Individualism, The Pursuit Of Autonomy And The Church

Jan 29th, 2022 | By | Category: Culture & Wordview, Featured Issues

The mission of Issues in Perspective is to provide thoughtful, historical and biblically-centered perspectives on current ethical and cultural issues.

Since we are in the early weeks of 2022, it is important for us who name Christ’s name, to remind ourselves of the priorities of our God and Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.  To that end, let’s give focus to the church, the most important institution God created for the proclamation and living out of His rescue plan for lost humanity.  At conversion we are placed into the body of Christ, the church, which, among other things, is the family of God.  “I” becomes “we” and it is in the local church where we begin to live out this family name.   We are now free in Christ; the bondage to sin has been broken and selfishness, self-centeredness and self-indulgence are replaced with an other-centered love for people.  We are willing to surrender our rights and liberties in Christ for the common good—for our families, for our local church and for our communities.  How does the church relate to key biblical concepts?

  • First, to God’s kingdom:  The kingdom is the sovereign rule of God over His creation.  It has been challenged by Satan’s rebellion, which humanity has joined (see Isaiah 14:12ff, Ezekiel 28:12ff; Genesis 3).  When Jesus came in His incarnation, he announced that the “kingdom was at hand” (see Matthew 3 and 4).  Satan’s kingdom is one of darkness, rebellion and evil, which Jesus, as the light of the world, is challenging.  He defeated Satan at the cross and His return to earth will forever put down the rebellion and bring God’s rule to earth during His Messianic kingdom of 1,000 years (see Revelation 20).  Then the “kingdoms of the world will become the kingdom of our Lord, and of His Christ” (Revelation 11:15).  We are to pray that His “kingdom will come, His will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10).  Members of the church are citizens of the kingdom (Philippians 3:20), acknowledging Jesus as Lord and King (1 Corinthians 12:3; Romans 10:9-10) and serving as His ambassadors until He returns (2 Corinthians 5:20).
  • Second, to the world: The fundamental struggle of this age is who has the right to rule: God or Satan?  The church of Jesus Christ is a part of this cosmic struggle.  The term “world” in the Bible is not related to creation but to the Fall.  It describes a world of evil, of adverse spiritual powers that work through humanity and aspects of God’s creation to produce hate, selfishness, greed, murder, violence and perversion.  Satan, who rules this “world” (2 Corinthians 4:4), seeks to influence people in such a way that the true function of creation is brought to ruination.  He distorts the structures of existence and seeks to hold people under the power of his perversion.  Satan works through the structures of culture to distort, pervert, and disfigure that which is good.  No part of the created order can escape the influence and power of Satan.  This created order involves not only the physical realm of nature, but also the cultural institutions that regulate human existence:  The state, politics, economics, the family, ideas, social rules and regulations, and everything that orders human life and social institutions.  The reality of satanic and demonic power is real and integral to biblical revelation.  The church, created at Pentecost (Acts 2, partially fulfilling the prophecies of Joel), is the New Covenant community of Jesus, indwelt by His Spirit, and empowered thereby to represent Him to the “world.”
  • Third, the primary mission of the church:  Along with teaching, exhortation and encouragement are essential for the growth of believers as they face a hostile world (Acts 14:21-22; Hebrews 3:13).  Exhortation and encouragement are accomplished by gathering (normally on Sunday) with other believers in corporate worship (Hebrews 10:24-25), where there is the reading of the Word, prayer, singing of praises, the preaching/teaching of the Word, and the collection of offerings (see Acts 20:7; 2:42; 4:31; 1 Timothy 2:1; Ephesians 5:19; Colossians 3:16; Acts 11:27-30; 1 Corinthians 16:1). The local church is also to teach, cultivate and nurture love, as it is woven into the fabric of believers’ lives (1 Corinthians 13; John 13:34-35).  It is commanded by Jesus and is the mark of the church.  The local church is to witness to the world what Christ has accomplished through His death, burial and resurrection.  This is done through proclamation and through the exemplary behavior of believers in every circumstance of life.  As salt and light, the church benefits and enriches culture.  Church members are guardians and examples of truth in a world of falsehood and deception and are thereby instruments to restrain evil (2 Thessalonians 2:6-7).


With this refresher complete, how does all this fit with the precious ideas of human rights and liberties?  As Americans, such a discussion naturally begs the question of our personal rights and liberties—those mentioned in the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights, which the state is to protect and guard.  How do my rights as an American intersect with being a kingdom citizen, with being Christ’s salt and light?  Do I demand and insist on my rights or am I willing to surrender those rights for the common good?

  • To answer these questions, let’s first gain an historical perspective.  Recently, columnist George Will, citing the eminent British political philosopher, Michael Oakeshott’s essay, “The Masses in Representative Democracy,” provides a helpful summary.  “Modernity’s greatest achievement, which was the prerequisite for its subsequent achievements, was the invention of the individual. Oakeshott argued that, in the 14th and 15th centuries, conditions emerged that were ‘favorable to a very high degree of human individuality,’ meaning ‘persons accustomed to making choices for themselves’. . . Persons knew themselves only as members of a family, a group, a church, a village or as the occupant of a tenancy: ‘What differentiated one man from another was insignificant when compared with what was enjoyed in common as members of a group of some sort.’  This began to change in Italy with ‘the break-up of medieval communal life.’ As the historian Jacob Burckhardt would write, ‘Italy began to swarm with individuality; the ban laid upon human personality was dissolved.’ Individuals detached themselves from derivative group identities, becoming eligible for individual rights grounded in the foundational right to an existence independent of any group membership.”
  • “The invention of the individual, Oakeshott wrote, entailed the idea of the private—a zone of personal sovereignty independent of communal arrangements. Hence the American Revolution: Government exists to protect the individual’s right to the pursuit of happiness as the individual defines it, not the pursuit of the good life as government defines it. Government must be powerful enough to protect (in Oakeshott’s formulation) ‘the order without which the aspirations of individuality could not be realized’—security of person and property—but not powerful enough to threaten individuality.”


This brief review is central to understanding the political culture of America in 2022:  In the US, what Will calls the “national conservatives,” who are collectivists on the right, recoil against modernity in the name of communitarian values, “strongly tinged with nativist nationalism and with a trace of the European blood-and-soil right.”  These “national conservatives” have an unacknowledged kinship with their collectivist cousins on the left, “the race identitarians.” Their critical race theory subsumes individualism, dissolving it in a group membership — “racial solidarity, which supposedly has been forged in the furnace of racist oppression.”


The church is above all of this.  A fundamental principle for Christian thinking deals with the common good—the issue of love of neighbor. The common good argument is extremely powerful in the Christian tradition. Indeed, it is the second greatest commandment listed by Jesus Christ: to love our neighbors as ourselves. The general principle of the common good comes down to benevolence, love, care for others, laying down personal priorities for the service of others. Believers know how to balance the worth and value of the individual rooted in being an image-bearer of God, with the doctrine of the common good.  We are not aligned with the “national conservatives” and we are not aligned with the new “identitarians.”  We are aligned with Jesus.  We know when to surrender our rights for the common good and we know how to express the agape love of Jesus toward others.  As kingdom citizens we serve our King, not partisan political leaders or the bankrupt theories of left-wing collectivism.  Radical individualism and the pernicious pursuit of personal autonomy are replaced with mutual love and edification in the church. “I” becomes “we” and it is in the local church where we begin to live out this family name.

See George Will in the Washington Post (26 December 2021).

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One Comment to “Individualism, The Pursuit Of Autonomy And The Church”

  1. Peter Wiebe says:

    Thank you for an insightful and enlightening article.