Individuality in Community

by Matthew Raley

In modern philosophy (as I sketched here), the dignity and freedom of the individual have been troubled. Here is how Reinhold Niebuhr summarized one aspect of the problem in The Nature and Destiny of Man (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1949, p 21):

Modern man … cannot determine whether he shall understand himself primarily from the standpoint of the uniqueness of his reason or from the standpoint of his affinity with nature; and if the latter whether it is the harmless order and peace of nature or her vitality which is the real clue to his essence.

In postmodern culture, exhausted with these questions, the individual has become an autonomous consumer of mass culture: self-invented, alienated, rootless, and unaccountable to permanent relationships. She mines her passions in search of vitality, a search for which boundaries, reasoning, and even relationships are impediments.

The postmodern individual understands herself from the standpoint of natural vitality, but in her the outward-reaching wonder of modern romanticism is dead, replaced by an inward-reaching nihilism.

The iPod worshiper I described last week is little different. He or she comes to public worship wanting the freedom to sing alone to God with others who are also singing alone to God. The iPod worshiper knows no other mode for passionate freedom but the personal, subjective, solo mode. Christ and his community are understood from the standpoint of self, which is antithetical to Paul’s description of body life in Ephesians 4-5.

(I think the younger you are, the more likely you are to identify with iPod worship. The older you are, the less you identify with it, because to some degree you have experienced a culture held in common.)

To revive evangelical worship, most believers jump to the issue of music style. “Naturally, the style I like is what will revive worship.” But I will address music style last in this series, because style needs to serve many, many other considerations. The reason we now have churches full of iPod worshipers is that all other considerations of worship were made to serve style.

What we need to work on exegetically is this problem of individuality-in-community. What is individuality, and what is it for? What is personal freedom, and what is it for? What is the nature of the bond between individual Christians, and what is that bond for? What do individual Christians owe in light of their bond with each other?

If we have some answers to these questions, the matter of what and how to sing may become clearer.

Let’s take some direction about individuality from Ephesians.

1. In Ephesians, we understand ourselves not from the standpoint of our past, present, or preferences, nor from our rationality, nor from our natural drives. In fact, we don’t view ourselves from the standpoint of self at all, but from that of Christ.

Paul describes a variety of individuals at work in the community of believers, each part “working properly” in the body — that is, contributing a unique strengths and actions to shared life. But the individual parts all “grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ.” (4.15-16)

So the Jewish Christian descended from Levites has a unique role in the Ephesian church. He contributes a practical knowledge of how Israel worshiped, an instinctive appreciation of sacrifice for sin, and also an instinctive knowledge of the deceitful power of self-righteousness. The Greek Christian, a former worshiper of Diana, let’s say, contributes very different strengths to the other Christians in Ephesus: he knows the deceit of sexual immorality as a prop for idolatry, as well as the power of Christ to save a man from it.

Niebuhr said, “The Christian faith in God’s self-disclosure, culminating in the revelation of Christ, is thus the basis of the Christian concept of personality and individuality.” (p 15) The Jewish man and the Greek man have no need to compromise their uniqueness in the community of believers. They are each connected directly to their Savior, Jesus Christ. Niebuhr added, “To understand himself truly means to begin with a faith that he is understood from beyond himself, that he is known and loved of God and must find himself in terms of obedience to the divine will.” (p 15)

These two individuals are outward-reaching in their self-understanding. They are understood. Therefore they will come to understand themselves. The inward-reaching iPod believer needs to take out his earphones and leave the tiny world in which he thrives.

2. In Ephesians, we do not efface what we are, or where we came from, but we submit to Christ as he redeems what we are.

The Jewish man and the Greek man remain Jewish and Greek. The Jewish man’s emotional life still revolves around the Psalms, while the Greek man’s emotional life remains tied to the sound and form of hymns. Nothing will change that. One man is not required to conform to the other. Rather, Christ takes what each man is and Christ expresses his own self in each man.

And public worship reflects their individuality (5.19). Each individual contributes his or her unique strength in Christ to the love of the community, and he also receives strength in Christ from the community. The Greek man rejoices in the Jewish man’s testimony, and vice-versa.

In these two points, I find freedom without autonomy. As followers of Christ, the Jewish and Greek men are not self-invented, alienated, and rootless. They are defined in relationship. In that relationship with Christ, they are unique and they are also accountable.

In particular, as I’ll sketch next week, they are accountable for how they relate to each other.

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