“Think for yourself but not by yourself,” are words that succinctly capture the tension between individuality and community. On one hand, none should leave their brains at the church gate and on the other, nobody is an island. We easily swing from one extreme to the other, hugging each other with smiles in one moment but storming off to angry solitude the next. In our time it has become popular to focus on “me and God” but we are more than bleeding hearts and talking heads, we are irrevocably social creatures. An individualistic DIY Christianity is without echo in the Bible.
Accountability. That’s a tough word to swallow. Leaving trembling knees in its wake, it is a word that floats into our minds and paints pictures of auditors poring through our past seeking to laud or chastise in the present. It is a word waved by irate subordinates demanding nothing but transparency from their leaders. It is a word sweet to the mouth that utters it but bitter and maddening to the ears that hear it. Despite all this, accountability is necessary, an indispensable tool to pull the wayward back to the straight and narrow.
In our day, though, it is popular to declare that God is more concerned with our hearts than anything else. Terms such as church discipline are considered the worst taboo. With the unfolding history of the church’s abuse of power and menacing attitude toward individuality, contemporary leeriness of church discipline is hardly unfounded but it would do us all a world of good to remember that the cure for an extreme has never included swinging to another extreme. Individualism is contrary to the communal tenor of scripture from the man and woman created in God’s image to the city in the Earth made new. We are to be a community.
Paul himself, when struck with blindness by the panoply of the vision on the road to Damascus was directed to the church for healing by Jesus himself. Some time before that, Jesus, freshly resurrected, had declared the church, the community of believers as the highest spiritual authority on earth. This authority was never meant to be authoritarian, coercive and exclusionary but respectful, humble, inclusive and redemptive. The church’s role is to take part in expanding God’s kingdom on earth. From that perspective, the church’s success must be measured by how many it has introduced to the King and not by how many it has excluded.
The cold hard truth that we have to swallow is that we are too weak to stand alone. The Christian who deludes himself into DIY thinking is in danger of falling. Paul’s words to the struggling Galatians were timely: “bear each other’s burdens.” When one of us stumbles and falls we must all gather around to help lift them up and not trample. Building the community needs not the dissolution of individuality but the death of individualism. The church’s answer to Cain is yes, you are your brother’s keeper.