The Impossibility of "Individualism" - The Church as Community
Koinonia (koinwnia) is the Greek word translated by our English New Testaments as communion, association, fellowship, sharing, common, contribution, and partnership. Not one of these words, however, adequately captures what the early Christians meant when they spoke of the koinonia they had with one another and Christ. Koinonia expressed a relationship of great intimacy and depth, one so rich in fact that it even became the favorite expression for the marital relationship ... the most intimate between human beings."1 The implications of this word when used to express the nature of our bond with Christ and the brethren are especially profound.
For one to have fellowship with another Christian in the early Church meant much more to him than what it means today to many contemporary Christians. (i.e., Christians having donuts and coffee together in the "fellowship" [social] hall after the Sunday service). Genuine fellowship demonstrates "that bond which binds Christians to each other, to Christ and to God."3 Fellowship is all inclusive, deep, personal and intimate. The "meaning of 'fellowship' or 'communion' in the New Testament relates to sharing one common life within the body of Christ at all levels of existence and experience spiritual, social, intellectual, economic. No area of life can be excluded."4
The Church is not simply a society; it is fellowship in God and with God. Every description of the Church is simply another way of expressing the depth of this fellowship: the Body of Christ, Ekklesia, Temple of the Spirit, covenant, Eucharist, catholicity, brotherhood, the life of God, etc.5 This is why one can say salvation is of the Church.
INDIVIDUALISM: THE ADVERSARY OF THE CHURCH
The dictionary defines individualism as, "the leading of one's life in one's own way without regard for others."7 The above description of the Church clearly leaves no room for this attitude. The Church as community will always be opposed to individualism. The nature of the Church is love, and where there is love there is union, fellowship, interdependence not self-imposed isolation and indifference to others.?
The individualistic attitudes of today have deformed our thinking about the Church, and directly oppose the Lord's greatest commandment to "love one another as oneself" (Mark 12:23). Many Christians demonstrate individualism in their Christianity, thinking it is a sign of discipleship, when in actuality it weakens them and the bond of genuine fellowship within the Church. Such a one is the independent, "spiritual" person who typically stresses private devotions, theological knowledge, or "ministries" over relationships of love, sharing, and interpersonal commitment. Unconsciously he has given in to a destroying individualistic spirit, one which will injure his communion with God and the saints by drawing him away from the center of life.
The Origins of Individualistic "Spirituality"
Individualistic piety had its beginnings before the Reformation, but it has been especially encouraged within Reformation philosophies, American revivalism and Dispensationalism. Let's take a brief look at each of these outlooks now, and see how they have affected today's Christian thinking. In order to fight against Rome's institutional conception of the Church (i.e., If you are not a part of the structure headed by Christ's proxy, the Pope, you are not a Christian), many in the Fifteenth Century gravitated toward nominalistic thought. The subjective individualism of nominalism advocated an "individualizing" view of the Church, which not only challenged Rome's false institutionalism, but also countered the Church's true communal nature. The result of this view led the Reformers and those following them to dismiss the inherent inter-relatedness of each member within the Church, and to replace it with a vision which saw the Church as "only the sum of individual believers."8 Both Luther and Calvin elaborated their doctrines of salvation from this individualistic premise.
Instead of seeing one's union with Christ as inseparable from the Church (the divine-human community where He dwells in covenant with His people), the Reformers began to imply that one's membership in Christ and one's membership to the institutional Church could be separated.9 The "visible" Church became the Church only in an institutional sense. As we have already discussed, one could be a member of it on earth, for example, yet not be a member of the Church in heaven. It is this dichotomistic and individualistic emphasis which still leads many Protestants today to ignore the inherent communal nature of both the Church and of salvation. Salvation is communal because salvation is union with Christ (Rom. 6: 1-5), and He dwells within His Body, the Church.
