“An Obstacle to Christian Community – Our Uncommon Worldview”

Format: Sermon

Passage: 1 Cor. 12:12-27 – “The body is a unit, though it is made up of many parts; and though all its parts are many, they form one body. So it is with Christ. For we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body– whether Jews or Greeks, slave or free– and we were all given the one Spirit to drink. Now the body is not made up of one part but of many. If the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason cease to be part of the body. And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason cease to be part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be? If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be? But in fact God has arranged the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be. If they were all one part, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, but one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” And the head cannot say to the feet, “I don’t need you!” On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and the parts that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor. And the parts that are unpresentable are treated with special modesty, while our presentable parts need no special treatment. But God has combined the members of the body and has given greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it. Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.”

Recap

Yesterday morning we looked at the basis of Christian community. We saw that at bottom, it’s Christ that brings us together; He is what we have in common. A church isn’t a social club for people with the same tastes or in the same life stage. It’s something better. It’s a place to receive and give love in Christ; not a house of mirrors where you can be around reflections of yourself.

In the afternoon we talked about the means of Christian community. Love involves commitment. And commitment means contentment – closing other doors to walk fully through one. It’s painful, it’s hard, but it’s good.

Last night we had a discussion around the topic of the goal of Christian community. We all have the same purpose – the glory of God… both in our sanctification and in our evangelism. And as a local church we have a specific mission back in the UIC Area that we have locked arms to be on.

It has been pointed out that Pixar movies have a habit of bringing together naturally incompatible characters. Think of technologically up-to-date Buzz Lightyear who exposes the insecurities of Woody in Toy Story. Or the young Boy Scout, Russell, who annoys the elderly Carl in Up. But by the end of the movies Woody and Buzz are sitting side-by-side on Andy’s bed on Christmas morning. Carl and Russell are sitting side-by-side on the side of the road, enjoying a couple of ice cream cones. What turned their conflict into camaraderie?

A common mission. For the toys, it was the mission of getting back to their owner. For Carl and Russell it was the mission of leading the mother of a nearly extinct species of animals to her hungry babies. It’s the same for a church brought together by and around the gospel and sent out on a particular mission to spread the gospel.[i] So in our desire for community we must never forget the great mission field that surrounds us. Christian community is a community on mission together and being on mission together enhances Christian community.

Introduction

Well, this morning I want to talk about a major obstacle we face to Christian community, something that makes this thing we’ve been discussing very, very difficult in our 21st Century American context. It will require consciously adopting an uncommon worldview.

I want to begin by telling you about an NPR piece I heard a few months ago. It was discussing things that need to change in China and this piece was addressing the famous one-child-policy. In it they told a blood curdling story about a woman who was forced to have a late term abortion because she already had one child and apparently didn’t have the proper permits for another. The story was told as an obvious human rights abuse. And then they cited a figure that stunned me: since China has instituted its one-child-policy, over 300 million abortions have been performed. 300 million! Let that soak in for a moment. It’s sobering. And NPR was morally outraged by it. And rightly so.

But it got me to thinking… Why doesn’t NPR ever run a story expressing dismay and horror at the fact that in the United States since Roe vs. Wade there have been over 50 million abortions. 50 million is not 300 million, but the holocaust was 3 million Jews. 50 million children have been legally slaughtered in the US since 1973 and there’s not a media outcry. Why is this?

I don’t bring this up to make a political point. I don’t want to express a lack of grace for those caught in sticky situations surrounding abortion. That’s not my purpose in citing this. Here’s my point: NPR was outraged by the millions of abortions in China because they saw clearly how it was a result of statism – where the state, the government is made too all-important and controlling. In biblical terms, for China the state has become an idol, the state is worshipped.

But in the US and the rest of the West millions of babies are killed as well, but we’re accepting or dismissive of it because we are blind to our own idol. In the West, we have made the individual too all-important. The individual is everything. We kill millions so as not to violate a personal, private right to choose that has become sacred. Do you see?

Western society, especially post-Enlightenment is radically individualistic. And just as you can make an idol of the state, so you can make an idol of the individual. And that is where we are. It is the air we breathe. It is the water we swim in that we are completely oblivious to. Our American culture, our worldview.

