The United States of America has a long history of embracing personal liberty and self-determination. From its pioneer spirit to its entrepreneurial energy to its capitalistic economy, America has been an immigrant magnet to those seeking an independent life. There appears to be a spirit here, even beyond our materialism and consumerism, of freedom and independence.
Fast forward two hundred thirty-six years from its founding and nearly every political debate in the USA today is essentially about the balance between our libertarian ideas of personal freedom and the role of central government in promoting the common good (or not so good). Where the balance lies in a democracy like ours, I will leave to the political types. My interest is what happens when the individualism so celebrated in our country enters the church. Quite frankly, it is a recipe for disaster.
The most common analogy for the church used in the New Testament is the physical body. “For even as the body is one and yet has many members, and all the members of the body, though they are many, are one body, so also is the body of Christ. For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body” (I Cor 12:12-13). The church – the body – is made up of many members and from the outside may look like any other affinity group such as a club, a political party, a bowling league, etc. But that is not the case. The church is not a group of like-minded people whose membership is based on some shared interest, talent, or skill. The church is so much more; held together by something much greater and more unique than having something in common.
The church is a body. “Now you are Christ’s body, and individually members of it” (I Cor 12:27). Why? “So that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. And if one member suffers, all the members suffer with it; if one member is honored, all the members rejoice with it” (I Cor 12:25-26). In short, as a body, the church is the antithesis of the hyper-individualism that is so prevalent in today’s America.
But this antithesis is rarely seen in practice. Instead, we listen to sermons in megachurches or on the Internet and process them in individualistic ways. In our “quiet time” we read the Bible by ourselves. We often carry out our Sunday morning assignments in the local church completely separated from adult interaction. Even our singing has become an individual worship experience since the music is so loud we can’t hear anyone else around us singing. Instead of being the antithesis, our churches have become a reflection of the hyper-individualism of our age.
What is the answer? The answer is for the church to be the body. In the physical body, every member is dependant on each other. There is no room for individual mandates among our body parts. The church is to operate the same way; a pattern Paul explains in I Corinthians chapter 12 in describing our roles and interdependency in the body of Christ. A pattern that I call “hyper-socialism”, the opposite of hyper-individualism. Putting it into practice is what the next several posts will be about.