I Corinthians 3:16 we read that the corporate community is the temple or dwelling place of the Spirit, and the individual is warned of destruction if he defiles or destroys the corporate temple, for it is special and holy. In I Corinthians 6:19 the individual person is said to be the temple of the Spirit, and is exhorted to keep his temple pure! The Spirit dwells in the heart of the individual. The individual changes his corporate identity from Adam to Messiah by his decision. This decision is expressed in water immersion, which is a death and resurrection experience (Romans 5, 6) by which we are joined to the Body (I Corinthians 13).
I Corinthians 7:12-16 brings the corporate and the individual together in an amazing way. The believing spouse is exhorted to remain with the unbelieving spouse. A man or woman can make a separate decision for the Lord that is not followed by their spouse. Yet the unbelieving spouse and the children are said to be sanctified by the believing spouse. The hope is given that the unbelieving spouse will be won to the Lord.
Religious Liberty a Biblical Requirement
The conclusion is unavoidable. A Biblical understanding of the human person in the Image of God requires religious liberty and freedom of conscience. Freedom to think, seek, debate and persuade are crucial parts of this liberty. It is not a liberty to break God’s universal law which should guide all societies, but it is a liberty of conscience for conviction concerning one’s relationship with God and commitment to congregations.
The Western world has violated God’s law by making freedom the license to hedonism and sin. However, the Islamic world has rejected the freedom of conscience. A love relationship with God can never fully flower without the freedom of conscience to choose.
In Israel the issue is not fully settled. The orthodox and some secularists want to restrict the freedom of religion and the right to share in ways geared to persuade others. Some, without government or legal sanction, have persecuted Yeshua’s followers in Israel. At times government protection has been weak. Our liberty is part of our sacred humanity. We are a bold but tactful witnesses for Yeshua, and we ask for constant prayer that religious freedom may not be lost in Israel. Restrictions on religious liberty are a rejection of the sacred value of the individual conscience. To reject such freedom is a return to tribalism and bondage.