Five Cheers for the Church and Individualism

If individualism is a bad thing, corporatism is also a bad thing, and probably a worse thing. If I had to choose, I would prefer to fight for biblical truth in the chaos of American individualism than in the iron-clad corporate expressions of Hitler’s Nazi camps and Stalin’s Communist gulags.

“God’s purpose according to election has never been merely corporate, but always individual as well.”

But let’s not compete for who’s the biggest bad guy. My point here is that the message of the New Testament confronts the horrors of corporatism as forcefully as it does the crude self-absorption of individualism. It rescues the individual human person from the illusions of corporate privilege and corporate helplessness. And it recreates a corporate reality whose glory is more than the sum of its parts, but never less than the glories of each member.

Ever since I went to seminary (45 years ago) I have heard warnings against Western individualism, and invitations to return to biblical corporatism — “Israel is my servant”. . . “I will build my church.” I say, Amen. But then I look for a summons to the glories of biblical individualism. There don’t seem to be very many. This is one of those.

Confronting Corporate Illusions

1. First, consider the radical confrontation of corporate illusions as the gospel meets the Judaism of Jesus’s and Paul’s day. For example, John the Baptist says,

Do not presume to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our father,” for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham. Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. (Matthew 3:9–10)

The illusion was that belonging to corporate Israel would mean escape from God’s wrath (Matthew 3:7). John says in effect: You’re dreaming. You aren’t a safe branch on that tree. You are a tree. And unless you repent individually of your unbelief, you will be cut down just like any unbelieving Gentile.

Similarly, Paul dealt with the heart-breaking unbelief of his Jewish kinsmen (Romans 9:3):

It is not as though the word of God has failed. For not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel, and not all are children of Abraham because they are his offspring, but “Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.” (Romans 9:6–7)

The corporate illusion here is that the promise of God has fallen, if so many Jews are perishing (Romans 9:3; 11:14). Paul’s confrontation of this illusion is to say: God’s purpose according to election (Romans 9:11) has never been merely corporate, but always individual as well. Belonging to the corporate stock of Abraham is no guarantee of salvation. That is a matter of individual election and faith. To be sure, there is a tree — an Abrahamic covenant — but the branches of that tree are individuals — wild or natural — and they are broken off and grafted in one at a time through individual unbelief or faith (Romans 11:17–24). “They were broken off because of their unbelief, but you stand fast through faith” (Romans 11:20).

Intensified Individualism for True Corporate Life

2. Consider how Paul corrects corrupt corporatism with true individualism for the sake of true corporate life.

Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ. For if anyone thinks he is something, when he is nothing, he deceives himself. But let each one test his own work, and then his reason to boast will be in himself alone and not in his neighbor. For each will have to bear his own load. (Galatians 6:1–5)

The aim here is precious corporate connectedness in Christ. The very “law of Christ” is bear one another’s burdens. What was threatening this? Answer: An individual “thinking he is something when he is nothing.” What is the remedy? Not a nullification of the individual, but an intensification. “Let each one test his own work, and then his reason to boast will be in himself alone and not in his neighbor. For each will have to bear his own load.”

“You are not merely the victim of your corporate ancestry. You are responsible before God as an individual.”

What does that mean? It means: Stop letting your self-exalting comparison with your neighbor hinder your care for him. Don’t compare. Deal with your own issues (the log in your own eye). You’ve got burdens of sin and weakness and flaws and failures of your own to bear. Don’t excuse yourself by comparisons. When you have done your severe personal, individual self-testing, you will be fit to bear your brother’s burden. Only such a true, radical individualism solves the problem of broken community. (Similarly, see Romans 12:3–5 and 1 Corinthians 11:28.)

For Individual Souls

3. Third, consider that the word of God is believed and obeyed by individual souls, or not at all. There is a corporate church only because individuals hear the gospel and believe from their own individual hearts.

For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved. For the Scripture says, “Everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame.” For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, bestowing his riches on all who call on him. For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” (Romans 10:10–13)

There is no such thing as being saved by someone else’s saving faith. The point where we are united to Christ and his body is the moment of individual new birth through the individually believed gospel (1 Peter 1:23–25). (See 1 Corinthians 1:26–29; Acts 13:47–48.)

Thus Paul pours out his life in order to present the church “as a pure virgin to Christ” (2 Corinthians 11:2) by “warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ” (Colossians 1:28; see 1 Thessalonians 2:12). The corporate beauty of Christ is pursued by warning and teaching and maturing his individual members.

Our Final Accountability

4. Fourth, consider what the Bible says about the radical nature of final, individual accountability before God.

In those days they shall no longer say: “The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.” But everyone shall die for his own iniquity. Each man who eats sour grapes, his teeth shall be set on edge. (Jeremiah 31:29–30)

Jeremiah confronts the helplessness of misguided corporate thinking. You are not merely the victim of your corporate ancestry. You are responsible before God as an individual. And so it is again and again in the New Testament.

“He will render to each one according to his works” (Romans 2:6). “So then each of us will give an account of himself to God” (Romans 14:12; see 1 Corinthians 3:8, 13; 4:5; 2 Corinthians 5:10).

Our Individual Relationship with Jesus

5. Finally, consider the sweetness of our individual relationship with Jesus.

I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. (Galatians 2:20)

He loved me. Christ’s corporate embrace of his church will be wonderful, but it will not replace this. It will add to it. And this will add to that. His redemption of the whole universe will not replace this. It will add to it. And this will add to that.

In the end, I will be one living stone among millions in a beautiful temple (1 Peter 2:5). But I will also hold a stone in my hand that Jesus himself has given to me personally. And written on it will be my new name that only Jesus and I know (Revelation 2:17).