I wrote an article recently for Biola Magazine, the official publication of Biola University, about the challenges Christian universities are facing on “religious freedom” issues related to changing cultural norms–particularly around gender and sexual orientation–and their accompanying legal protections. What happens when an individual (student, staff or faculty member) decides they want to join a community like Biola but live in a manner that is inconsistent with the institution’s convictions? Whose rights matter more? The individual who refuses to sacrifice the freedom to behave in a way they say is essential to their identity, or the institution that refuses to sacrifice the convictions they, similarly, say are essential to their identity?
Though last year’s Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Supreme Court case may give credence to the notion that corporate (as in group) rights/identity/conscience are equally or more sacred than an individual’s, most evidence in our culture points in the direction of the individual’s right being king. And this should be no surprise to us in America, right? We’ve preached the gospel of individualism since our founding days and the sovereignty of self-determination is inculcated in our slogans (“be all that you can be”), songs (“baby you were born this way”) and selfie sticks. The primacy of the individual–the encouragement to “climb every mountain,” pursue every dream and create every identity as we see fit–is unmistakable in modern western culture. And the church has bought into it too.
This is one of the reasons why evangelical Christianity in the west is finding itself so confused, so weak and so easily defeated in LGBTQ discussions. We’re a fundamentally communal entity whose existence relies upon an authority beyond the individual, but you wouldn’t know it from the way we’ve preached, worshipped and lived. We’ve been complicit in a culture of individualism and perpetuated the very worldview that has led to our present problems with disintegrating consensus amidst DIY spirituality. To argue against someone’s individual rights or in any way question the validity of their “personal story” is, after all, to hypocritically renege on the logic of a “just me and Jesus” Christianity and the “personal relationship” narrative we’ve so enthusiastically preached.
This is a point I raise in my Biola Magazine article:
Have Christians in America bought into individualism to such an extent that we’ve downplayed the church’s fundamentally communal identity, both in our practicing and articulating of Christianity? Have we rallied around the banner of “individual rights!” to the extent that we are now in a weak position to claim that some individual rights must be given up for the sake of Christian communal expression? Does the ubiquity of seeker-sensitive, have-it-your-way, just-me-and-Jesus Christianity in America make it hard for us to claim that religious groups and institutions are as (or more) legitimate manifestations of religion than individuals worshiping in their own preferred way?
If Christians are to be taken seriously in their claims that institutional identity can trump individual identity, we need to start practicing, preaching and living into the communal reality of being the people of God (plural).
We need to resist the iChurch model of tailoring church to its members’ lives and desires and instead condition members to tailor their lives, collectively, to the desires of Christ. We need to recognize the “personal relationship” language as a western individualist distortion and resist its manifestation in everything from the pronouns we use in our praise songs (“I” rather than “we”), the ways we label ourselves (individualist “Jesus follower” rather than communally associated “Christian”) to the way we structure our small-group discussions (“What does this passage mean to YOU?”). We need to resist the idolatry of “personal preference” religion, challenging ourselves to commit to a church even when it’s messy, uncomfortable, awkward and costly. We need to quit pitting Jesus against religion, as if we if can ever live without a head (Jesus) AND a body (the church). We need to resist building our identities on the American dream (an insatiable pursuit of self-justification) and instead accept our new identity of being justified in Christ to be God’s people (collective), a holy nation (collective), “living stones being built into a spiritual house” (1 Peter 2:5)
Perhaps most importantly as it relates to the credibility of our witness, we need to call out the sin of going-it-my-own-way individualism wherever we see it (not just on the issue of sexual conduct). We need to call out the people who argue that following Jesus can happen in isolation from other believers. We need to call out the people who believe their marriages, families and financial decisions are private matters to be kept completely separate from a church community. We need to call out hypocrisy among those in our churches who insist on celibacy for gay Christians but are unwilling to welcome those same gay Christians into a tight-knit community where intimacy and family are offered. We need to call out sin consistently and not only where it suits us, calling on all members to embrace sacrifice and the denial of desires that conflict with the gospel.
Because only together will any of us grow into the people God needs us to be, to build the “spiritual house” the world needs to see.