In America, this individualization of Christianity accelerated further when sola Scriptura was employed to justify the legitimacy of an even more individualistic spirituality. Dr. George Marsden in his book Fundamentalism and American Culture, notes that the American individualistic understanding of the Church can be directly traced back to the Fundamentalist's approach to the Scriptures.
In this view, the Bible evolved into "the earthly essence of the church..."11 and the argument became, "Who needs others for guidance or instruction when one has the Bible to guide and teach?" Who needs people, when one has a concordance? Thus, "each individual becomes his own church; [and] his own sanctification is the only holiness the church can know."12
Individualism was particularly emphasized in American revivalism, especially as it was typified by Dwight L. Moody (1837-99). This renowned preacher continually underscored "religious" individualism in his mass evangelistic crusades. Moody, having inherited only an institutional understanding of the Church, saw salvation solely as an "individual" matter. Of course, it is clear that a human organization can not save. Unfortunately, neither having witnessed nor understood the Church as a divine-human Community, Moody could not see how someone was redeemed in the Body of Christ. To him salvation was purely a "personal" matter. Logically, he did not call the new disciple to see his commitment to Christ as an equal commitment to his brethren in the ekklesia. The new convert was only taught that his primary concern was to "win the lost" and maintain his own private holiness.13
The Dispensational view of the Bible took religious individualism even further still. By contrasting the New Testament period with the era of the Old Testament, Dispensationalism taught that whereas the Lord had previously led a people through the Law, now He leads individuals through the personal indwelling of the Spirit. Where Old Testament Israel was a united people, the Holy Spirit of the New Covenant works with unrelated, believing "individuals." The Church as a "holy people," and as "a holy nation" (I Peter 2:9) is ignored in favor of the autonomous "Spirit-led" individuals.14 Thus, the Dispensationalist doctrine allowed many Fundamentalists to stand removed from the mainline religious bodies of which they once were a part, in order to claim themselves a "faithful remnant,"15 those who separated themselves from the fallen multitudes ("church"). The consequence was that the core of the New Testament Christian experience was distorted; Christianity became a thing focused on the individual instead of a communal entity.
All the above views which undergirded religious individualism were based on the Augustinian dualism we discussed in the last chapter. Each view saw two churches: one visible and earthly, the other spiritual and heavenly. The "church" here (on the earth) came to be seen as a beachhead from which people could be evangelized into the "heavenly church," and as a classroom where "personal" holiness could be taught; only secondarily was it an environment of relationships. Fellowship with Christians was "nice," but it certainly wasn't necessary for godliness or instruction in the Christian life, nor was it a requirement for Christian service. By such a focus, the Church's call to model the communal love of the Trinity is repudiated by the greatest of contradictions: self -focused spirituality.
Community: Love Combating Individualism
Unfortunately, most Christians see the Church only as a place where they can get their private spiritual needs met. The Church, however, is foremost to be an environment of love where brethren care about each other. It is a family in communion, not a forum. Individualism and self centered independence are not characteristics of God's Church, they are characteristics of the world outside of Christ.16 It is love, for God and the people of God, which makes the Church community.17
Unity within God's family is not achieved by getting one member to submit to another member of a "higher spiritual rank", or by persuading numbers of people to conform to a set of laws intended to order them into oneness. The military may do this, but the Church leads us another way: the way of love here is "the perfect bond of unity" (Col. 3:14).18 A "unity" attained through laws, common teaching, intimidation, or anything else but participation in God's love and life is counterfeit.19
This brings us face to face with the reality that the Church is specifically relationships of love. As is true with all relationships, one can truly know the other only by the experience of relating to each other, not by academic study. It is this interaction this communion which makes us into the image of Christ. When one enters the Church, a spiritual encounter of knowing takes place, and in this encounter one is transformed by the love of God and His people.20 In order to have real communion within the Church, each person must be open, trusting, and willing to be actively involved in "giving receiving" relationships of love. Love and the voluntary, selfless sharing of our lives are the only philosophy of life appropriate in the body of Christ.
