Sunday Meditations: Individuals and Community

Business partner, friend, and iron sharpener Travis had a talk with me about some thoughts he had on last week’s Sunday Meditation.

He pointed out, rightly so, that I may have been setting up a scenario much like medieval Catholicism, where the average person is deemed unable to understand anything from the Bible and requires a specially-trained person to explain to them what it says.  Furthermore, our history has many examples where one charismatic leader took large groups of people down bad roads simply because they adopted his words as truth and were unable or unwilling to process these teachings themselves and compare them against the Scriptures.

I certainly agree that both of those are valid points to add to the topic, and what’s more, I obviously agree that those scenarios are terrible things meant to be avoided, and they can often occur very subtly.  You don’t need a Jonestown-style massacre to have a single person steering a whole congregation into patterns of thought and behavior that are detrimental to the world at large and the Church in specific.  Nor do you need to have some of the ham-fisted power grabs of the medieval Roman church to have a person or small group of people essentially considered infallible and beyond critique.

Perhaps another way of looking at the issue is to examine the relationship between the individual believer and the community of believers.

In the context of American evangelicalism, I would say (and I could be wrong) that we have definitely put the private experience of the individual believer front and center.  From the get-go, we tell stories to potential believers about personal relationships with Jesus and the destiny of their immortal soul.  We center the entire redemptive story of the Bible around them as an individual and ask for their personal conversion.  We teach them spiritual disciplines to be performed individually in the privacy of their own home so that they can cultivate an individual, personal spirituality.

The other structures that exist tend to be framed as aids to this individual enterprise.  Worship services exist to extend the call to more individuals to make more individual conversions as well as growing and strengthening your personal spirituality and personal relationship with God.  The number of modern Christian worship songs that say “we” are massively dwarfed by the number that say “I.”  You could probably put up dividers between every individual at church, and their experience would be roughly the same.  Even in sacraments with names like “Communion,” we often stare into the ruby depths of our individual cup and contemplate our individual sins and spend a few moments in individual prayer to get our individual hearts in a good state.

When we talk about God working in someone’s life or someone spiritually growing, this is typically cast in individual, private, mystical terms.  You read the Bible on your own, pray on your own, listen mystically to God on your own, and the idea is this way of “doing spirituality” becomes in our minds the normal way God works.  If you want God’s counsel, you spend time in prayer and listen for the “still, small voice” (which is a mistranslation, btw).  Sure, you might ask another Christian or two what they think, but nothing can trump that internal, spiritual dialogue.  If you struggle with sin, that is primarily private, and you pray intensely about it hoping that, after enough prayer sessions, your heart will be supernaturally fixed.

Sort of like my conversation with Travis, it’s easy to see what these patterns are trying to correct.  We know that, in western church history, it is incredibly easy to be a nominal Christian.  You show up to the stuff, do the thing, and go home.  We think of Kierkegaard essentially throwing a fit over the Danish church, pointing out how it is full of Christians, none of whom seem to care very much about the alleged truth they possess.  It neither inflames their passions nor affects their lives.  This dead, purely formalistic expression of the faith drove him utterly into a view of truth that is fundamentally subjective in nature and, in order to even be worthy of the name Truth, has to be something for which you as an individual can live or die.

But we don’t have to go back two hundred years or further, we can see it in our own cultures where the church has become a social institution.  God, mom, and apple pie.  You go to church, sing the songs, and pray the prayers on Sunday morning, then get right back to your “normal” life and behavior as if nothing had ever happened.  We recognize rightly that such religion is basically a waste of everyone’s time.  We recognize that people whose trust is in belonging to the right group of people are bound to be disappointed.  We can easily point to passages in the Gospels when Jesus directly told his followers to abandon such notions, and we can also turn to Old Testament passages where Israel was collectively doing all the right rituals and whatnot, but their hearts were far from the Lord, and He was unmoved by all their efforts.

But is the remedy for this a radically individualized faith?  Is the picture of life in the Spirit that the Bible shows us a life of private, mystical, individual experience?  Do we see any evidence that someone’s personal understanding or “leading” trumps everything else?  Is the gospel really mostly about me, myself, and I?  Were the apostles martyred for helping people establish a personal relationship with Jesus?

