Life together

By Steve DeNeff

Decades of embracing individualism have subverted true community in the church.

In 1832, a 26-year-old aristocrat boarded a ship headed for America. He wanted to study the American penal system but after arriving, noticed other things. For nine months he took voluminous notes, categorizing them. When he returned to France, Alexis de Tocqueville climbed to the attic and wrote what would become a literary classic, "Democracy in America."

Mr. Tocqueville was enamored with this new “society formed of all nations … without a national character yet a hundred times happier than (his) own.” Yet he noticed a pervasive flaw he called, “a new idea … an erroneous judgment … a defect of the mind.” It was “unprecedented,” he said. There was no word for it, so he invented one: individualism. Individualism first appeared in English through translation of his work. It wasn’t a compliment.

Every idea we have of community is a threat to genuine community if it doesn’t begin with Christ.

Individualism was like a virus, weakening all virtues. He called it, “a calm feeling which disposes each citizen to isolate himself from his fellow creatures and to draw apart with his family and friends; then, with this little society formed to his taste, he willingly abandons the greater society to look after itself.” When it doesn’t pull us apart from community, it causes us to use the community for our purposes, judge that community by whether it’s met our expectations. If it doesn’t, we disengage and move on.

Oddly enough, the Americans didn’t see this as a sickness. Instead, they celebrated it. Ralph Waldo Emerson, writing at the same time as Mr. Tocqueville, noted in his famous essay “The American Scholar”that a “sign of our times, … is the new importance given to the single person.” Mr. Tocqueville worried about these traits; Americans were leaning into them.

In their defense, Americans came by it honestly. Ever since that day in the garden, we’ve lived separated from God and each other. The gospel is that God’s reconciled us to himself and then to others in the body of Christ.

This gospel is prominent in all of Paul’s letters but especially in Ephesians. There, Paul weaves together two important themes.

We’re immersed into the life of Christ. We’re “blessed in him” (Ephesians 1:3, NIV), “chosen in him” (1:4), “forgiven” and “redeemed” through him (1:7). We’re “included in Christ” (1:13), then “raised with Christ” and “seated us with him in the heavenly realms” (2:6). This is true for every believer, yet for the last 50 years the church’s message — while seeking to grow and evangelize — has been something else. We speak of “accepting Christ” as the doorway into salvation, yet the emphasis in Paul’s gospel is of Christ accepting us. Individualism perverts the gospel by making it mostly about us, turning us into consumers and reducing Christ to value-added for our lives.

We’re joined to Christ through his body. Paul uses “body” 11 times in this letter. The church, he says, “is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way” (1:23). Jesus lives in and through the church and from there extends himself to the world. This body isn’t just a community we belong to; it’s also the way we belong. The body is how we connect to Christ.

Today our society is more polarized than ever. Conversations are highly combustible. Institutions are under threat. We must awaken to what individualism has done to our faith, communities, especially our churches. We must repent, Christians, and practice a better way. It starts by taking Paul seriously and “not looking to your (our) own interests but each of you to the interests of others,” (Philippians 2:4). We must immerse ourselves into something bigger than ourselves and there, we find ourselves. As the African proverb puts it, “I am because we are.”

What implications does this have for the way we engage our churches? If we’re joined to Christ in and through his body, then we should join the community we attend because, according to Paul, we already have. In fact, we can hardly belong to Christ apart from it. What good is our belief in the universal if it’s not expressed in the particular? What access do we even have to the church we believe in apart from the one we attend? Who do we think Paul had in mind when he wrote his letters? Every letter was written to a local congregation, usually small and deeply flawed, like the one we attend. So, join it and make it better.

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If Christ is the center, then the road from individualism to community runs through him. “One who wants more than what Christ has established does not want Christian brotherhood (community),” wrote Dietrich Bonhoeffer. “He is looking for some extraordinary social experience which he has not found elsewhere.”[1] Every idea we have of community is a threat to genuine community if it doesn’t begin with Christ. If we shortcut the hard work of laying the foundation in Christ, we’ll pay for it with conflict between special interests. In our pursuit of relevance, we must say things that are eternal.

If the church is Christ’s presence in the world, then we must “be very careful, then, how we (you) live — not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity,” (Ephesians 5:15-16), practicing a way of life that’s peculiar and attractive, a social alternative to the chaos that inevitably follows individualism. In this body, we forgive each other, welcome the stranger, keep our promises, give to those who cannot repay, love our enemies, work for justice and heal the broken-hearted. We rebuild our ruined cities and restore the streets with dwellings. It’s a powerful witness whenever an individual practices even one of these alternatives. But when a community practices them together, it’s compelling.

Commentator David Brooks once said change happens when a few people, usually on the margins, find a better way to live and the rest of us follow. The body of Christ, the church, isn’t only a haven for people wounded by the lies of individualism; it’s also the only hope of the world.

[1] Deitrich Bonhoeffer, “Life together,” (London: SCM Press Ltd., 1954).

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