But the Bible has a different worldview. It confronts the atheistic communism of China, but also the consumerism of our society which wars against true community. So let’s let the Word of God expose us today and bring us to repentance and show us a better way.

Let’s pray…

Individualism in the West

So individualism, what is it? It’s not believing that individuals are each unique and valuable, made in God’s image with dignity and rights. That is a biblical notion of individuality. Individualism is a distortion of that. It is prizing the individual (his or her rights, desires, dreams, tastes, interests, perspective, freedom) above all else, including the good of the community as a whole.

Robert Bellah (a sociologist at UC Berkely), in his book Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life, writes about the rise of radical individualism in our culture which is committed ultimately to the self. He describes how we are moving away from concern about family, community and what is good for society as a whole, to a culture that is narrowing its concern to what is good for us personally as individuals. In the book, he gives this fascinating illustration about a young woman named Sheila:

We interviewed, in the research for Habits of the Heart, one young woman who has named her religion after herself. Sheila Larson is a young nurse who has received a good deal of therapy and describes her faith as ‘Sheilaism.’ This suggests the logical possibility of more than 235 million American religions, one for each of us [based on 1985 numbers]. “I believe in God,’ Sheila says. ‘I am not a religious fanatic. I can’t remember the last time I went to church. My faith has carried me a long way. It’s Sheilaism. Just my own little voice….” In defining what she calls “my own Sheilaism,” she said: “It’s just try to love yourself and be gentle with yourself.”[ii]

This is the dominant religion of America: the worship of Self.

Individualism in the Church

And the American Church has in many ways absorbed this unbiblical worldview, unconsciously at times. But as we’ve seen in Leviticus, the Lord’s people are always to swim upstream. That’s what holiness means. And one of the major fronts of holiness in our day is along the lines of individualism. Let’s think about how this is the case.

Let me share with you an extended quote from a guy named Carl Trueman:

What is the vow most often breached, even in conservative, confessional churches? It is the vow each member typically takes to submit to the leadership of the church. While the wording varies from church to church, here is that used in my own denomination, the Orthodox Presbyterian Church:

Do you agree to submit in the Lord to the government of this church and, in case you should be found delinquent in doctrine of life, to heed its discipline? [we have something similar in Our Church Covenant for members at Immanuel]

The assumptions of this vow are clear: Christianity is a corporate phenomenon; it is bigger than me and my own agenda, and it involves disciplined obedience within the church, obedience to which we are bound by vow.

There are those, of course, who argue that church membership is not mentioned in Scripture and is therefore unbiblical. This is not the place to address this objection; suffice it here to say that church membership is the practical expression of clear principles of commitment to each other and respect for an established leadership, which are both stated in the Bible. The real problem, I suspect, with many who argue that church membership is unbiblical is not that their consciences are wounded by the notion, but rather that they want to avoid commitment. They want to treat the church as they treat, say, a supermarket or a cinema: they go along and take what they need without the troublesome issues created by a personal commitment.

That is surely the reason this vow strikes hardest against both the consumer-as-king mentality and the suspicion of authority and power structures that is typical of both the Left and the Right in the secular sphere. It is also the vow that has been most weakened by the thing that lies at the very heart of the American dream – the automobile, the means by which we can conveniently run away from any specific church authority when the fancy takes us.

My point here is that those who are confessional and rock-solid in their doctrinal commitments need to realize that secular values can yet pervade the way they think about church…

A nation with a profound sense of the frontier, of the need for each person to look after himself and not to rely on others, has many strengths, and these things are surely part of the reason for America’s tremendous success in the twentieth century. Further, the very structure of American government, which, by and large, seems chaotic to the outsider through all its checks and balances, embodies a deep distrust of power and hierarchy at its very core – hardly surprising, given the fact that its basic shape was hammered out in the heat of a rebellion against a British monarch. But the downside of this is that Americans can be suspicious of anyone in authority, and that spills over into the church; when it does so, it represents not biblical teaching but the incursion of secular individualism. There is an obvious irony to criticizing a Joel Osteen for presenting a secular message in the language of Christianity, or the Left for selling out on moral issues and doing so in the name of Christ, when church discipline in Reformed and Presbyterian [and I would add Baptist] circles has all but collapsed in the face of “I’ll just treat church as another aspect of the consumer culture” mentality whereby, as soon as my itch isn’t scratched, or I am asked for some practical demonstration of commitment, I just jump into my automobile and drive to the next church where I can better preserve my autonomy and anonymity.[iii]

