Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Ken's Individualistic Tendencies Take A Hit

Don’t let my passionate entreaties against individualism in the church fool you. I am a closet individualist.

Left to myself, I tend to read the Bible in a very individualistic manner. I fail to remember (that is to say, I forget) that normally the exhortations in Scripture are given to the church as a whole, to the community of believers, to all God’s people. And they are intended to be practiced within the church, not without it.

For example, last week I was preparing a sermon on Galatians 5:22-23. You’ll recognize it:

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.

As I prepared this sermon, Individualistic Ken intended to expand on our priority to love God, to enjoy God, to have peace with God. Me and God. The Spirit at work in me. My life.

However, a good, thick book hit me over the head and helped me see that the context of Galatians 5:22-23 is relationships within the church. In fact, this context is so pronounced that it becomes necessary to understand the fruit of the Spirit as the love, joy, peace, etc., that is exhibited within the context of our relationships with others.

For example, Galatians 5:13-15:

For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” But if you bite and devour one another, watch out that you are not consumed by one another!

And on the other side, Galatians 5:25-26:

If we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, provoking one another, envying one another.

And then on into Galatians 6, which is a heavy dose of practical, relational theology.

So the point of this ninefold fruit of the Spirit is love within the Christian community (the local church in particular), joy in our relationships with one another, peace among ourselves, patience with one another, etc. Of course all this involves individual piety as well. We cannot love others without first loving God; we cannot serve anyone effectively without the joy of our salvation. All that is true, but it is not the main point - not here, anyway.

I think—I hope—that I am a recovering individualist. Here are some things I’ve learned:

1. Yes, the church is composed of individuals and the amazing reality is that Jesus Christ died for, and loves, even me. God’s word tests our individual hearts, desires, choices. We must begin here.
2. But we must not end there.
3. The commands and encouragements in Scripture are generally given within a community context because we are to “love God” and “love our neighbor.”
4. This means we cannot fool ourselves as easily. There is an objective way in which we can examine whether we are, in fact, loving God—are we practically loving our neighbor? Are we peacemakers? Are we patient with one another?
5. This is also an encouragement. We’re not alone in the Christian walk. Struggling with temptation? Don’t try to go it alone! Find a Christian brother (if male) or sister (if female) and fight the good fight with someone at your side.
6. This also keeps us humble. God is less concerned with our individual achievements as with being glorified within the church as a whole. “To him be the glory in the church” (Ephesians 3:21).
7. Our sermons should never leave people feeling alone. Not only do believers have a Triune God who will never leave them nor forsake them, they have the body of Christ.
8. For example, the Great Commission. It is not about a million individuals getting their act together and doing evangelism. It is about the church as a whole witnessing the good news to the world as each person contributes their particular gifts.

Well, enough of that for now. I hope I get the point.

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