In short, "There can be no Church apart from love."21 Paul said that we are called to be "imitators of God" in loving one another (Eph. 5:1, 2), and John tells us that love is the only way that we "behold God" in our midst:
Without question, to love is "the greatest commandment" (Matt. 22: 36-40) and the intent of the entire Scriptures is fulfilled in this: "'You shall love your neighbor as yourself'" (Gal. 5:14). To be in the Church is to identify with Christ, and He made it clear that those who so identify with Him must love with divine love:
At the Church in Jerusalem, "all those who had believed were together and had all things in common" (Acts 2:44). Why? Because someone ordered them to give? Because they would feel guilty if they did not give? No. These Christians gave generously to their needy brethren out of compassion. They understood they were members of the same family.22 This is the way of love. This is the way of the Church. This is the way of koinonia "the spirit of generous sharing as contrasted with the spirit of selfish getting."23
Love is the only commandment in the Church necessary to manifest our unity (and union) in Christ. Let us accept one another just as Christ has accepted us (Rom. 15:7); let each member care for the other (1 Cor. 12:25); let us love one another just as He has loved us (John 15:10, 12). If we love in this way, we cannot help but be drawn into oneness. Love which is vulnerable, open and accepting of all leads each into genuine Christian unity.
Truly, the closer we come to Christ in love, the closer we will come to those who have similarly given themselves to Him in the open embrace of catholicity. Catholic union was manifested in that very first Church: "the multitude of them that believed were of one heart and of one soul" (Acts 2:44). Are we living catholic lives? Our love should show it. The Church never limits or restricts love, and her members must actively shun exclusivity or possessiveness. In the love of koinonia, "The cold separation into 'mine' and 'thine' disappears."25 Each member does not forfeit the responsibility for his own spiritual growth in this communion. The striving for "perfection" in Christ is still up to each unique person but, we are not perfected as loners, we are "perfected in unity " (John 17: 23).26 This holiness occurs only when each chooses to love his brethren.
In the early second century, a document known as The Shepherd of Hermas included a popular vision of the Church that underscored this aspect of union and love. In this vision, the Church was seen as a tower of stones. It was not just any ordinary tower, however. The tower was composed of rocks that were so closely fit together so that the edge of each individual stone disappeared into the borders of the others. When one looked at the tower, he got the impression that it was constructed of only one large stone instead of the thousands that actually constituted it. Naturally this caused the observer to wonder just how such a structure could be built. The answer was the point of the vision: only with stones that had both sharp edges and smooth surfaces. The builder of this unique tower had flatly rejected all round stones. What does this rejection signify?
In that time and culture, roundness was a symbol signifying isolation, self-sufficiency, and self-satisfaction. The early Christians, seeing that such round stones were unfit for the tower representing the Church, realized by analogy that people of "rounded-character" would likewise be unfit in the fabric of the Church. A "rounded disposition" made a stone unwilling to come into communion with what already comprised the structure.27 The point in those earliest centuries was clear: there is no place in a kingdom of sharing and fellowship for the individualist. Only those "living stones" that choose to fit in with all the other stones will be built by Christ into His Body, the Church.
Community Loving Specific People One Knows
Loving one another in Community (Church) truly happens when we start to love people whom we know personally. It is much easier to love one's brethren in China than to love those with whom one must constantly rub elbows. Christians within the first Communities were not strangers who met only at weekly church services. They had ongoing, significant, relationships with people with whom they spoke, worked, lived, ate, laughed and cried. To live out such an ideal may be difficult today, but the nature of the Church makes it clear that some kind of relational environment should be the common Christian experience.
If it is difficult for us to live as Church, we must work at making it easier. We must accept sacrifices of time, money or convenience if we are to live as Christians embracing the mandate of the Scriptures. The pull of this present age against any kind of long term relationships makes it all the more clear that we can never be whole without a determination to pursue true fellowship and communion. Our society may have made the realization of these truths more complex, but the meaning and need of communion has not changed!
