Middle Eastern societies are collectivist or group-oriented in their social structure. In social science the technical term for a group-oriented society is ‘dyadism.’ In the New Testament key characters usually identified themselves by their place of birth, the nation they belonged to, their clan or tribe, and their family. Their identity was related to the group they belonged to. If they were educated they would also identify the school they attended, for example, Paul was a student of Gamaliel (Acts22:3). When Paul testifies to his new collective identity in the body of Christ (1 Cor 12:12), he uses the term ‘family of God’ and calls the members of this family ‘brothers’ and ‘sisters.’ Personal identity and knowledge of this sort belong to a cultural world that is highly ordered and carefully classified so there is a place for everyone and everyone has their place. This cultural world is usually based on honour and shame values, and not to recognise a person’s place in the community is to potentially shame or dishonour them.
This way of knowing and being known flow from a complex set of social strategies. People who are part of these societies allow their identity and desires to be shaped by others. They learn to have a ‘conscience’ shaped by the views of others, and their evaluations, and judgements determine their duties from a collective description (1 Cor 8:7-13). Paul can instruct all to remain in the state in which they were called, even slaves to be obedient to their masters, because collective social cohesion is very important in a collectivist society. In this type of society individuals do not make claims about their identity, rather they listen to what others say about them: ‘Who do men say that I am? Who do you say that I am?’(Mark 8:27-29). Jesus, for example, never claims to speak of Himself, but as the one God has sent, as God’s agent (John 7:16; 14:10). Jesus has His identity revealed as part of the Trinity at His baptism by John the Baptist in the Jordan. Father, Son and Holy Spirit are the testifiers of their collective identity as One God. This collective, cultural thinking by Jesus helps answer the criticism that some level at Jesus that He never said He was God? He revealed His divine collective identity from the testimony of others.
Since honour is a public claim to worth and a public acknowledgement of that claim by others, the opinions of others hold a central place in this culture. To shame someone is to deny their identity. Once shamed there is little chance of restoration or a relationship when the person shamed has had their role on a collective attacked, and they are no longer part of the collective identity. The usual action of the shamed is to relocate to another collective where a new group can affirm their calling and role in the new collective and restore their honour.
Understanding the dynamics of a collectivist society helps us understand the challenge of apostasy. For a Muslim who leaves Islâm it is unthinkable that they can ever find a place of honour in another collectivist community and the former collective community sees the person as dead to the ‘conscience’ of the group/ummah and the kindest thing that can be done to them is to terminate their life. Certainly this shame can be converted into honour by the actions of the person or person who act on the collective conscience to end the life of the shamed person. However, honour is not attributed to the community for its action, because this deed would please Allâh.
Muslims who seek to become the followers of Isa (Jesus) while retaining their Muslim culture and values look for people who have adopted a group-oriented culture. Their new identity will be part of a group that is based on ‘knowing’ and ‘being.’ ‘Being’ is even more important to the Muslim than ‘knowing’ if they come from a Middle-Eastern culture, because it is the essence of their identity. The approval and acceptance of a group is very important to them. The Family of God and its practices and values in the Book of Acts are described in Acts 2 verse 42-47:
‘All the believers devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, and to fellowship, and to sharing in meals (including the Lord’s Supper), and to prayer. A deep sense of awe came over them all, and the apostles performed many miraculous signs and wonders. And all the believers met together in one place and shared everything they had. They sold their property and possessions and shared the money with those in need. They worshiped together at the Temple each day, met in homes for the Lord’s Supper, and shared their meals with great joy and generosity — all the while praising God and enjoying the goodwill of all the people. And each day the Lord added to their fellowship those who were being saved.’
This passage is a clear example of the outcomes of a collective culture. Generosity, hospitality, relational orientation, prayer, group approval and identity, and collateral security are evident in these verses that describe the early church.