Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Individualism & Ecclesiology

If speaking about individualism, most commentators point out its effects on evangelical ecclesiology. Individualism infects people and the structures or communities they inhabit. The church may then be seen as a collection of individuals, but also as individualistic communities bearing the same tendencies of individualistic persons.[1] So central is individualism to contemporary assessments of evangelical ecclesiology, even the definition of individualism in The Pocket Book of Theological Terms, explicitly points to its effects as a lack of “sufficient emphasis on the believer’s relationship with and responsibility to the larger faith community of the church.”[2]

If salvation is through a personal relationship with Jesus what makes it personal? To have a personal relationship with anyone requires them to have a body. In one rather stretched sense we can have a personal relationship with Jesus because of his incarnation. Yet since the ascension, Jesus and his body are not visibly around. What we do have, we do have is Christ’s body the church. Perhaps we need to reclaim the physicality of the phrase by referencing the church. To say that we have a personal relationship with Jesus means to have a living relationship where we can actually bump elbows with others as his body within the church.
The physicality of a body of believers suggests a deeper understanding than a purely privatized individualistic religious conversion or personal Christological spirituality. Certainly both the visible and invisible have their theological potentials. And certainly the invisible church with its emphasis on connecting believers to the “cloud of witnesses” and historical church is a wonderful corrective to overcome the amnesia of the modern church. However, a one-sided emphasis on the invisible church seems to allow the privatized faith and Gnostic tendencies of evangelicalism to flourish. The invisible church is an incorporeal reality that has no witness to the world. Where religion is relegated to the private and invisible sphere, it is sapped of its witness in the world. Christ is made into a spiritualized figure for individuals rather than being Christ’s physical embodiment into the world. The internal must be made external. The intangible must be made tangible. The embodied church inhabits social space and places in particular and engages the world by making Christ present in its beliefs and practices within the world.[3] Without the emphasis on the visible church, the private self will seek public expression through the only “valid” physical expression: the state. Individualism, says Craig A. Carter, comports well with theocracy…which serves as the guardian to individual rights.[4] Without strong visible communities, will naturally connect their “welfare with the nation-state that make the pursuit of self-fulfillment possible.”[5] But a visible or tangible collection of people is not enough to constitute the church either. Grenz suggests that the visible church in the hands of individuals “becomes an aggregate of the individual Christians’ ‘contract’ with each other to form the society of Christians.”[6] It seems that individualism cuts off communication of the Church at both ends: keeping individuals away from authoritative groups and contractualizing its nature when people choose to enter in.

Community is a buzzword these days in the church and is often proffered as the postmodern cure for individualism. The church is often called a community, a loving group of people committed to living out the ways of Christ and committed to each other. These are good things. Small groups, or perhaps even accountability groups, are for many the most intimate expression of the church, and have exploded across the nation and around the world. Often the community and small group explicitly offered as a counter to the loneliness of radical individual. Again this can be a good thing. Yet, I worry that there is confusion between the means and the ends. Construing the church as a cure for anything is a distortion of its purpose; whereas a gathering of the true church will inevitably bring about such effects.

Several theologians dealing with ecclesiology have utilized Bellah’s “lifestyle enclave” to describe the state of ecclesiology. Rooted in self-expression, leisure, consumption, and a retreat into the private life the lifestyle enclave is most basically an exclusive group of like-minded individuals who have no deeper connections to each other beyond self interests. Each enclave is a social contractualism in agree to put aside certain rights and enter into a group setting but still with individual goals clearly in mind. Micheal Jinkins suggests that this voluntary contractualism is a “two-edged sword” for Protestant ecclesiology. Positively, it offers a certain liveliness in a distinct evangelical piety. Negatively, points to the exclusivity and “spirit of schism” so prevalent in Prostestantism.[7] While there are a few positives of the contractualist society such as the lively spirituality of evangelicalism, however participation in such a group more likely reflects personal preferences of the expressive individualist than commitment to a larger community.
Recalling Miroslav Volf again suggests that a community of individuals does not make an ecclesial “we.”[8] To some extent, modernity’s individualism is only recast on a slightly larger scale and renamed “community.” This collective individualism still suggests the priority of the individual to choose which commitments and when to retract ones commitments to a particular group. The church is still considered a voluntary association that does not necessarily entail submission to or even acknowledging the collective authority.

The church is condensed to individuals who gather to worship and celebrate their personal relationship with Jesus. Camaraderie among peers is not enough. Meeting the emotional needs is not enough. Both suggest Bellah’s therapeutic tendency and the lifestyle enclave. While fellowship of believers is a key to the churches existence, it cannot be the explicit goal.
As human nature needs to be rooted beyond itself in the Trinity, so should our ecclesiology. An inward looking community of inward looking individuals has not fully experienced the hospitality of God. Rooted in the Trinity the church, like Christ sent to rescue the world, is also sent into the world.

[1] I have wondered for sometime to what extent does free-church ecclesiology reflect American individualism. This is one question I wanted to explore in the project which has grown well beyond my expectations. But it seems from initial impressions that they often model the same tendencies of individuals at the associational level.
[2] Stanley J. Grenz, David Guretzki, and Cherith Fee Nordling, “Individualism” in Pocket Dictionary of Theological Terms, (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 1999), 66.
[3] William A. Dyrness, “Spaces for an Evangelical Ecclesiology,” in The Community of the Word: Toward and Evangelical Ecclesiology, ed. Mark Husbands & Daniel J. Treier (Downers Grove, IL: IVP), 254-260.
[4] Craig A. Carter, “Beyond Theocracy and Individualism: The Significance of John Howard Yoder’s Ecclesiology,” in The Community of the Word: Toward and Evangelical Ecclesiology, ed. Mark Husbands & Daniel J. Treier (Downers Grove, IL: IVP), 174.
[5] Carter, 174
[6] Grenz, 314. Evangelical Futures
[7] Michael Jinkins, “The ‘Gift’ of the Church: Ecclesia Crucis, Peccatrix Maxima, and the Missio Dei” in Evangelical Ecclesiology: Reality or Illusion?, ed. John G. Stackhouse Jr., (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003), 181-183.
[8] Volf, 10.
[9] Hans Boersma, Violence, Hospitality, and the Cross: Reappropriating the Atonement Tradition (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2004), 209.
[10] Boersma, 211.
[11] Mark Driscoll, The Radical Reformission: Reaching Out Without Selling Out, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004), 81-82. Driscoll is often lumped in with the Emergent but he would distance himself from that group and the subtitle is likely a shot in their direction.
[12] Boersma, 210.