I was raised in the Baptist Church and spent almost 50 years in that world. I still teach at an evangelical university and consider myself an evangelical. Evangelicalism is in my blood.
Over the last few years, though, I have begun to realize how infested evangelicalism is with radical individualism.
There are important, even crucial, individualistic aspects to our faith. But, there is a communal nature to our faith that is so often overlooked in our American Evangelical culture.
Shortly before covid, the sermon at church focused on the communal nature of the Lord’s Prayer. In 40 years as a Christian, I had never thought about the Lord’s Prayer through a communal lens.
Our Father,who art in heaven,
hallowed be thy name;
thy kingdom come;
thy will be done;
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our trespasses,
as we forgive those who trespass against us.
And lead us not into temptation;
but deliver us from evil.
For thine is the kingdom,
the power, and the glory
for ever and ever.
Plural pronouns are used eight times in the Lord’s prayer to refer to His people… our, we, us. Yet in my mind, I always made this about me. I said our, we, us but I internalized it as my, I, me. I know I’m not unique among evangelicals.
Francis Shaeffer wrote a lot about culture’s desire to be autonomous from God. What I am realizing though is that in the church we also have the desire to be autonomous from others. We view all of faith through the lens of the individual. There is a place for that. It is crucial that we have an individual faith. Still, consider how the focus of the Lord’s prayer changes when we read it communally as a people, a church, a culture. As a people, we ask for God’s will to be done; we ask for our daily provision as a people, we forgive as a people.
This whole concept came to mind recently when we republished the essay, “Christian Democrat: Free Stuff You Didn’t Pay For…The Heart of the Gospel“. A comment came in that challenged a point in the essay. But, there was a gentle individualistic shift that happened during the challenge. The essay was focusing on our communal character. The comment included the following:
I don’t agree with the wording of the following: “As a nation how was Israel to make their sins white as snow? It wasn’t through religious devotion. Their devotion had disgusted God. It was through caring for the needy and oppressed.”
Israel could never make their sins white as snow just as we in the current age cannot. To do so, would be a works-based religion, the exact opposite of the True Gospel of the Bible: “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” ~ Ephesians 2:8-9
There is an important point here. Salvation does not come by works- Individual salvation at least. That is absolutely the context of Paul’s argument in Romans. However, the passage I was referencing in Isaiah was not talking about the individual but the nation of Israel. Isaiah explicitly states that the scarlet sins of Israel will be made white if they are “willing and obedient” to God’s call for social justice work, “seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause.“
Scripture is not contradicting itself. It is not saying in one place that salvation is not by works and in another that it is. In Romans, Paul is saying out individual salvation comes from faith not works. Isaiah is saying that the nation’s communal salvation will come from their obedience because, as I said in the original essay, “That is how they were to demonstrate that their devotion was not hollow.” In some ways, this isn’t too different from individual salvation. James argues that faith without works is dead because we show our faith by our works.
But, there is no national mind that has faith or doesn’t. As a result, God is clear, through Isaiah, that it is the Israelite’s obedience that will save them.
As Christians in America, we think so much about the individual. Our individual salvation, our individual relationship to God, our individual sins that we often forget the communal context. Anti-diluvian humanity and the nation of Israel alike were judged not because of individual failings but communal failings. Of course, they are connected but they are not the same.
As I thought about this the other day, I realized that this individual over communal mindset is part of why evangelicals have such a hard time with the idea of systemic racism. We are conditioned to look at everything through an individualistic lens. In our minds, there is no such thing as communal sin and communal judgment. We may know that biblically there clearly is such a thing but it is beyond the bounds of the lenses through which we view the world. If I’m not actively discriminating then how can I be responsible for broader issues? I’m sure there were Israelites who felt the same way when Israel went into captivity.
The same issue comes up when deconstructionists criticize the hatred and abuses from within the church. Too many evangelicals retort, not all Christians, not all churches. It is true, not all. But, not all Israelites were faithless. God still judged them. We have more than just an individual responsibility to “to do justice, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with… God”. It is true that we should do that individually but even in Micah 6 the context is communal, “the Lord has an indictment against his people, and he will contend with Israel.” God’s goal, through Micah, was that the nation communally would be concerned with justice, kindness, and humility.
One of the great blessings of the evangelical movement is a focus on our individual responsibility before God. But, one of our greatest failings not seeing our communal responsibility before God. We can only truly be faithful when we take responsibility both personally and communally. Our faithful response can never be, “not all churches” we must humble ourselves before God and ask forgiveness for the Church, our community, universal.