Wednesday, September 27, 2006


America is known as being a land of "rugged individualists" who "pull themselves up by their own bootstraps." Movie heroes such as John Wayne epitomized the person who stood alone and took on their world.

But is that an accurate portrayal? Is individualism a good thing for our society? And even more importantly, is it a Biblical idea?

As for accuracy in portraying Americans as individualists, one would have to ask what time frame was being examined. When DeTocqueville came over from France to do his study of the United States in the early 1800's, he actually had to bring a word to describe "individualism," for it was starting to emerge here, but was so new we didn't have an accurate word to describe it in the English language. Prior to that time, people were typically known by their family. They were a part of a group larger than themselves, to which they owed allegiance and upon which their actions reflected. Individualism didn't really start taking hold until late in the 1800's.

But does it really matter? I would say it does. Individualism decreases some of the most important facets of societal life: the family and the community.

When families are collections of individuals without a familial identity and without a group allegiance, then they become entities that go in every which direction, burning their candles at both ends in attempts to please everyone and to give every child their launch to a successful "individual" life. As a Christian witness, they are ineffectual.

This problem with the family then spills over into the community at large. There is no commitment to the people of a community. There is no incentive to put up with someone's irritable personality for the sake of relationship...just move on! Everyone is doing their own thing. Woe be it to the community that suffers a catastrophe like Hurricane Katrina...or a terrorist attack. They no longer have the bedrock of relationship that would allow them to hold themselves together. Instead, they fall apart like so much dry clay...and then cry for the government to come in and pick up the pieces.

And it can also be argued that a lot of the issues in the culture war can be traced partially to a radical individualism that really came to fruition in the '50s. Judge Robert Bork wrote a compelling book in 1996 entitled, "Slouching Toward Gomorrah." His thesis was that the cultural problems of today could be traced back to two overarching cultural characteristics that came to a head in the 1950's: Radical Egalitarianism (the equality of outcomes rather than of opportunities) and Radical Individualism (the drastic reduction of limits to personal gratification). When you are part of any group (family, community, etc), limits to personal gratification come naturally because you have responsibilities to that group. If you want to be free from those limits, then you must break free from the group and do your own thing as an individual. I'll leave it to you to read the rest of the book...just know it's frightening reading.

What about the Bible? I can see it from a couple of perspectives. When it comes to salvation, the Bible is absolutely individualistic. Each person must come to a saving faith in Christ individually. No one is saved by virtue of membership in a group--racial, family, or otherwise.

But what about from a cultural perspective? I can't think of specific commands, but I can think of examples which would serve as a pattern. First is the culture of the original people of God: the Israelites and their Hebrew culture. That culture was based around family. Children were raised as part of that family, with the education usually coming from the family and culture handed down through the family. The second is the church as it was formed after Pentecost. Those people were from all walks of life. They needed each other. They had to minister to each other; monies were given to help those less fortunate. Paul reminds us using the illustration of the body, that all parts are required in order to function. That is the case with the church. We must help each other...and the only way to do that is to be in each other's lives. You can't do that as a bunch of individuals, even as a bunch of individuals who happen to meet together once a week as a small group.

We have to see ourselves first as members of our respective families with a single family direction. That family direction may make our family an "eye" or a "hand" or a "mouth" or a "foot." And then we must see our families as part of the larger group of the bride of Christ, preparing for the day of the wedding by adding our specialized direction to the church by actually being in each other's lives.

Neither of those will happen if we keep looking like a spiritualized version of the world. Being a family with a single direction that is then part of the church preparing for meeting our Bridegroom implies priorities that aren't currently at the forefront of most people's thinking. Both of those things imply a change of heart and an intentional change of direction from that of individuals to that of a Christian family...and a church.

And should both of those things come about...the pagans will see Christian love in action, for we will be known by our love for one another, which eventually spills out into the world. That's a far different witness than we now have...and what a spectacular witness that would be!

Praying for an end to individualism in the church....

(Note: I have added more thoughts as to how this plays out in the individual family over at my HomeDisciplingDad blog.)

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