INDIVIDUALISM AND THE CHURCH
By Will Graham
Individualism is rampant in today’s Western world. The post-modern man has burnt all bridges with the past, society and truth to embark on an egotistical quest of self-fulfilment and endless pleasure. His mindset declares: “To hell with responsibilities! To hell with giving an account for my actions! To hell with any type of moral restraint! I will live as I wish and you can do nothing about it!” Put bluntly: this modern individualistic man has become his own god.
Some historians have tried to trace this contemporary spirit of humanistic individualism back to the days of the Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth century. Nevertheless, when Martin Luther stood before the Diet of Worms in 1521, we witness a wholly different spirit in the man of God. It is true that his celebrated words are emphatically spoken in the first person: “Unless I am proved wrong by Scripture or by evident reason, then I am a prisoner in conscience to the Word of God. I cannot retract and I will not retract. To go against the conscience is neither safe nor right. Here stand I: I can do no other. God help me. Amen.” But notice that Luther’s individualism was neither an ego-centred nor a self-deifying attitude. Rather, Luther’s words were the overflow of one individual’s passion for God’s glory, the welfare of the Christian Gospel and the good of God’s people. In Luther’s individualism, there is no dash of irresponsibility. He lived for others. He knew the importance of community.
Due to the ghastly damage done by today’s godforsaken brand of secular individualism, that is, people going their own way (look at the divorce rates, prisons filled to capacity, faithlessness in all spheres of life, the amount of babies born out of wedlock, the multi-billion euro industry that hardcore-porn has become, etc.), it is no surprise that there is an aching need in today’s generation for communion and communication. The current global economic crisis hasn’t prevented the mobile-phone industry from booming as never before. Recent studies also show that the most popular websites are social networks. Once the church was emptied, stadiums, pubs and bars filled to overflowing. Man is a social being. He was created for communion. And yet he’s still not well within. He still feels alone. Planet Earth may have exceeded the seven billion inhabitants mark for the first time in world history; but modern humankind is lonelier than ever before. Nietzsche’s words have a spine-chilling prophetic tone to them: “One day will the solitude weary thee; one day will thy pride yield and thy courage quail. Thou wilt one day cry: I am alone!”
Nietzsche foresaw the spirit of individualism that was to fall upon our Western world because man had forsaken God and His church. Nietzsche himself wrote the church off as the “most mendacious” kind of State. But what else can harmoniously unite man to his fellow man? As Bible-believing Protestants, we do not do away with Christian individualism. We must know what it is to stand before God alone (just like Abraham, Moses, David, Jesus, Luther, etc.). But salvation has more than an individual aspect to it; it also entails a communal one i.e. if I know God then I can have fellowship with other brethren that know the Lord. Catholicism teaches that if you form part of the church, then you are saved. But biblical faith says it the other way around: I am saved therefore I form part of the church. Union with Christ is the presupposition of the church. A good friend of mine, Benjamin Galvez, recently wrote these words in his graduation thesis: “The man of God knows that if there is no relation with God in private then it is impossible to have a holy relationship with the rest of humanity or any other individual.”
The most powerful force we have in the universe to remedy contemporary individualism is called the church. The second-half of the twentieth century saw Christian scholars re-discover the emphasis that the New Testament puts on the church as koinonia (in Greek, ‘community, sharing, participation’). Various biblical metaphors point to this beautiful truth: the church as a vine, as the household of God or as the Bride of Christ. The church is a society in communion; a society for others. It is essentially a relational body in which Christ is manifestly present. In this sense the martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer famously defined the church as, “Christ existing as community.”
Koinonia tells me that we belong together; that we carry one another’s burdens; that we pray together, praise together, rejoice together and weep together. Koinonia comforts me that I am not alone in the vicious struggle against the world, the flesh and the devil. I have a family; I have a communal identity; I am one of God’s many children. So I no longer exist for myself; but for the good of the church. Do you remember how Paul put it? “For I am in a strait, between two, having a desire to depart and be with Christ, which is far better: nevertheless to abide in the flesh is more needful for you” (Philippians 1:23-24). This type of selfless Christian love promotes a warm, dynamic and vibrant faith that puts itself at the service of all others. And this type of selfless Christian love is what today’s lost generation needs.
The root of the church’s communal structure of unity-in-diversity is found in the Godhead. Our God is a Triune God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. From before the foundation of the world, the Trinity was in perfect communion and love. The Trinity reveals that God is an eternal community. It is not a hierarchical and tyrannical system whereby one divine person commands the others into submission but rather three divine persons in reciprocal love and eternal equality. This Triune God knows that twenty-first century man (created in His image) needs community and love. Therefore He has given us the church. This is revolutionary news for theology, for our churches and for the communities in which we live. The presence of God’s church in the world is a visible sign of grace and a continual witness to the death and resurrection of Christ as the healing force for all of humanity’s embittered individualism.