This past week I had the privilege of participating in the formation meeting of the Fellowship of Mere Christianity. The Fellowship is a new kind of church association that was formed to provide resources and accountability to member churches and individuals who are united in essential orthodox beliefs but may differ in the non-essentials.
Instead of organizing around doctrines that distinguish one group of Christians from another, the Fellowship of Mere Christianity seeks to organize based upon those essential doctrines with which we all should agree, namely the supremacy of Christ and the extension of His kingdom. The Fellowship of Mere Christianity, I hope and pray, will serve to encourage healthy catholicity and true biblical fellowship among the Body.
However, this emphasis on biblical fellowship prompted me to reflect on the nature and purpose of "fellowship" within the Church, in particular the American church. While we may want to experience genuine and meaningful fellowship, there are, I think, some formidable barriers to true biblical fellowship intrinsic to American culture that must first be overcome—in short, radical individualism.
Ironically, the rise of individualism owes its existence to the Christian worldview in which humanity has both general and particular value in the sight of God. Being made in the image of God, humanity is the pinnacle of God's creation and being imbued with an individual soul and distinct personality, we are individually unique. God values each individual and thus an individualism which recognizes the distinctiveness of each person while also acknowledging man's dependence upon God and obligation to others is a healthy individualism. In essence, it is the concept of the one and the many—the individual is certainly to be valued but not to the diminution of others. These principles served as the basis for human dignity and individual rights to liberty and justice set forth in the U.S. Constitution.
Unfortunately, Enlightenment thinkers, with their emphasis on the autonomous self exalted the individual to a "one against the many" or an "every man for himself" mode of thinking. Couple this with the extraordinary American conceptions of individual liberty and democracy and you have a nation of fiercely independent people. In many ways, this is a very good thing. However, it can like many things go too far, to the point of being detrimental. I would suggest that this can be a real struggle for us Americans given our fierce commitment to independence and personal freedom. While these ideas are both valued and biblically important they must be properly placed under the sovereign authority of God. Generally speaking, radicalized individualism has in many respects overtaken the Christian conception of individualism.
This radical individualism is a culturally induced way of thinking about ourselves in which we are encouraged to think of everyone else and all of reality, for that matter, from our perspective exclusively. "How does it finally relate to me?" In other words, we may tend toward a "me-centered" approach to everyone and everything instead of a Christ-centered approach.
More importantly, this radicalized individualism hinders the fellowship of believers and by extension, our personal spiritual growth. First, the fellowship of the saints is supremely important to God and therefore it should be important to us. It is after all the restoration of fellowship that is at the heart of God's redemptive plan, i.e. the restoration of fellowship with God but also with each other. Secondly, true fellowship demands that we, at the very least, balance and, if necessary, surrender our individualism in the interest of others as indicated in Philippians 2:1-4:
If you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.
Again, it is humility that is the essential characteristic of following Christ. Philippians chapter 2 goes on to stress that "our attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus" and then proceeds to describe this in terms of Christ's extraordinary humility. Humility only comes through submission to others. This is why the Lord saves us into the community of believers and not into isolation. It is why the Lord commands us to "go and make disciples" and not merely converts. This would indicate that salvation requires a turning from self and submission to God and the process of discipleship is a first step in the new pattern of living in submissive obedience. Being a disciple requires one to submit his or her self to another in humble admission that they are ignorant and in need of instruction.
It is through fellowship within the community of believers that we are encouraged to submit to God, the authority of the church, and being a disciple. These three all require submission and while submission to God may be the easiest followed by submission to an institution; it is when we submit to each other that we truly assume a humble heart. This is not the end to which we aspire but in fact, it is essential to beginning our new life in Christ. How? Because God gives grace to the humble and it is grace that transforms the human heart. It is grace that produces Christ-likeness. God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble (James 4:6). Thus the key to releasing grace into your life and mine is humility and humility comes through submission to others. Fellowship is an essential means by which we practice this submission.
Sadly, by holding on to this radicalized individualism, we bolster our pride and in so doing we struggle to experience real transformation. We often end up trying to "manage" our sin but never experience the life changing power of Christ that sets us free from sin. Biblical fellowship fosters humility, and humility invites God's grace into our lives, and God's grace transforms us in such a way that we bear witness to the truth of Jesus Christ. This radicalized individualism, which hinders the fellowship of believers, might be one reason for the lackluster witness of the Church in which so many seem to never experience real spiritual transformation.
S. Michael Craven is the Founding Director of the Center for Christ & Culture, a ministry of the National Coalition for the Protection of Children & Families. The Center for Christ & Culture is dedicated to the reformation and renewal of society through the reformation and renewal of the Church. For more information on the Center for Christ & Culture, additional resources, and other works by S. Michael Craven visit: www.battlefortruth.org