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.

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).

The previous excerpt Five Cheers for the Church and Individualism first appeared at desiringgod.org, click here to continue reading.

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