Now I’m not at all trying to single anyone out. Quoting that could seem to be self-serving, as a pastor. I really don’t want it to be. I want to avoid like the plague authoritarianism which I know can be in me, but I think plural eldership and congregational polity helps to curb that. But what I’m just trying to do today for all of us is point out how individualism is just as bad as authoritarianism. And we’ve all bought into it at some level. It is the American way. And it keeps us from experiencing the healthy, beautiful community that the Bible describes.

Anti-Individualism in the Bible

So let’s look at the Bible, right? Not just Nathan’s ideas and arguments. What does the Bible say about individualism? Well a lot. Let’s start just looking at a passage that’s probably familiar to you, but I wonder if we’ve really thought about what it means. It’s 1 Corinthians 12:12-27. Before we look there, though, let’s cruise through the whole book of 1 Corinthians.

Unity (or lack thereof) is a big issue in the church in Corinth. At the very beginning of the first letter to them we see that Paul is writing, appealing to the brothers (family language) “in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another so that there may be no divisions among you and that you may be perfectly united in mind and thought” (1:10). There were divisions, sects, cliques, in that church. He picks this issue back up in ch. 3 and there says that the church is a building, a temple – a collective metaphor.

Chapter 5 is about church discipline – one member’s sin affects the whole.

Chapter 6 is about lawsuits among believers and how awful that is when Christians can’t reconcile on their own.

Chapter 8 gets into the use of individual freedom (in this case eating meat sacrificed to idols) and how it must be submitted to the good of others – “Be careful… that the exercise of your freedom does not become a stumbling block to the weak” (8:9).

In ch. 11 we see that gender should not become a fault line, a means of declaring superiority or independence – “In the Lord… woman is not independent of man, nor is man independent of woman” (11:11). We also see there that the Lord’s Supper – what should be a demonstration of unity in Christ – has turned into an opportunity for division.

Later in the book it’s about the public worship services and how they should not just be free-for-alls where each person is looking to get what he or she wants, but places of order for the good of all. We could look deeper into all these places and more, but do you see how 1 Corinthians is a letter to a particular church about unity? Which means the corporate takes precedence over the expression of the individual. Chapter 13 – the ‘love chapter’ – tells us that love is the greatest thing! And love is by definition “not self-seeking” (13:5).

And so ch. 12… Chapter 12 gives us a great analogy. Each church is like a body. “The body is a unit, though it is made up of many parts; and though all its parts are many, they form one body” (12:12). It’s not about the individual parts, but ultimately about the overall unit. Your individuality is not erased, but it is subsumed under something bigger. You are part of something bigger than yourself. Your self, your personal individuality, is to serve the whole. There are feet and hands and ears and eyes and each perform a vital function, but the function serves the whole. We each need each other and can’t stand alone. And if one part [of the body] suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it” (12:26). Individualism is trying to be a stand alone eyeball. Eyes are cool and great, but trying to be a stand alone eyeball is weird.

But the Bible’s anti-individualism runs deeper than just a few select passages. The very framework of the Bible itself is at odds with individualism. Yes, it’s true that in one sense every individual is personally responsible to God and can have a personal relationship with him – individuality. But we can’t stop there. Nobody really stands on his or her own before God. The Bible says there are really just two towering individuals in the course of history who did. Adam and Jesus. And all humanity is either in Adam or in Jesus (Romans 5). It’s the principle of corporate solidarity. We are part of something bigger than ourselves. We are inescapably part of a corporate entity – fallen humanity in Adam constantly trying assert our independence and to isolate and insulate ourselves from others for all eternity; or redeemed humanity in Christ coming more and more into fellowship with others in Christ for all eternity.

