Friday, February 20, 2009

Community and Individualism

For a strong community, individualism must be fully embraced.

There is a move going on amongst different people wanting a more authentic Christian experience. There is a growing sense of tiredness, apathy, boredom and lack of purpose being found to varying degrees in God’s people. The idea of the Sunday sermon being the central value of a weekly routine of Christian devotion is losing its prominence. Podcasts are much more flexible both for when you listen to them and for the content that is of interest to you at that time. Hopefully, the vacuum and freedom that is being created will be filled with something that includes taking more personal responsibility and perhaps, innovation.

One of the new experiments, which is really an old experiment, is communal living: a group of people having everything in common. Some who go down this route take the view that it is Biblically mandated. The desire is to follow the teachings of the Bible in an absolute way and although that sounds virtuous it potentially opens itself up to causing people to conform rather develop their own individuality.

For about the first ten years after the resurrection, the early church was simply seen as another sect of Judaism. From the perspective of lifestyle issues there were no defining differences. In fact, even the apostles who had been personally trained by Jesus, had not understood their mandate for the evangelization of the world and the need to set aside deeply ingrained personal values, in order to do so.

They were essentially following a communal model of love and care but even they were quickly forced to face a distinctly racial overtone connected to who they cared for. The first group conflict in the church illustrates this,

32All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they shared everything they had. 33With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and much grace was upon them all. 34There were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned lands or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales 35and put it at the apostles' feet, and it was distributed to anyone as he had need.
Acts 4:32-35

1In those days when the number of disciples was increasing, the Grecian Jews among them complained against the Hebraic Jews because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food.
Acts 6:1

From a place of common care, to overlooking those who didn’t fit their perceived view of inclusion, took only a couple of years.

Meanwhile if a Gentile had joined the church at that time, they would have had to make a full conversion to Judaism including the ever popular act of circumcision.

The reality was that the early believers didn’t even consider that their message was a broader audience than just Jews scattered throughout the world.

In this simple story we discover the weakness of communal life. It tends to be exclusive in nature. Those wanting to participate must first change to fit the group. It’s almost like they have to agree to some policies prior to joining, in order to gain admittance to the joy and "safety" of community.

There is no doubt that the early days of Christianity were marked with an exuberant desire to sacrificially care for one another. In fact, they were so communally minded, the idea of the great commission being for ALL people was virtually not understood and therefore not valued, which proves that ignorance is bliss. In the short term, that was likely a good thing in order to train up and equip new believers. In the long term, it leads to an elitist mentality that includes as its central value:
become like us, in order to be with us.
It is rather striking that of all the values that the Bible speaks about, the one that it doesn't speak about has been passed down faithfully from one generation to another and is very alive and well in the 21st century. Not only that, but groups that are diametrically opposed to each other have this one value in common.

Right after the stoning of Stephen there was quite a severe persecution that happened causing the very satisfied and somewhat ignorant Messianic Christians, to be dispersed from Jerusalem into the Roman Empire. Communal life was quickly discarded with the more pressing issue of survival. Hopefully, the element of caring for one another without needing to belong to a group would be revealed for the sake of the gospel.

It was around 45 AD that the apostle Paul was now prepared to begin his first missionary trip to the Jews and the Gentiles. His message of Jesus being the only way of salvation was shocking to many Jewish Christians, as they had kept their attachment to the Mosaic Law and simply included Jesus in the keeping of the Law. Eventually Paul's perspective on the gospel caused not a few moments of discomfort for our blissfully ignorant Messianic Jews. I'm sure Paul could have had more impact on his Jewish brothers and sisters with a gospel that maintained the social order of the Jews. No doubt they thought, "Why not make the gentiles get circumcised? We did it, why should they get away without a little snip." Also, I'm sure Paul could have done without a few stonings and floggings that came simply because he refused to maintain the identity of the group that he came from. It seems that breaking away from old religious norms was as difficult then as it is today.

What is fascinating to me, in this brief exploration of early church history, is that the goal was not communal living. In fact communal living needs very little emphasis, as it is almost the most normative of human behaviour for people to band together: either religiously, ethnically, economically, politically or through family. In Canada, our preference is political socialism in order for us to not have to be too directly involved. And although much good can come from joining together for a short time, for a common purpose, invariably there is an elitist mentality that develops over a period of time from within the group. You simply have to go back to the tower of Babel to see what God thought of their fear of being scattered and their desire to band together. Genesis 11.

The goal of the gospel is presenting the gift of Jesus to whosover will receive it, with no strings attached. And yet, the normative approach in Christianity today is for people to conform to some group. Individualism is downplayed and usually not welcomed for the sake of the group. Rarely, do the strong support the weak in the current model but rather they tend to teach the new (weak) person to serve within the group.

This is done with the purpose of discipleship and in an effort to strengthen them but is in reality simply taking advantage of their naivety, with the results eventually being people afraid to step out of line of the collective group think for fear of being rejected by the group. I know of some groups that if you raised your hands in a meeting you would be asked to leave. I know of other groups that if you didn't raise your hands in a meeting they would think you are unspiritual. The group fears new thoughts and only allows those who have proven "loyal" to the group's philosophy to have a significant voice.

