Is Individualism in Christianity a Bad Thing? Part 4

Is Individualism in Christianity a Bad Thing? Part 4 May 3, 2023

Christian faith is BOTH community AND personal.
Christian Faith: Community and Personal. [Photos: Quintero. Also
This is Part 4 of a presentation on Christian individualism. In the first three sections I offered historical evidence of robust individualism in the first four centuries of church history. Although I am not defending individualism, I disagree with modern theologians who blame “western” culture for individualism in the Christian faith. The evidence shows that Christianity has always included a bias towards individual faith and practice.

In this conclusion I will offer some comments showing the balance between personal Christian faith and the life of the community. There are dozens of Christian writers through the centuries who could help us. I will use a text that is on my list of 20 books every Christian should read: Life Together by Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer – Life and Death of a Christian

Life Together by Dietrich Bonhoeffer
Image: | Life Together, Bonhoeffer

Bonhoeffer grew up in Eastern Germany, the son of an academic. At age 17 he entered the University of Berlin to study theology. In 1930 he joined the faculty. As Adolf Hitler expanded the powers of his government, the Lutheran Church of Germany began moving decidedly towards aggressive support of Hitler. In response, Bonhoeffer began to openly oppose the Nazi Party.

In 1935 he accepted a call to lead an underground seminary where he would train young men to lead Germany’s church after the fall of Hitler. He was eventually arrested, imprisoned and was hung in a military prison on April 9, 1945. His book Life Together was a record of what he learned and taught in the underground seminary. For many (including me) this book is his finest work. [Life Together, translated into English by John W. Doberstein (HarperCollins 1954), pp.9-13.]

Life in Community AND Life Alone

Bonhoeffer has a chapter titled “The Day with Others” followed by a chapter titled “The Day Alone.” These titles speak for themselves. He is presenting the dynamics of the Christian faith that must be lived personally AND corporately. Both are excellent chapters, but his comments from the “Alone” chapter are instructive with respect to Christian individualism.

Many people seek fellowship because they are afraid to be alone.
Because they cannot stand loneliness,
they are driven to seek the company of other people…
The person who comes into a fellowship because he is running away
from himself is misusing [the fellowship]…  p.76

The next section of the chapter has the heading, “Solitude and Silence.” This section is similar to the Desert Fathers we read about in Part 2. Bonhoeffer is urging the more zealous believer to “stay in their cell alone” to face their worst enemy: self.

The section opens,

Let him who cannot be alone beware of community.
He will only do harm to himself and to the community. [p.77 emphasis in the text]

Bonhoeffer follows this opening statement with some stark challenges about how we will all stand alone before God to give an account…“You cannot escape yourself…” [Ibid.] But then he gives a balance,

Let him who is not in community beware of being alone.
Into the community you were called, the call was not meant for you alone…
[Ibid., emphasis in the text]

The Christian faith is meant to be lived out alone AND in the community of believers. If you are overly dependent on being with others, you never face your most subtle enemy – SELF (“the flesh” or sarx in Greek).

Yet, if you are completely comfortable with being alone, you typically will also fail to face SELF. Nothing exposes our selfishness like being around others!

We do not have the space to investigate all the different factors for community AND solitude in this article. Personality types (which cannot be easily changed) also come into play: Extroverts are typically more inclined to be around others – they need to cultivate their faith in solitude. Introverts are typically more likely to enjoy being alone – they need to cultivate their faith in the community of believers.

In the end, the nature of Christian faith is personal. The individual must make choices for themselves.

Individualism in the Extreme

Priest praying alone in a church.
Photo: | cottonbro-studio. Prayer is sometimes peaceful, sometimes painful.

We have seen in Part 2 and Part 3 examples of how Christian individualism can become extreme. When a Christian is more comfortable being alone with an independent faith, it oftentimes comes from spiritual arrogance. This is why there are many rebukes for arrogance in the Sayings of the Desert Fathers (see Part 3).

The “One Another” Principle

In Part 1 I highlighted “allelous” [one another] in Paul’s letters. There are more than 24 times where Paul instructs us to live out “one another:” We find this principle 17 more times in the other New Testament letters:

Love one another…Honor one another…Encourage one another.

The Christian life is not meant to be lived out alone – it is meant to be experienced within a community of believers.

The Lone Ranger Christian

There are many Christians who choose to live out their faith mostly on their own. They are usually introverts, not as comfortable in crowds. I have several friends who maintain that they can be a Christian without attending “church.” These individuals are usually living out “one another” with their family and close friends. Their view of “church” is usually negative – there are too many things (or people) they do not like.

The danger of being a Lone Ranger Christian is that you are not being pushed and pressured to grow. It is too easy.

You cannot grow without change.
Change usually comes from pressure.
God uses others to pressure us.
Iron sharpens iron.

“One Another” is Individualism…Acting Towards “Others” in Community

Why do the biblical writers use “allelous” over 40 times? Because as individuals we are prone to take the easy way…to avoid change. We do not like being pressured, especially by others.

allelous = “one another”
“serve one another…”
“live in harmony with one another…”
“be devoted to one another…”
“do not judge one another…”
“love one another…”

The biblical text says to “honor one another above yourselves” because our tendency is NOT to treat others as better than ourselves. The text says that we must “love one another” because it is easier to ignore one another. The text says to “forgive one another” because it seems easier to hold a grudge and simply avoid being around that other person.

NONE of this is living the Christian life properly. Church IS often difficult because we ALL need of God’s grace. The Lone Ranger tries to avoid the very things God wants to use (like sand paper on a piece of rough wood) to smooth out character. God is pushing us to be MORE like Jesus. That usually means using sand paper…or a chisel!

It’s not about Theology

In Philippians 2 we have a famous text that has possibly received more commentary than any passage in the NT, the hymn about Jesus taking human form. This is one of the most important theological passages in the NT.

Look at how Paul introduces this hymn:

…being of the same mind, maintaining the same love, united in spirit,
intent on one purpose. Do nothing from selfishness…but with humility of mind regard one another [allelous] as more important than yourselves…
Have this attitude which was also in Christ Jesus…   Phil 2:2-5

Then we get the famous hymn about Jesus becoming a man and being obedient unto death. Now look at what Paul says AFTER the hymn:

So then, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed…
work out your salvation with fear and trembling…
Do all things without grumbling or disputing…  Phil 2:12-14

So perhaps the most significant Christological passage in the entire NT has “one another” bookends. The point of the hymn is not theology – it’s living out the faith with the attitude of Christ: allelous.

“So, What’s Your Point?”

This series has been presented to showcase how individualism has ALWAYS been part of the Christian faith – individualism was not introduced by Augustine, Luther, the Reformation, the “western” world or the USA. Christian faith has always been personal…and corporate.

It is interesting that the Apostle’s Creed begins “I believe” and continues in the first person throughout. The final paragraph is “I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic [universal] church, the communion (fellowship) of the saints.” So we have BOTH the individual confession AND the community of believers.

Finally, I will close with another Bonhoeffer citation,

One who wants fellowship without solitude plunges into the void
of words and feelings, and one who seeks solitude without fellowship
perishes in the abyss of vanity, self-infatuation, and despair.

 [Life Together, p.78]

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