It is true that each Christian is a member of the one Church no matter how far he or she may be geographically removed from other Christians. However, one cannot experience the Community of Christ - the love of the brethren - "long distance." Agreed, in the End Time when Christ establishes His Kingdom in its fullness, all will have such a communion with each other. But for now, on this side of eternity, one can only taste this communion within the Local Church with local people. Only in this context can one experience meaningful fellowship with Christ and one another. Howard Snyder, in his insightful book, The Problem of Wine Skins, makes this point well:
THE TRINITY AS THE CHURCH'S MODEL OF COMMUNITY
The perfect fellowship that the Holy Trinity experiences as Father, Son, and Spirit is ultimately represented by the same spiritual reality among the members of the Church. The same love that makes God One is the love that makes the Church One.29 As each member of the Godhead willingly submits to the Others out of love, without yielding His unique identity, so it is to be with each member of the Church with his fellow members.30 In many other similar respects, the Church as Community reflects the fellowship of the Trinity...31
The God of the Christians is different from the God of the Moslem or Jew who denies the New Testament revelation. The dogma of the Trinity is not an empty intellectual exercise created by early theologians with nothing better to do. The Trinity is a revelation of the very character of God inherent to the message of the Gospel, because it reveals the truth that the "Christian God is not just a unit but a union, not just unity but community. ...He is Tri-unity; three equal persons, each one dwelling in the other two by virtue of an unceasing movement of mutual love."33 Here is the lesson for the Church. As a "one Personed" God is a contradiction to both God's love and divinity,34 so is "Christian individualism" a contradiction to all that it means to be "in Christ." One person can not have communion alone, he must share his life with others to experience it.
The love between the Persons of the Trinity teaches us something else about our relationships in the Church. Just as each Person in the Godhead never loses His identity as their love is shared with one another, so is this truth to be fundamental for life and relationships within the Church. The personal dimension of the Christian life is never to be sacrificed at the expense of the corporate "good." What is not good for the person is not good for the Body. Conversely, what is good for the Body will always be what is good for the individual Christian. Whether the focus is on the one, the few, or the many, genuine love gives, frees, and strengthens all those involved.
The members of the Church are not merely indistinguishable cells within the Body, they are complete, unique, human personalities. Each person's uniqueness must be respected and revered as a gift of God, not obliterated in the cause of uniformity. In actuality, The Trinity, as the Church's model, shows us that there can be "no unity without diversity of persons, and no person fully realized outside natural unity. Catholicity consists in the perfect harmony of these two terms: unity and diversity...".35 The Church may be One, but it is not one member. Each member has a place, and each person's distinctiveness is to be harmonized with the distinctive personalities and gifts of the other.
The Holy Spirit did not fall upon isolated individuals, but upon the (gathered) Church at Pentecost. This truth, however, does not negate the fact that He did fill each individual person.37 In this miracle, the Holy Spirit made it clear that the specific identity of each person is important, and that the Church needs each member. He has neither given all His gifts to one, nor has He given the same one gift to each; He has given a variety of gifts to many. This teaches us that every member of the Body is not only different from other members, but that each needs the other's uniqueness in order to be complete.38
The Holy Spirit did not come to bring unity by squeezing our distinctiveness into a blurred, non-personal glob. He respects our individual identities and encourages a diversity led from a love for the common good (1 Cor. 12:7). Each of us is different not only in the gifts God has given us, but in our personalities, experiences, and characters as well. This wonderful diversity is truly a gift of God to the Church. Uniformity is not at all the same as unity. In fact, it is an obstacle to it. If the entire Body were but one uniform member if all were a hand for instance how could each member be "connected" to the other? This sameness would actually prevent the unity of the Body, not encourage it.39
Even in God's creation of man and woman, this dual principle of distinctiveness and unity speaks to us. A man does not love a woman because she is identical with him; her distinct "femininity" draws him close. And it is this distinctiveness which can fill his loneliness and make him "whole" (Gen. 2:18) in a way that no one of his own sex could. The same is true for a woman in her love for a man. Lastly, only their union in diversity makes them "one flesh." This degree of union is something not possible for two of the same sex. Here yet is even a deeper significance: only they together, united in diversity and love, mirror the image of God's love in creation (for both, together, revealed His image and likeness).40
THE COMMUNITY AS THE TEMPLE OF THE HOLY SPIRIT
The Holy Spirit's Dwelling Within a People
It is unquestioned that the Holy Spirit resides within each believer, and that each person is a temple of the Holy Spirit (2 Cor. 6:16). Yet, the ministry of the Spirit is not to make Spirit-filled individuals alone, but primarily to create a dwelling for Himself within and among a people.41 In fact, this corporate, communal dimension is spoken of more frequently in the Scriptures than the personal and individual one.