The idea of each member being truly valuable is often spoken but rarely is it allowed to flourish. Sometimes, this isn't even due to group identity issues as much as simple group dynamics: the diminishing effect of personal involvement and two way communication decreases exponentially for every person that joins in a particular meeting. I have greater involvement when I'm teaching a class of second language learners when the class size is less than 10. When the class is more than 20, the opportunity for individual involvement and care decreases dramatically.

Paul argues strongly for the dignity, value and input of every individual in a Christian gathering in 1 Corinthians 12.

21The eye cannot say to the hand, "I don't need you!" And the head cannot say to the feet, "I don't need you!" 22On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, 23and the parts that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor. And the parts that are unpresentable are treated with special modesty, 24while 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, 25so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. 26If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.

27Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.

Paul’s words were not spoken in the context of the fragmented groups that exist today. He simply taught one body of Christ and as each person brings their unique perspective or gift to the body, everyone is strengthened and Jesus is able to be in the midst. In other words, Jesus works with our individuality and that is how He wants to strengthen the whole. The problem for modern day church group models is that they are simply too large to allow for every member participation and end up defaulting to a single leader model that literally doesn't need Jesus for the group to function.

Also, Paul didn't say if you belong to such and such a group, you should receive their care. He said, if you belong to body of Christ, the body should be there to strengthen you. It is so normative to accept the varying groups that we can longer hear the simplicity of loving one another without being in the confines of some uniquely defined group. The challenge for communal groups, which tend to be small, will be inclusiveness versus exclusiveness. Over time, the latter will prove to be more valued.

The idea of many members (individuals, but not too many at one time) ministering to one another as Jesus’ body, has been replaced with the idea of many members (varying large church groups) representing an aspect of his body. The varying groups rarely listen to each other, in fact, some think that even considering to do so as an attack on their identity. The idea that each group contributes some unique perspective that eventually brings unity within the One Body of Christ is incredibly na├»ve at best. The varying groups do no exist for the purpose of building each other up and revealing the whole of Christ. Their purpose is for the promoting and strengthening of themselves, period.

Most desire to grow numerically, but the goal isn't Christ likeness but in group likeness. It would be doubtful that if Jesus really showed up that he would fit in with a particular group's identity. Heaven forbid, He might want to have a glass of wine with the ones that forbid drinking. He didn't fit in 2,000 years ago and when it comes to people defending the need for their group today, not much has changed.

Here is a short history lesson on the early church to document some of the above historical observations.

I. Introduction
The church was composed entirely of Jews, or at least those who adhered to the Mosaic Law, for about the first ten years of its existence. During this period (c. 30-40 A.D.), and for the next few decades, the Gentiles viewed the church as just another sect or offshoot of Judaism. Indeed, at first the church was in danger of becoming just that. Every Christian was a Jew and did everything the average Jew did. He still practiced circumcision and observed all the other precepts of the Mosaic Law (Acts 21: 20; 26:11). Even the apostles continued to observe the customs and laws of the Jews (Acts 3:1; 10:9-16; Gal. 2:11-13). It does not seem to have occurred to them that the death of Christ meant that they were no longer obligated to observe the Mosaic Law. They gave up none of their Jewish heritage. They were simply Jews who accepted Jesus as the Messiah. They saw no incompatibility between professing obedience to Moses and obedience to Christ. Moreover, they expected any Gentile who wanted to become a member of the church to first become a Jewish proselyte. Of course, this was not at all what the Lord had planned for His church. Such views and practices not only missed the purpose of the Mosaic Law but also tended to make the church another exclusivistic, Judaistic sect rather than the universal body it was intended to be (Mt. 28:19; Mk. 16:15).
II. Conversion of the Gentiles
It was in God's plans to admit the Gentiles to the church, but not as Jewish proselytes. As usual, this significant event was preceded by preparatory measures. The first of these was the large-scale persecution of the church following the stoning of Stephen (Acts 8:1-4). Ironically, it was Stephen who seems to have had the greatest appreciation of the fact of the demise of the Mosaic institutions and the acceptability of Gentiles for church membership as Gentiles, judging from the accusations brought against him (Acts 6:13,14) and the defense he himself made (Acts 7). However, it may be that his death did more to bring about the fulfillment of his teachings than the teachings themselves did, for his death was the beginning of a widespread persecution against the church which scattered it beyond the confines of Jerusalem and Judea. At first, the gospel was preached only to Jews, but a step away from Jerusalem was a step away from Judaism. This Judaistic hold on the church was loosened somewhat in the conversions the Samaritans and the Ethiopian eunuch.(Acts 8). This took the church half the way to the Gentiles, but something else had to occur before they were admitted: the conversion of Saul (Acts 9). This was necessary because Saul (Paul) was to be God's special apostle to the Gentiles (Acts 9:15; Rom. 11:13; Gal. 2:7,S). Saul's conversion is usually placed around 35 A.D. Then about 40 A.D. the apostle Peter was sent under the influence of special revelation and direct commandment from God to preach to the household of a Gentile named Cornelius (Acts 10). This was such a momentous event that the Lord saw fit to place His divine imprimatur upon it by giving the Holy Spirit to the Gentiles in a miraculous display prior to their baptism. This factor later figured heavily in the church's decision that the Gentiles did not have to become Jews to become Christians (Acts 11:1-18; 15:7-11).

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