Individualism and Jesus

As we continue to think about God’s path, there is a tendency I think we have. Our tendency is to ask what God might have for us individually as though we are to be promoted in some way as a result of God’s leading. We have individualized the Christian faith to a dangerous extreme. This is modeled by prosperity preaching, the emergent church, the seeker sensitive movement, and much of popular Christianity. We assume that we are somehow capable of living the Christian life as a lone wolf, and when we think about what God’s path might be for us, we rarely think of others being around or with us as we take each step. We have taken “personal relationship with Christ” to mean something that, I am convinced, it has never and will never mean. We exalt the personal experience, we emphasize the personal walk with Jesus, and we even individualize ministry like it is some sort of consumer good (hiring employees to do the work of ministry that we might be served).

When I recognized that God wanted me to be a pastor, around the age of 16, my first thought was that I was going to be the greatest pastor the world had ever seen! I would be famous! I would be put on television! I would make a difference! How incredibly laughable. How prideful and pompous of me. How prideful when a single local church thinks that it is the best local church or when we think, individually, that we are better Christians or ministers than others.

When we think about the path that God has for us, we have to ask whether we just want God to promote us, or whether we are truly seeking to walk with God. The way that we think about community will have a huge impact on our church environment, on our homes, on our communities, and as we seek to influence the society and culture around us.

Joshua 1:10-18 HCSB

Then Joshua commanded the officers of the people: “Go through the camp and tell the people, ‘Get provisions ready for yourselves, for within three days you will be crossing the Jordan to go in and take possession of the land the Lord your God is giving you to inherit.’”

Joshua said to the Reubenites, the Gadites, and half the tribe of Manasseh: “Remember what Moses the Lord’s servant commanded you when he said, ‘The Lord your God will give you rest, and He will give you this land.’ Your wives, young children, and livestock may remain in the land Moses gave you on this side of the Jordan. But your fighting men must cross over in battle formation ahead of your brothers and help them until the Lord gives your brothers rest, as He has given you, and they too possess the land the Lord your God is giving them. You may then return to the land of your inheritance and take possession of what Moses the Lord’s servant gave you on the east side of the Jordan.”

They answered Joshua, “Everything you have commanded us we will do, and everywhere you send us we will go. We will obey you, just as we obeyed Moses in everything. And may the Lord your God be with you, as He was with Moses. Anyone who rebels against your order and does not obey your words in all that you command him, will be put to death. Above all, be strong and courageous!”

God designs community

As we think about this part of God’s story, we might notice that as God works all things together for His own glory, He is not using just one man or another. He puts together a community of people through whom He accomplishes the plan that He has set forth to accomplish and there is no boasting for any one person or any one local church. In this story God has regenerated the hearts of Caleb and Joshua, giving them new spirits that enable them to obey Him (Numbers 14). He has also used the sinfulness of the previous generation as an example for this generation of promise (Numbers 14:33). The result for the generation of promise is that God has raised a leader and a community together for His own purposes. The leader, Joshua, is not more important than the rest of the community. The rest of the community has just as much responsibility to follow after God as does their leader. What we are left with is a path where people are not exalted, one above another, but who fill different roles given to them by God in a kingdom that God is building for His own glory. Joshua is committed to the people and the people to Joshua in a way that only God can induce. The pathway that God had thoughtfully prepared for His people was not Joshua’s alone. It was not any one person’s pathway. It was God’s pathway prepared for His people and His people walked that path together.

This is why someone who is called to pastor needs a good, genuine church. It is why a genuine church needs someone who has been gifted and called by God to pastor. It is why we consider the pastor of the church not to be just an employee to do the work of ministry, but part of the family who fills a certain role according to the gifts that God has given and according to his role as defined in Scripture while everyone else is also filling a role according to the gifts that God has given. It is why I personally support the plural eldership in the local church, so we don’t just have one individual pastor, but a community of pastors shepherding God’s flock with one lead pastor who leads but is co-equal with the others, so as not one man can boast in the whole of the community of faith.

If we are not convinced just by the story of Joshua, we remember that Moses could not enter the promised land because the first generation would not follow and because of His own sin. Paul had a sending church, financial support from churches, and missionary teams that he worked with to plant churches. Peter was not the only one preaching on the day of Pentecost. Jesus did not even walk alone. While there is an individual aspect as we walk God’s path (the role that we fill in the community and the specific tasks we get to carry out within the community), the individual part of our walk does not exist outside of community. If we are not walking with God as part of a community, I am convinced that we are not walking with God at all.

