Christianity: Rugged Individuals Need Not Apply (Part One)

Christianity in the United States
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Mick Turner

Over the course of the centuries, the Christian faith has undergone numerous changes in terms of both doctrine and practice. Largely dependent upon sociological factors associated with a particular location and culture, these changes often reflected the dominant worldview of the society in which the faith existed. The brand of Christianity commonly practiced in America is no exception to this socio-theological phenomenon.

Over the course of several centuries, Christianity in America has imbibed and digested several prominent cultural ideals and this process has had a significant impact on the faith as we know it. In fact, this process of taking on cultural baggage has resulted in the “Americanized” brand of Christianity to become the accepted norm – the status quo – against which all other manifestation of the faith are judged. This, as we shall see, is highly unfortunate because the status quo brand of American Christianity is far from the faith inaugurated by Jesus and carried forward by the apostles and the early church.

If one character trait can be described as peculiarly American, it would be “rugged individualism.” In our nation, the individual and his or her freedom, rights, and property are considered sacred. This belief in the sanctity of the individual permeates all aspects of our culture and so it is not at all surprising to see that its tentacles have reached deep into the American form of Christianity. American Christianity, for all its claims to the contrary, is largely a privatized affair. One’s “personal relationship” with God and Jesus is seen as the most fundamental aspect of the faith. Although the church gathers in community once or twice a week, what really matters is the relationship between the individual and God. We can even see this phenomenon at the very outset of a person’s walk of faith, at the time of conversion. One is considered a Christian and saved if one has accepted Jesus Christ as his or her personal savior.

Most American Christians are mortified to discover that these words are not found anywhere in scripture. In fact, the whole notion of “accepting Jesus” is also absent from the Bible, but has become a mainstay of American Christianity.

I mention all of this because it is imperative that the church return to its more original beliefs, especially those which stress community, compassion, and service to others.  The notes below are from Mike Erre’s “Death by Church.”

Jesus’ announcement of the kingdom was coded with imagery to indicate that the centuries-old exile of Israel among the nations was finally ending and that He intended to reconstitute a new community of God, formed around Himself. This means, among other things, that “what Jesus was to Israel, the church must now be for the world. Everything we discover about what Jesus did and said within the Judaism of his day must be thought through in terms of what it would look like for the church to do and be this for the world.

After setting Jesus’ mission and teachings firmly within the context of First Century Judaism, Erre goes on to draw parallels between Jesus and the church of today. As we look at these notes from Erre, it will be apparent how far away from the original teachings American Christianity has drifted.

Central to understanding this call of Jesus is the idea that it concerned itself less with the salvation of individual souls and more with the formation of a renewed Israel, a community of disciples that would collectively embody the kingdom once Jesus ascended to the Father. The kingdom of God and the community it creates are primarily public and therefore social entities. To be brought into the kingdom involves membership, citizenship, adoption into a new family, new loyalties and allegiances, and a fundamentally new identity. This is no mere “personal relationship with Jesus.” To be a citizen of the kingdom is to be given privileges and obligations that entail relationships with other people. These dimensions of kingdom life supersede individual faith, experience, and practice. Kingdom citizenship reorients our relationships to the King, to the other citizens of the kingdom of God, and to other kingdoms. That is why so much of the New Testament contains ethical teaching regarding relationships with other members of the kingdom and with those who stand outside it.

Naturally, this reorientation brought about by the kingdom perspective radically alters the nature of the church in both its mission and its teaching. No longer will the individualized religion of the status-quo rule the day. Instead, the “kingdom church” will be a collective of mutually interdependent members of Jesus’ kingdom on earth – a place where service to others holds sway over individualized religion and unity of mission trumps bruised egos and personal agendas. Erre continues:

Jesus’ announcement about the kingdom of God refers to the rule of God in our hearts and relationships. God was at hand in Jesus, living amid people and calling them to obedience. The church is the assembly of people who have welcomed God’s reign in their hearts and relationships. The church consists of citizens of the kingdom. It’s the body of Christ composed of obedient disciples following in the way of Jesus. The church isn’t a building, sanctuary, or program. It is the visible community of those who live under the authority of the King.

And this King has decreed that independence has no place in His kingdom. Instead, collective interdependence is demanded. Privacy and individual rights are supplanted by mutual submission and relational accountability. Those who yield their hearts to the King find they must yield their relationships also. The reign of God creates, orders, and sustains a collection of relationships that bind the King and His subjects together.

Given the repeated scriptural references to community and the development of one’s faith within that context, Erre expresses surprise that we Americans could have drifted so far in the opposite direction:

…….given such blatantly communal and social language in the Bible as exodus, kingdom, church, family, and household, it can be difficult to comprehend how we have managed to so thoroughly privatize New Testament faith. Pastoral ministry has now been reduced to marketing and psychotherapy – disciplines that both concentrate exclusively on the individual. The message of the gospel is treated the same way. The American gospel concerns itself solely with the inner, private world of people as they exist only in relation to God. There is usually no talk of community, tradition, or public accountability………….But this is not New Testament faith. It is not of Jesus or His apostles, nor is it the understanding of the earliest Christians. Reception of the kingdom, far from being a matter solely between the individual and God, amounts to being grafted into a new people. People believe the gospel and through it become God’s covenant people. The early church never saw itself as a collection of individuals gathering to pursue their own individual spiritual programs for growth. To view the church in these terms is to deny the very purpose for which it was called into existence: to testify to the reality of the kingdom-inaugurating agenda of Jesus Christ. By His Spirit and through His people, He is working to put everything back the way He wants it.

I truly appreciate the clarity and precision used by Erre to describe how the early church saw its primary purpose: “to testify to the reality of the kingdom-inaugurating agenda of Jesus Christ.” We contemporary Christians would do well to remember and implement this mission on a daily basis because, after all, it remains our primary task.

………to be continued

(c) L.D. Turner 2011/All Rights Reserved

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