Click here to edit subtitle


In Support of Individualism - The Church Without Institutions (part 4)

Posted by thethousandmarch on March 9, 2014 at 3:55 PM

In this post I will discuss individualism, tribalism and church government.


A person’s response to the question – “is individualism bad?” – is very telling. Some people will of course say yes outright. Others will feel a need to qualify their answer; no but . . . . Their qualification then reveals a bias against individualism. They’ll acknowledge it has some benefits, but they don’t really like it. From my experience it seems that most church leaders, especially in the emerging church movement, are anti-individualism. But my answer to this question is an unqualified no. I can certainly acknowledge the abuses of irresponsible individualism, but this is not what I think of when I speak of individualism. When I hear the word individualism I don’t hear narcissism. I don’t automatically equate individualism with selfishness. This is in part why I don’t believe it is bad for a Christian to decide that an institutional church may not be the best place for them to be.


To me individualism means each person recognizing their freedom to take responsibility for their own actions. Individualism helps us see that we are free, there is absolutely no outside force that can constrain our choices. We choose to enter into and remain in relationship, community, society. Therefore no social institution can constrain us unless we agree to submit. Some people will deny this, but it is merely because they fail to see the freedom they possess. Of course this is in part due to the fact that many social institutions use coercion, such as shame, the threat of exclusion, and physical force as a means to enforce the will of those in charge. However this just means the individual chooses submission rather than punishment; it may be a terrible choice, but the choice is theirs.


This is individualism to me. And as I discussed in a previous series of posts (Am I an Evangelical) individualism is to me at the heart of the Reformation and thus Evangelicalism. The individual stands before God alone and must relate to God as an individual – no tribe or church can represent them. Even though being a Christian makes us part of a body manifested in localized gatherings – we enter into community and sometimes take part in formal institutions – we still function as free individuals responsible for ourselves.


Therefore we must remember that any organization, including a church or denomination, is never itself an individual entity. So we can never say for example: ‘Lutherans believe this’, ‘Texaco did that’, or ‘The American people want this’. Even if a majority of people in an organization do or think a particular thing, the group has not done or thought that particular thing.” Individuals make choices, not groups. Political leaders are able to pursue a course of action if a majority of their constituents don’t actively disagree with them and another powerful leader, such as a military general, doesn’t oppose them. The leaders of a church denomination are justified in making their core values and mission known and refusing to allow members of the institution to pursue actions they feel are in violation of those values and mission. But in both of these situations, it is the leaders who want a particular thing and make a specific decision. They will only retain power as long as they are able the maintain control over the institution, which requires convincing enough other people who have the power to depose them to keep them in charge and do what they say. In the end every institution, and their leaders, will only be able retain power if enough people, especially the most powerful people, agree to submit to them.


In regards to the Church this means that church institutions are not synonymous with the Church. Each institution merely represents a small group of people who identify in some way with a particular institution – and that association may not even include identifying as a Christian. The individuals who work for and lead these institutions make decisions and perform actions as representatives of the institutions, but their values and beliefs, which guide their decisions and actions, will never be completely congruent with each individual the institution is supposed to represent. So when an individual abandons one of these institutions and instead chooses to associate with other Christians, even if only in an alternate and informal way they have not left the Church they have simply stopped associating with a formal institution. They have not necessarily abandoned community, discipleship, accountability, corporate worship and study, or the mission of the Church – they may simply be pursuing these things in an alternate manner, which for many may be a more effective manner.


But what about submitting to the authority of the elders of the Church, an office we see established in the New Testament, you may ask. There is no formal institution which can legitimately claim its elders have been appointed by someone with apostolic authority. So then where does the authority of an institution come from? It comes from the consensus of those governed. A person is identified as having been gifted for ministry and their character is considered appropriate for leadership; the leaders of the institution certify that person as being an elder, deacon, pastor, etc. It does not matter what particular process is used, the consensus of the congregation, unopposed by a minority powerful enough to change the situation, is required. This is how the leaders of institutions are chosen and retain their power. Hopefully they submit their decisions to the revealed word of God, pray, and seek to be guided by the Holy Spirit. Yet when Christians are in disagreement one cannot simply insist that one’s way is God’s way (well you can, but that would be rather arrogant). If individuals are going to continue in community together they must come to a mutually agreeable consensus. If a consensus cannot be reached it is perfectly acceptable to go one’s separate ways (see Acts 15:36-41 as an example; and in this example Barnabus refuses to submit to Paul who most Christians would agree had apostolic authority). It is ridiculous to demand that each person must always submit to the consensus of their congregation, or the will of its leaders, and can never be justified in dissenting and disassociating.


I certainly respect the opinions of others living and dead – which includes traditions. I would never lightly ignore the consensus of my community. The books of the Bible were chosen by an agreed upon consensus of what books were revelation from God. The New Testament was specifically formed by an agreed upon consensus of what books were written by an apostles or under the authority of an apostle – giving the author the authority to speak on behalf of Jesus. There was a consensus that Paul and James had apostolic authority. Orthodox Christianity is a consensus of what early Christians believed about Jesus and his teachings. These beliefs developed over time often in response to opposing views; they were not forced upon the Church by a central authority. Yet though I respect the consensus I must relate to God as an individual, and as my creator only God has final authority over me. Consensus can guide me, but I must make my own decisions. Therefore I respect the individualism of others; I respect the individual’s right to reject the leadership of their community.


