The Perils of Individualism

“I can do it myself ” was a favorite saying of both of our daughters when they were very young. “I can do it myself ” might mean tying shoes, gluing construction paper, or eating an ice cream cone. Sometimes they could do it themselves. Sometimes they needed a little help, like with tying their shoes (except for those wonderful shoes with Velcro) or eating an ice cream cone (lest the ice cream wind up splattered on the kitchen floor). Their insistence on doing everything themselves was a necessary stage in their development—a stage I appreciate now that they are grown.

“I can do it myself ” is also the Western and American ideal. America as a nation was formed out of a passion for freedom and independence, so these values are deeply ingrained in our consciousness: independence, autonomy, individual rights and freedom, and the right to privacy. Many of us in America swell with pride when we hear these words.

The concepts of freedom, autonomy, and independence fit well with the Protestant principle of the priesthood of all believers and the right of the individual to interpret Scripture, as well as with Baptists’ emphasis on soul competency and autonomy of the local church. Soul competency means that each individual Christian is responsible and accountable to God to listen and think, study the Bible, pray and discern God’s will, and act according to freedom of conscience. Soul competency was a reaction to authoritarianism and corruption in the church and state. The idea of soul competency can be helpful when the majority says, for example, “Slavery is an acceptable institution condoned by the Bible and God,” or “Women should not be allowed to vote since the Bible says they are to be in submission to men”—both views that at some time in our history have been held by the majority of church members. Soul competency says that Christians are responsible to follow God and not to blindly follow the majority.

Thus, it is understandable that individualism would come to hold a place of honor both in the nation and the church. However, could it be that by putting so much emphasis on the individual, we have come to neglect Christian community? Jesus said, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” and “I am the vine and you are the branches.” He gathered around himself a community of disciples. Paul refers to the church as one body—the body of Christ (1 Cor 12). Peter uses these lofty terms to refer to the church: “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, holy nation, and God’s own people” (1 Pet 2:9). The emphasis in the New Testament is on the community as a whole more than on the individual. Yet when many of us read the New Testament, we tend to hear it speaking to us as individuals rather than speaking to the community of faith. A “me first” approach to life, prevalent in our society, has crept into the church and in some cases has even been affirmed by the church as gospel. From this perspective, the Christian journey is seen almost exclusively as a personal one. We read the Bible alone and form our own interpretations. Even when we gather for worship, we do so as a collection of individual Christians seeking inspiration and food for the soul to help us in our personal walk with Christ. Corporate (or community) confession is, in some places, a foreign concept, since confession is a private matter between me and God and is no one else’s business. A page on a Baptist website offers a statement that perhaps many Christians would endorse: “We affirm soul competency, the accountability of each person before God. Your family cannot save you. Neither can your church. It comes down to you and God.” From the point of view of individualism, we are completely on our own when it comes to salvation and our relationship with God.

A 1997 document titled Re-envisioning Baptist Identity: A Manifesto for Baptist Communities in North America makes a strong case for community against what the authors believe has been a harmful form of individualism often practiced in the church. Written by theologians and church historians, and signed by a number of other professors, professional ministers, and laypeople, the manifesto challenges some assumptions held by many Baptists and other Christians. They write that a mistaken path is taken by those “who would sever freedom from our membership in the body of Christ and the community’s legitimate authority, confusing the gift of God with the notions of autonomy or libertarian theories.” They contend that many of our ideas about individualism, freedom, and autonomy are more cultural (and modern) than biblical and need to be balanced by a more communal approach to studying Scripture, discipleship, the life of the church, the use of baptism, preaching, the Lord’s Supper, and the resistance of the church to worldly powers. The Baptist manifesto is a much-needed counterbalance to individualism.

The following story illustrates the folly of placing too much emphasis on individual self-sufficiency and also highlights the value of community: The Smiths (not their real name) were victims of a major flood in our area—a flood so widespread that it ravaged homes that had never before been flooded. Fifteen families of the church where I served experienced major water damage. The tasks that must be performed to save a home after a flood can be overwhelming. Furniture and other household items must be placed outside to dry, mud and water removed, wet drywall and insulation stripped, and carpet removed, just to start. All of this needs to be done as quickly as possible to prevent dangerous mold and mildew from growing. Thankfully the church community responded heroically, working many hours to help their fellow church members and others in the county.

In checking on our flooded church families, I knocked on the Smiths’ door. Mr. Smith opened the door only partway. I offered the help of the church community. “Can we help you with flood cleanup?”

“No thanks. We can take care of it ourselves,” he answered.

I was stunned by his refusal. Every other family was desperate for any kind of help they could get. The Smiths were an elderly couple who could not possibly take care of the damage themselves. I cringed at the thought of what was going to happen to their furniture, belongings, and home as it remained soaked behind closed doors. I asked again, “Are you sure we can’t help? Many of your church friends are ready to help and have been helping other church members already. They’d be more than happy to help.”

“No, we’ll be okay,” the man repeated, and then he quietly closed the door on his church community.

The flood was a tragedy, no doubt, but out of the flood came a deep experience of Christian community for those families who were flooded and the church family that came to their aid. We realized just how much we needed each other. A week of flood relief efforts culminated in a Sunday evening worship service. Prayers were offered, praises were sung to a God who cares when we are hurting, and flood victims and flood workers shared tearfully of how much the experience brought them closer together and closer to God.

Sadly, the Smiths had no part in this experience though they had been active members of the church for years. This extreme example, for me, exposed the idea of total self-sufficiency not as a heroic ideal but as something stubborn, prideful, silly, and destructive. We cannot live the Christian faith in isolation. Too much emphasis on the individual can keep us from fully experiencing community as God intends. Being a part of a community is not just about giving; it’s also about receiving. Or we might say that one gift we can give our neighbors is to allow them to help us.

This post originally appeared in Chapter One of Being a Disciple Community: Loving God and Neighbor by Keith Stillwell.

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