It’s nearly impossible to overstate how badly we've been corrupted and misled by our collectively individualistic worldview. It affects everything. It damages our moral compasses, negatively impacts our personal relationships, perverts our connection with the church body and drastically affects our reading of scripture.
Take the above verse from first Corinthians. Read it carefully. Many North Americans will take away from this that each of us is a temple of the Holy Spirit; each of us has a “little piece of God” that we’re carrying around with us day-to-day. Now while that might be true to a certain extent, this isn’t Paul’s point.
His point can be found by understanding that the word ‘you’ in this case is plural (hard to avoid, there is no plural form for ‘you’ in the English language) and the word ‘temple’ is singular. Paul is saying that the collective ‘you’ forms the temple of God. Together, God inhabits us. The NLT lays it out nicely:
Don’t you realize that all of you together are the temple of God and that the Spirit of God lives in you?
1 Corinthians 2:16-17 (NLT)
Modern Christians are fond of saying “we are the church”. That is to say, the building is not the church, we are. This is true, and I hope we don’t stop saying this. The problem comes, however, from the fact that we often implicitly believe this to mean “each of us” is the church, and “each of us” carries church with us wherever we go.
This individualistic assumption not only runs counter to the biblical narrative, it tends to have the exact opposite impact that Paul intends, in that we often use this “we are the church” rationale to justify not engaging other Christians. “If I’m the church,” one might say, “then I don’t need that uncomfortable building, those boring people or that moralizing pastor. I can go ahead and ‘be’ church in my own time, and in my own way.”
But saints, there is no such thing as individualistic Christianity. Yes, faith should be deeply personal and incredibly intimate, but this is not the same thing as being individualistic. Many pastors unconsciously respond to the unspoken egoism in our congregations by urging “each of us” to carry out our evangelistic activities (e.g. sharing Jesus with our coworkers) on our own time, in our own little worlds.
Yes, we should share Jesus with our coworkers, absolutely. But are we engaging is such activities with other Christians? If we aren’t working with other Christians, praying with other Christians, eating with other Christians, mourning with other Christians, rejoicing with other Christians, then we’re not behaving like Christians.
I could go on a tangent here and cite verse after verse that emphasizes the corporate nature of faith in Christ. But instead I’ll encourage all of us to think about the assumptions we bring to our reading of the bible. Our western individualistic mindsets skew everything, the way we interpret every detail, every word, every parable and every prayer. To what extent have we read into scripture the militantly individualistic mindset that has become the bedrock of western culture?
Suffice it to say, if we are to remain in Christ, as He commanded (John 15:4), going it alone is not an option.
Go to church.
Unless the Lord builds the house,
the builders labor in vain.
Unless the Lord watches over the city,
the guards stand watch in vain.
- Psalm 127:1
I suspect you would never intend this, but this is what happens. When you attempt to live by your own religious plans and projects, you are cut off from Christ, you fall out of grace. Meanwhile we expectantly wait for a satisfying relationship with the Spirit. For in Christ, neither our most conscientious religion nor disregard of religion amounts to anything. What matters is something far more interior: faith expressed in love.
- Galatians 5:4-6 (The Message)
There is a critical difference between practicing obedience to the Lord Jesus Christ and embarking on self-centered religious expeditions. The former comes from a place of worship: namely worship of the Triune God and a profound recognition of His sovereign right to rule our lives. The second also comes from a place of worship, albeit a different sort altogether. This is the worship of an idol that we hope to become, an image of a self-styled, successful religionist: someone who is able to bend the ear of other Christians and lead them in grand and impressive projects.
We must be ever vigilant to ensure we’re on the right side of this problem.
How? Good question. Ego is a tempting mistress. Vanity is ruthless and persistent, eager to lead us down false and fruitless paths; and she is not above using the appearance of virtue to do so. Search your heart; can you count the number of times you’ve used religious or moralistic rationalizations to justify egocentric conduct? I can’t. There are far too many to count.
So how? How can we ensure we’re being obedient to righteousness, rather than enslaved to moralistic vanity? Why, the Cross of course. The Grace of our Lord Jesus Christ gives us the power to confess our sin anew every single day – as many times as we encounter it – invite the Holy Spirit to come into our lives and plead with Him to continue His beautiful work: reconstructing our hearts.
This is why Christ commanded us to remain firmly attached to Him at all times:
“I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful. You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you. Remain in me, as I also remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me.”
- John 15:1-4
In my next post, I’ll discuss how critical a role the Church plays in our connection to Jesus. For now, suffice it to say we do well to resist the temptation to practice an idolatry of the ideal self, and to empty ourselves before Christ so the Holy Spirit may fill the void.
Heavenly Father, how tyrannized we are by our own egos! We long to put ourselves aside and invite you in, so that we may be remade, and that we may gladly follow in your footsteps, the footsteps of a loving but uncompromising servant. We can’t do this without your grace, and without your loving hand firmly in our lives. We invite you in and ask you to continue this worthwhile work, in Jesus’ name, Amen.
Colin McComb lives in Edson, Alberta with his wife, Gail, and their three lovely children.