It’s called corporate solidarity and it undergirds the whole Bible. It’s the presupposition of the Bible. And it is an uncommon worldview, but it is the one that accurately and adequately explains the reality we find ourselves in. We are all bound together[iv] with other humans for good or for ill. There is no such thing as being unattached. “No man is an island.” Community is inescapable. The only question is whether you will be in Adam or in Christ. And if you are in Christ, you are there, inextricably connected to others, specifically the fellow members of the local church God has placed you in. The flesh, the old Adam is still clinging on in those of us who have been united to Christ. We must, by the Spirit, put it to death. We must be seeking to kill the sin of individualism that keeps us from growing up into Christ.

Individualitis

As believers we can still suffer from what one person has called ‘individualitis’.[v] Here are some diagnostic questions to help you see if you’ve got a case of it:

· History and Cultural change – If you read history as the story of great individuals who change the world, you probably suffer from individualitis. If you believe that change happens through the complex interplay of networks and institutions, then you probably don’t.

· Scripture – If you read the Bible and default to thinking, “This is for me,” you probably suffer from individualitis. If you read it and think, “This is for us,” you probably don’t. For example, Jeremiah 29:11 – “‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the LORD, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” Is that a personal promise or a collective one for the people of God? Our English language doesn’t even have an adequate way of reflecting 2nd person plural verbs and pronouns which is what most of the Bible is written in, and so it’s easy to read the Bible and think it’s talking about me and God, when it’s talking about we and God.

· Gifts – If you come into the church and you say, “I have this gift. How will they use it?” you probably suffer from individualitis. If you say, “The church has this need, how can I serve it?” you probably don’t.

· Evangelism – If you hear – “Follow me and I will make you fishers of men” – and you picture a single person sitting alone with a rod and reel, you probably suffer from individualitis. If you think of a whole community (moms, dads, kids, grandparents, neighbors…) throwing out a huge net together and hauling it in, then you probably don’t.

· Destiny – If you generally think, “I have a destiny!” you probably suffer from individualitis. If you generally think, “We have a destiny, you probably don’t.”

Again, Carl Trueman says it well, “My special destiny as a believer is to be part of the Church and it’s the Church that’s the big player in God’s wider plan and not me.” Yet it seems today that everyone has his or her own personal goals and dreams and visions. Everyone is always asking, “What’s my purpose? What’s my calling?” But rarely do we think in terms of what’s the community’s purpose and calling and how do I fit into it? We have imbibed the individualism around us.

Have you ever been to Europe and seen the grand feats of architecture there? Or just seen them on Pinterest? Why can’t our culture do that?

Historians tell us that more than twenty-three generations were required to complete the glorious Canterbury Cathedral of England. We know that men sometimes worked all their lives on a portico or a vault or a series of pillars, understanding their labors as an offering to God. And when they were about to die, they often asked to be taken to the place they had worked in the cathedral. With their family gathered around them they would pass their tools to their sons and commend the next generation to further progress on that tabernacle of God. Then, in peace they would pass from this life.[vi]

That is the kind of stuff that individualism can’t produce. But this is what it means to be part of the kingdom of God. It’s to lay down your personal dreams and aspirations, marking out your niche in the world. And instead see yourself as part of a whole, something bigger than you, and in the end find yourself to have been a part of the most glorious thing imaginable.

Conclusion

I hope that we can begin to see and repent of our individualism and work through that together in community. God’s desire for Immanuel Baptist Church is that we would grow together in appreciation for what we have in Christ – enjoying the Good News. He wants our church to be centered around Jesus and not just viewed as a place to be around people similar to us. He wants us to learn love by making commitments, bonds that last a long time, through thick and thin and are only loosened in order to bring more people to Christ – a multiplying community. He wants us to be unified around a common cause – enjoying and proclaiming the Good News of Christ in the great city of Chicago. That’s what I pray the Spirit brings out of this retreat.

The Lord’s Table

Let’s repent of our individualism… Let the necessity of someone else saving you put to death your rugged individualism. Let the participation in Christ pictured in this meal remind you that you don’t stand alone; you are in him. And let the fact that there are others eating with you remind you that you are in him with them. “Because there is one loaf, we, who are many, are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf” (1Cor. 10:17).

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