This understanding of the Church as a people can sometimes be more apparent in the Greek text of the New Testament than it is in our English versions. The pronoun "you" in 1 Cor. 3:16, for example, is not in the singular but in the plural. Thus, although many tend to read the passage "you [as an individual] are a temple of God," it would be more accurate to read it as "you -all [together] are a temple of God." Let us keep this reading in mind as we look further at this and a few other similar passages.
For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body ..and we were all made to drink of one Spirit. (1 Cor. 12:13)
And coming to Him as to a living stone, rejected by men, but choice and precious in the sight of God, you [all] also, as living stones, are being built up as a spiritual house for a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. (1 Peter 2: 4, 5)
So then you [all] are no longer strangers and aliens, but you [all] are fellow-citizens with the saints, and are of God's household, having built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus Himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole building, being fitted together is growing into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you [all-together] also are being built together into a dwelling of God in the Spirit. (Eph. 2:19-22)
This inter-connectedness is further illustrated in the Old Testament where the Septuagint uses the word koinonia as a synonym for "put together," "coupled " or "joined."42 The word was used to describe how the Temple was to be joined together in its construction. This usage now applies to the Temple of God of the New Covenant (Eph. 2:21). The Church of God is built in the koinonia of the Spirit, one member being "built together" with another in accord with the design of Christ, the chief Cornerstone.?
"The church provides the context for spiritual growth by sharing together a fellowship which is at once the gift of the Spirit and the environment in which he may operate."43 The Spirit's home ("dwelling place") is the Church. Here He works miracles, heals, speaks prophetically, delivers from evil, imparts knowledge, anoints its members to pray. And all of this is done, not for the individual (though he benefits), but that each may be edified (literally "built" together) as the body of Christ - as the People of God - as the Church. For this reason, we can say that the manifestation of the Spirit is FULLY expressed only in the Church. Orthodox theologian and historian John Zizioulas summarizes why this is the case:
The call of the Church is to continually realize what it is: the Body of Christ. We need to agree with God's perspective concerning what He has done with humankind through Christ, and then rediscover what it means to be a people who live in the communion of His love. The Church is a family, an organism, a community, and unless the world is able to see this reality by the way we love one another, our own message of Life will mock us. Although the individualist may be popular in our culture, he is incompatible with Christ's view of the Church, and it is not our job to make him comfortable. The Church is first and last a manifestation of God's love. If we are to manifest this Church, we must love in divine measure (John 13:35).
The first step in meeting this challenge to love demands that we come against our own apathy. In our society, we have redefined "love" to mean "warmly tolerate." As long as someone does not ask too much of us in our relationships, and as long as the exit from intimacy remains accessible, we can be "loving." In other words, as long as we do not "hate" our brethren, we "love" them. This is not the love of communion. Christian love is not indifferent. It commits itself to others tangibly, practically, and daily. It requires interpersonal risk, it takes the initiative to heal, and it desires to meet the genuine needs of others. If we long to love with this kind of integrity and sincerity, we will love the way God does: in Community and communion.
NOTES FOR CHAPTER ELEVEN
Kallistos Ware, The Orthodox Way (Crestwood, New York, St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1980) p. 37, 38, 39