We might even think upon the nature of God and do a little philosophizing. God exists, Himself, in perfect community. He is the eternal Father, the eternal Son, and the eternal Holy Spirit. He is entirely satisfied in and of Himself. He did not create people so that He would have companionship. I find that concept to be nonsensical. For His own glory, He created people, man and woman together in Genesis 1-2, in His image. Even in the creation, people were created in community and, in community, were the image of God.

Hyper-individualism mocks God’s design and is not good for us. In 2013, the New York Times published an article that shows the correlation between suicide and loneliness, even referring to suicide as the “crime of loneliness.” The article claims, “That’s exactly what we’ve seen happen lately among the middle-aged male population, whose suicide rates have climbed the fastest: a retreat from family obligations, from civic and religious participation, and from full-time paying work.” We were designed to be a thriving part of godly community. To think that we can somehow be good Christians or bear God’s image or walk the path that God has thoughtfully prepared on our own is to think, like Adam and Eve in Genesis 3, that we are capable of living well outside of God’s design. To say, “I can love Christ and not love the Church,” is to really say that we just want the benefits Christ offers without actually sharing in Him or submitting our lives to Him. It doesn’t work. To say, “What service does this church or that offer for me,” or “I need to be visited every week,” or “What will the preacher say to make me feel good about myself today,” or “I am not coming to this church because I don’t like the style of music,” is buy into this consumer driven, individualistic form of Christianity and it is not compatible whatsoever with genuine, biblical Christian faith (a faith that God gives by grace).

Together is the only way we can walk God’s path.

God enables community

Together, then, let us consider some of the results of our sinful and depraved condition. We experience an unrighteous form of anger. We are prideful in ourselves. We become self-centered. We give in to wrongful jealousy. We can be greedy. Even secular society recognizes these attributes as being evil in their most basic form. Anger disconnects us from people. Pride causes us to raise ourselves up. Self-centeredness causes us to neglect the needs, the vision, and the desires of others. Jealousy causes us to belittle or condescend others. Greediness causes us to take for ourselves, expect for others to serve us, and strive for our own comfort. Sin pulls us from community. It pulls us away from meaningful, committed relationships. It brings about loneliness. Hyper-individualism, then, is a result of sin. All of the sudden, the salvation that God offers collides so violently and relevantly with our lives here and now. In receiving a new heart that only God can give, He enables us to live in genuine brotherhood and sisterhood. He enables genuine community in the home and in the workplace. Before we can become a member of a genuine community, we first must experience God’s saving grace.

In Acts 2 and following we witness the New Testament church always living in community. Believers lived in fellowship with other believers (not only on Sunday morning). Churches associated with other churches in fellowship and partnership for the gospel. We even see churches coming together and forming a council to deal with doctrinal issues according to Scripture (Acts 15). There is no instance in all of Scripture where God requires one person to walk his path alone or where one church is separated from other churches. This just makes sense. If God works all things together for His glory and no person or local church is better than the others, then the only independent being is God because He is the only non-contingent being, and still He exists wholly in community by Himself. As we notice this trend in the Scriptures, we must ask some very serious questions as individuals and as local churches.

What about individual soul liberty and local church autonomy? Scripture would indicate that we are accountable before God alone. This is the basic concept of individual soul liberty. I am free to make moral decisions according to my own conscience and God will be my judge. Scripture would also indicate, regarding individual soul liberty, that if my brothers and sisters see me breaking the law of God, they have a responsibility to come to me and, gently and lovingly, point out in the Scriptures exactly how I am acting as God’s enemy (Gal.6, James 5:16, Luke 17:3, Mat. 7:3-5, etc…) This is community. It is genuine accountability. It draws out a need for honest discussion, for regenerate church membership, and for the gracious practice of church discipline. So, too, local churches exist in community for the sake of biblical accountability. If an association does not lovingly and gently help a local church passed her sins, then the association exists without much fruit for the gospel. If a convention or council of churches is not defining doctrine and correcting false teaching, then it also exists without purpose.

What of local church autonomy? In Scripture, we see local churches operating as autonomous congregations even though they were associated with one another and all under the teaching of the apostles. So, we see a model described. The local churches are autonomous, but not separate. They exist in associations with one another, in community, for the sake of the gospel, of accountability, and of the unity of the faith.

