By Daniel Darling
I’ll never forget the bumper sticker I once saw affixed to a new neighbor’s car. At first, the bold print brought a smile: “Jesus Loves You.” Oh, good, another Christian in the neighborhood, I thought.
But then my eyes scanned below the bold lettering to the smaller, more ironic lettering underneath that read: “. . . but everyone else thinks you’re a jerk.” (I actually cleaned it up a bit for publication.)
It turns out my neighbor was a lapsed believer, estranged from the church. But there is something to be said about the theology of that bumper sticker. This crudely worded statement strikes at the heart of a kind of individualistic American Christianity. There is an idea that one can be in communion with God and yet be alienated from the rest of the human race.
Plural, Not Just Personal
Many of our gospel presentations appeal to the idea that salvation is personal. And it is. The phrase “God has no grandchildren” is not just a nice colloquialism. It has the benefit of being sound theology. The Scriptures teach us that salvation does not course through human bloodlines (John 1:12, 13), but is granted by God through the blood of Jesus (Ephesians 2:13). Salvation is a personal transaction between God and those who believe.
There is nothing wrong with speaking of faith as personal. Throughout the book of Psalms David speaks with personal pronouns. My God. My Creator. My Lord. There is an emotive, personal, emotional aspect of evangelical faith that’s healthy and important.
And yet salvation is so much more than an individual experience. Throughout his Word, God speaks of calling out a “people” (plural) for his name. Read through the Old Testament and you see God interacting, not just with individuals, but with people, Israel. And the New Testament is no different. Consider, for instance, the plural nature of the Lord’s Prayer. Our Father. Give us our daily bread. Forgive us as we forgive our debtors. Lead us not into temptation. Deliver us from evil.
Jesus’ model is intentional. We pray in community. It’s not simply about my bread and my debts and my offenses. I’m supposed to also care about the bread, spiritual vitality, and brokenness of my brothers and sisters in Christ.
But it’s not just Jesus who espouses this community dynamic. I’m amazed at how often the commands in the epistles, for instance, are given to a group, to a church, in the plural. We tend to read the imperative statements in Scripture as personal. But they are given plural, to a community of God’s people.
Filling the Void
Our tendency to individualize our faith is a result of our fallen nature, for as the Triune God exists in community between Father, Son, and Spirit, so we were created to not live alone. Sin pushes us either to seek community in unhealthy ways or to isolate ourselves away from the covenant community, the people of God.
Today we are tempted, ironically, to fill this need with hyper-individualized, choose-your-own-community interaction online, through social networking with peer groups of our own making. But Christ has redeemed us from ourselves, calling us to become a new people, to be joined into a new body, and to represent a new kingdom. It is uniting as people from every nation, tribe, and tongue into a beautiful new humanity.
Our calling to not live alone must shape the way we view our church experience. As Americans, we tend to seek a customized worship, a package of preaching, singing, services, and sacraments that perfectly suits our felt needs. But this is a kind of hedonism, the idolatry of self that masks itself as religious preference.
In the first century church, James, brother of Jesus and minister of the church of Jerusalem, called out this kind of religious hedonism:
“You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel. You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions. You adulterous people! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God” (James 4:2-4, ESV).
What is interesting about James’s rebuke is that he’s attacking hedonism within the church. We can see in churches today not just the kind of sensual behavior we assume is obviously sinful—sexual deviance or outrageous opulence. We can also see a kind of spiritual lust, a craving masked in Christian-sounding terms, an impulse to have church my way on my own terms.
James said to his readers that they desired and couldn’t have, so they murdered. We lust and can’t have, so we fight and quarrel. There is a spiritual violence that takes place among God’s people when we see church as the theatre for our own self-improvement rather than the place where we meet God and leverage our gifts and talents to serve his kingdom. We may not commit physical acts of murder, but we can kill gospel witness in a community if we have a “gotta have it my way” approach to church.
Do you go to church expecting everything to be exactly your way? And if it’s not, do you get upset, grumble, or spread gossip? Or do you take your ball and go home?
Pushing Past Preferences
American Christians have to fight this self-centric instinct. When I was a senior minister for five years, I saw this tendency in my own leadership—the desire to remake a church in my own image rather than allowing God to shape the church around his Word. I had to die to some of my deepest desires and set aside my preferences for the sake of the body.
And now as a lay leader in a church, I have to approach Sundays with fresh motivation to serve and not critique, to give back to the body and allow the body to shape me.
A church that conforms to everything I want it to be is not a church that will ultimately be a sanctifying experience. For we learn most from living in community, rubbing up against others with differing backgrounds, quirks, and struggles. Strong, deep, vibrant relationships are God’s instruments for chipping away at the flesh, his way of carving out the new nature he’s forming in us.
The things we dislike about the people we see on Sunday and interact with during the week may be the very grit God may use to help us to grow in character and mature in faith. They allow us opportunities to develop tolerance, patience, and grace. What’s more, we need to view our church community, not as place designed to meet our entitled needs, but as a people to serve, the bride for whom our Savior died.
When we reject the tendency toward individualism and instead live out our faith in the context of a local body of believers, we will create unity and embody, in small part, the values of God’s kingdom to come.
Daniel Darling is a freelance writer in Hermitage, Tennessee.
Quotes on Unified Community
“Has it ever occurred to you that one hundred pianos all tuned to the same fork are automatically tuned to each other? They are of one accord by being tuned, not to each other, but to another standard to which each one must individually bow.”
—A. W. Tozer
“The communion of the saints means, not a series of loosely related cliques, but an all-embracing and self-abnegating fellowship.”
—H. M. Carson
“Obedience is the road to freedom, humility the road to pleasure, unity the road to personality.”
—C. S. Lewis
“We are all in the same boat in a stormy sea, and we owe each other a terrible loyalty.”
—G. K. Chesterton
“He that is not a son of Peace is not a son of God. All other sins destroy the Church consequentially; but Division and Separation demolish it directly.”
“The ruin of a kingdom is a little thing in God’s sight, in comparison with division among a handful of sinners redeemed by the blood of Christ.”
—Robert C. Chapman