Individualism and the Communal Christ

When God made the cosmos and everything in it, we see the oft repeated phrase in Genesis 1 and 2, "it was good." It shows up seven times, and the final time the phrase shows up was when God surveyed all he made. Then, he saw that it was "very good." So in this pristine creation of abundant goodness it strikes one as strange that God declares something in the cosmos as "not good." What was "not good" wasn't the fact that evil was a possibility (as implied in the existence of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil), nor that God's enemy was allowed to slither around and mess with things. The one thing in all of creation that was "not good" according to the voice of God himself, was the aloneness of man - Individualism.

While it is true that each human person is unique, and that there is affection between Creator and each particular individual, our view of the importance of self – the inflation of the individual and the diminishing of the community - has certainly impoverished the theology of the western church.

Our language betrays the fact that we are among the most individualistic and possessive people on the planet. Westerners (and mainly Americans in my experience) say things like "my doctor," or "my pastor," or "my hairdresser," which, when you think about it, is a little weird; as if these people are owned, and live exclusively to serve me.

It is easier for those of us in the west to live alone than most anywhere else on earth. Extended family and community are woven into to fabric of most cultures in the world and only in bizarre circumstances would a person choose to live, or even be allowed to live, by themselves.

Among the poor it is unsustainable to live alone. Most of the poor live in close (some would say crowded) community. Even street kids live in community. As a matter of fact, one hundred and fifty years ago in America most of us were farmers and we, too, had a more developed sense of community. But In the modernized, privatized, Americanized version of Christian faith, we view decision-making, relationship, and journey with Christ through an almost exclusively individualistic lens.

The idea of Christ as "personal Lord and savior," is relatively new to Christianity; and as I travel about the world I find the phrase predominantly used in the west. The ancient Jewish people, as all ancient peoples, thought of themselves collectively, and their relationship to Yahweh was more communal than it was individual. Within the early church we see whole households (which likely included related as well as unrelated people) converting to Christianity together (Acts 11:14, 16:15, 31, 18:8, I Cor. 1:16). Paul also addressed entire households in his letters, not to mention writing to communities of believers meeting in a city or region. Most cases of the word "you" in the New Testament are plural (again the English language betrays the fact that we only have one word for "you,” mostly used in the singular, unless y’all are southern). And the descriptions in the Bible of the future glory of Christ with his Bride treat the church as a collective entity.

Each individual person needs to answer the question which Jesus put to his disciples, "Who do you say I am?" We must each stand as individuals before our Maker to some degree or other. And it is appropriate to get alone with God in our prayer closets. Even Jesus went off by himself to commune with his Father. But most of us in the west, myself included, have so constructed a privatized, individualized faith, that we have lost something of the communal nature of the Godhead. My conception of heaven, my understanding of salvation, and the idea of sanctification are almost exclusively centered on me as an individual. The Christ who taught us to pray “OUR Father” has a communal understanding of heaven so far as I can see from some of the Kingdom of God parables (which often dealt with a king and his people or a landlord and his stewards). And from the description of the collective Bride comprised a great throng of people from every language and ethnic group. The call to repentance in the New Testament was almost always addressed to communities or collections of people (like Pharisees, soldiers, tax collectors, scribes, the nation of Israel or the city of Jerusalem, in addition to other entire cities). And the idea of spiritual growth, holiness, righteousness and justice are almost always expressed in communal terms.

There’s a whole lot of “one another” terminology in the Epistles and Gospels and the concept of career or even education was rarely something as individualized as it is for modern westerners. TheThe idea of a singular person deciding on their own to become a singular missionary and going on their own to spread the gospel is relatively rare in the New Testament (Philip being wisked off is the exception. There were not "missionaries" by and large, there were wandering mission communities).

We are communal people, created by a communal Godhead – God-Christ-Holy Spirit. Even our western nuclear family construct (comprised of only parents and children – or in some cases parent and child) is a frightfully smaller circle than we find in the lifestyles described in Scripture. Our understanding of the Christian faith, of God, and of ourselves is drastically shaped by an individualistic worldview driven by the concept of ME and MY.

Only by submitting ourselves to the community of Father, Son and Spirit and intentionally fostering interdependent relationships; living, eating, and serving in larger groups than most of us in the west are used to, can we come to more fully understand the God who exists in community and calls whole communities of people into fellowship with the Three in One.

Comments

Great post, and thank you. Individualism is a plague. We as a family are only beginning to learn how to escape that way of thinking.

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