I would offer that what we observe in the New Testament is neither a hierarchy of professionals catering to the unwashed masses, nor a highly individual spiritual experience, but a spiritual life in community with others who are also participating in the same project with you.

This is the entire story of people of God through both Testaments.  People did not have personal Bible reading time, because there were no personal Bibles.  You did not own your own personal copy of the Old Testament.  Certainly, we can find examples of personal piety apart from the community, but the overwhelming amount of data we have are not individuals struggling through their individual spiritual lives, but a people of God tackling this project together.  They worship together, pray together, hear Scripture together, debate it together, sin together, repent together, and are led together.  Individuals are not called to leave one mode of individualism for another – they are called into a people to get on board with a collective project.

Perhaps the one example we have of people checking someone’s teaching against the Scriptures are the Bereans in Acts 17:11-12, where they, together in the synagogue, eagerly search the Scriptures to see if Paul is telling the truth.  They do not accept Paul’s teaching simply because Paul is a good teacher and has authority, but neither do they run home to privately go through the Old Testament and see what they think.  Together, as a group in the synagogue, they go through the Scriptures, discussing, debating, and praying.

Whatever fallibility I might ascribe to a person teaching me the Bible, I must be willing to ascribe that same fallibility to myself.  My own personal interpretations of Scripture are no more or no less prone to error than another teacher’s, no matter how much I pray about it or what I think I personally may have heard from God (who, by the way, often sounds a lot like me in those times – weird, isn’t it?).

That mutual recognition of fallibility in others and ourselves, as well as the mutual recognition of strengths in others and ourselves, is what makes the community model necessary and vital.  According to Paul, we have a variety of strengths, weaknesses, and spiritual gifts among our number, which makes co-dependence at some level a necessity.

Some people are good at teaching, some are not.  Some are good at praying, others are not.  Some can demonstrate radical hospitality and care, others struggle with it.  While, at some level, every believer is expected to cultivate good works and a passionate spirituality, we also know not everyone is equally good (or bad) at the various aspects of spiritual life as it appears in the body of Christ, which is why we earnestly contribute our strengths and are willing to allow others to help us in our weaknesses.

And this, I would say, is the primary means by which God operates in the life of an individual believer.  Just like God typically does not heal a disease through a supernatural event, He doesn’t do much else that way, either.  God does not proclaim His gospel to the world; He empowers Spirit-filled people to go and do it.  God does not supernaturally fill a believer’s head with information; He empowers Spirit-filled teachers to do it.  The primary way God acts in the world and Jesus’ presence is made manifest is through the words, actions, and lives of those who carry the Spirit with them.

This is not to denigrate a personal spirituality, nor is it to say that God never supernaturally speaks to an individual or does something in their lives.  It’s just that these things are not the normal mechanism, which is why they stand out.  The primary way I hear God’s words to me is to hear them coming from the mouths of the Spirit-filled community.  The primary way God will care for me and demonstrate His love is through the care and love shown by His people.  The primary way God will increase my spiritual growth is by my participation in the community’s spiritual growth and the things God has given the Church to exercise for this specific purpose (Word, sacraments, prayer).  The primary way Jesus will give me a hug when I’m distressed is by one of his followers giving me a hug when I’m distressed.

And the reason these things get mediated through a Spirit-filled community is at least partially because of all the wackiness that results when you invest all that power, obligation, and authority into one person, whether that one person is the Pope or that one person is Myself.  Someone has to be able to critique the Pope from God’s point of view, and someone has to be able to critique me as well.  Someone has to be able to critique Peter and Paul, too.  These things cannot happen if I, myself, am a self-sufficient conduit for God’s word and works (or if I abdicate this responsibility by leaving it up to another individual or group).

It is this healthy, balanced, give and take experience of God together that I see presented in the Scripture that I fear is getting shoved aside and even institutionalized in our evangelical movements, today, although with the best of intentions.  Instead of moving to a place of, “Let’s stop listening to people and start listening personally to the Holy Spirit,” I’d like to get us back to, “Let’s listen together for the Holy Spirit in what God has to say through His people.”