Sin separates, grace gathers.

God values community

We are not going to be able to follow the path that God lays for us if we are not committed to godly community.

God values community, so we find our value in godly community.

As we continue to consider community, I want to observe a few other passages of Scripture together with you:

1 Corinthians 12:12-31

For as the body is one and has many parts, and all the parts of that body, though many, are one body — so also is Christ. For we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body — whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free — and we were all made to drink of one Spirit. So the body is not one part but many. If the foot should say, “Because I’m not a hand, I don’t belong to the body,” in spite of this it still belongs to the body. And if the ear should say, “Because I’m not an eye, I don’t belong to the body,” in spite of this it still belongs to the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be? But now God has placed each one of the parts in one body just as He wanted. And if they were all the same part, where would the body be? Now there are many parts, yet one body.

So the eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” Or again, the head can’t say to the feet, “I don’t need you!” But even more, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are necessary. And those parts of the body that we think to be less honorable, we clothe these with greater honor, and our unpresentable parts have a better presentation. But our presentable parts have no need of clothing. Instead, God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the less honorable, so that there would be no division in the body, but that the members would have the same concern for each other. So if one member suffers, all the members suffer with it; if one member is honored, all the members rejoice with it.

Now you are the body of Christ, and individual members of it. And God has placed these in the church:

first apostles, second prophets,

third teachers, next miracles,

then gifts of healing, helping,

managing, various kinds of languages.

Are all apostles? Are all prophets?

Are all teachers? Do all do miracles?

Do all have gifts of healing?

Do all speak in other languages?

Do all interpret?

But desire the greater gifts. And I will show you an even better way.

The pastors, deacons, and members of the church? What do we insinuate about God when the church hires employees to do all the work of ministry? How is a church community to fit together? How might God reveal His path as we strive for this sort of model? God has given each person a gift. You want to know your place in God’s kingdom? Consider the gifts that God has given you. Consider the passions and the dreams that you have. God did not give you those gifts, passions, and dreams without reason. Use those gifts, passions, and dreams to serve in godly community as we pursue the goal: God’s glory. As local churches, we tend to make things all about us, even defining positions and trying to fill those positions as defined by us. Wouldn’t it be simpler, more effective, and more God-honoring if we eliminated all of the positions that we think we need to fill and just let people serve according to the gifts that God has given? After all, God knows what He is doing! He will accomplish much more than we ever could as He builds His own church. If we just place people in positions to do the work of ministry as we have defined it, we insinuate that God is not the great gift giver and that He is incapable of preserving and establishing a local congregation that He has brought together for His glory and the good of those who love Him.

How are local churches to relate to other local churches in community? The local church is not the end, God’s glory is. Each genuine local church is one gear in the church that God is building for His own glory. So, we should associate and form conventions and councils, so long as each local church maintains her autonomy under the Lordship of Christ (no hierarchical government like a presbytery or the papacy). It is difficult to honor God if we are trying to walk the path that God has thoughtfully prepared on our own. In fact, it is unbiblical to do so.

Hebrews 10:23-25

Let us hold on to the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful. And let us be concerned about one another in order to promote love and good works, not staying away from our worship meetings, as some habitually do, but encouraging each other, and all the more as you see the day drawing near.

We resolve not to stay away from our worship meetings because God values community. In community we get to promote genuine love and good works, encouraging one another in the faith, and showing that God is ever-faithful. These things don’t happen outside the context of community because we are not convicted by the preaching of God’s word, we are not accountable to anyone else, and we cannot share our burdens with our faith family.

Again: God values community, so we find our value in godly community.

Proverbs 27:17

Iron sharpens iron,

and one man sharpens another.

If we are not committed to community, we simply will not be sharpened. Let us strive for community. Let us reject hyper or hard-individualism. Let us be a picture, together, of God’s faithfulness on this path that He has thoughtfully prepared for us. We plug into a genuine church and use our gifts to serve the Lord. We do not come to be served, entertained, or to remain comfortable. We live in community with other genuine local churches as partners, not competitors. To God alone be the glory.

Together is the only way we can walk God’s path.

Sin separates, grace gathers.

God values community, so we find our value in godly community.

______________________________________

Note: A hierarchical church government would not necessarily be a terrible thing and is not explicitly forbidden in the Scriptures, so long as the presbytery maintains Scripture alone as its ruling document and forsakes not the genuine Gospel of Christ, which is given by grace and received by faith.
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