So what does this mean for the organization of the Church and governance of those institutions we call churches? The Church should organize in ways that encourage individual participation; our institutions should no longer be structured in ways that create a separation between the institution and the people it is intended to represent. It is this separation which creates a two class system of clergy and laity. There are those who serve and those who are served. This has led to a situation in which most Christians act like consumers, church planters are entrepreneurs, and pastors are managers, head pastors are CEOs – which would be fine if churches were businesses. Unfortunately more and more American churches seem to be organizing themselves like businesses. In the past most churches organized themselves after the dominant models of imperialism and feudalism. But during the reformation a more democratic form of church governance emerged in Presbyterianism and Congregationalism. And many people from those church traditions which brought these systems to North America are proud of the influence it had upon the establishment of democracy in the United States. But this form of democracy is already outdated; we have more advanced ways and a better understanding of how to engage the members of a society.


One way of finding out what people really want is let them have the freedom to choose; people will vote by using their resources in the way they most value. However churches may not actually accomplish the mission of the Church simply by doing whatever it is people like best. And as I said we want participants, not just consumers. How do you organize a church like that? I talked about this in the last post when I discussed the starfish organizational model. Research that idea and similar ideas, such as open source, open government, and crowd sourcing, and you’ll find out how this type of thinking is affecting the organizational models of many institutions today – even governments around the world are using technology like wikis to get immediate input from their citizens. Likewise churches should use technology to make their organizations more transparent and encourage participation.


There are other ways to make churches more participatory that include using old ‘technologies’. Corporate worship should be structured in ways that encourage participation and interdependence. We need to move away from the modern professional performance model. One way to do this is by adopting liturgical practices from the past (which I’ve written about). We could also look to a folk art model. Making church more participatory means adopting a variety of teaching models and taking discipleship beyond the classroom. And it involves changing our attitude of what churches are for; churches do not exist to do the work of the Church, they exist to equip the people who make up the Church to do the work of the Church. This means church leaders need to figure out better ways to train their congregations to do the work and then trust them to do it; stop trying to be in control, stop trying to measure, stop trying to get credit. It means we need to stop thinking that only the work of an institutional church constitutes the work of the Church, and that a person has to be involved with an institutional church to be involved with the Church.


Though the Church should never rule through force, at the local level a church is certainly justified in excluding those who violate its values and mission, especially those who hurt others. When it is used it should be more a means of protecting others in a church, not punishing the one excluded. As a form of discipline exclusion has very limited power. The Church in Corinth could actually kick someone out of the entire Church community; the man they kicked out couldn’t just go down the street to another community that didn’t know he was sleeping with his father’s wife. But that’s not the case today. No church in America today has this ability. For which I’m glad, because those communities today which do have some power to use exclusion as a meaningful punishment tend to have leaders who use that power for their own selfish means. These are generally “tribes” which are poorly integrated into the broader society.


There are many people today who tell us our society is returning to a form of tribalism. Those opposed to individualism seem to be drawn to this idea of tribalism, which they equate with community. To begin with I don’t think we are returning to tribalism – niche marketing is not tribalism. But more importantly a return to tribalism would be terrible. Tribes have their benefits – especially if you’re a hunter-gatherer, sustenance farmer, or need protection because you live in a society with a large amount of conflict – but the drawbacks far outweigh the benefits. To begin with tribalism keeps your society from developing into a society with less conflict. Societies based upon tribes do not cooperate well with others, so they rarely trade. They don’t pursue mutually beneficial outcomes – when they want something someone else has they fight. Tribes are a way of prejudging and excluding others simply because they are not related. Tribes are not based upon shared values. They are arbitrary connections – some of these connections may be good, but many will be with people who have little or no merit, who do not share our values, who do not deserve our loyalty. (This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t love them, just that we should not bind ourselves to them.) Because tribe members are not good at interacting with outsiders, let alone integrating, tribes are able to enforce burdensome customs and practices because the cost of disobedience is so great. The collective power of a tribe forces people into terrible situations.


Community is wonderful, but a tribe is hardly the only form of community. It is not a metaphor the Church should use, because we are to be a body made up of every tribe, tongue and nation.


Our churches should be structured in such a way that we encourage individual participation, growth and responsibility. Our institutions should not create atmospheres where unquestioning conformity is demanded or coerced. Our communities should encourage freedom of thought, even though this will mean that we at times realize we do not always have shared values and mission, and should therefore go our separate ways. Any institution which actually cares about the people it claims to represent and serve will not seek to force those people to participate in and support that institution against their will. The leaders of church institutions should seek to build institutions made up of like-minded people with shared values and a shared mission to do the work of the Church. And if a person doesn’t want to be a part of your institution it doesn’t mean they aren’t a part of the Church.


Categories: Church Without Institutions, The Emerging Church