Individualism and Scripture

Scripture does not speak to individuals.  It was never meant to.  It never has and it never will.  Stanley Hauerwas may be right in saying that ‘no task is more important than for the Church to take the Bible out of the hands of individual Christians…’


Now hold on a minute.  You can’t be serious! How could any bible-believing Protestant Christian possible believe this?  No, it’s true.  If we read the Bible as individuals, we will never understand it.  Why?  It may sound like splitting hairs, but God’s word addresses the person, not the individual.  There is a world of difference between a person and an individual.


A person finds their identity in relationship with other people.  An individual finds their identity in their independence from other people. A person sacrifices their own autonomy; an individual treasures it.  For a person, to love is to see yourself in terms of another person.  For an individual, love – like all else – is on your own terms.


A person understands Scripture in a completely different light to the way an individual understands it.  The genius of individualism is that it provides a deeply tinted lens through which you see the world, whilst maintaining the illusion that the way you see things is just the way things are.  Individuals, therefore, are often unaware that they have bought into the religion of individualism.


Hardly surprising then, that an individual will read biblical words like freedom, body, authority, servanthood, sacrifice – and say a hearty ‘Amen’.  Well, why not? Without realising it, the individual has already decided that these concepts fit neatly into their individualistic worldview – even if they present something of a micro-challenge.  And yet it is only when their individualism is dethroned, that any of these words will really be understood in their true sense.


In the mean time, Scripture does not touch their individualistic autonomy.  And should anyone challenge their interpretation of biblical truths, they can readily recite the individualist creed: ‘That’s just between you and God’.  Who’s to say that your interpretation is better than mine? Oh no, better if we simply get on with our own Christian lives, ‘you in your small corner, and I in mine.’


Our private individualism is something to be sacrificed as an act of spiritual worship.  This is the context of the living sacrifice in Romans 12.  It is usually read, ‘present your bodies as a living sacrifice’.  But the word for ‘present’ also had a military flavour, which meant ‘stand together’.  It’s the familiar Roman image of standing together and locking shields so as to ward off attack.  Such standing together is a sacrifice of your independence.


As Bernd Wannenwetsch points out, Paul is exhorting each person to ‘present’ (stand together with) their bodies (plural) as a living sacrifice (singular) – because it is in our sacrificial standing together that we become the body of Christ.  The reason that the sacrifice is a living sacrifice isn’t that it is not burned up on an imaginary altar, but because the sacrifice is always a communal matter for the whole and living body of Christ.


Only by sacrificing our individualism can we truly become what Paul goes on to describe as ‘members of one another’. It means vulnerability to all the joy and disaster of real Christian relationships – a very messy business, and a very costly one.  Why else is such spiritual worship described as sacrifice?


But it’s true for many of us that somehow, having been exposed to such joy or pain, or for that matter, any of the relational tension between those extremes, when Scripture is read, God’s Word arrests us.


If the Bible is a valuable resource in my individualistic spiritual journey of enlightenment, I might often unearth beautiful gems that I come to treasure. But let’s not mistake this kind of occultism for reading Scripture. If I truly am a member of the body of Christ, when I read Scripture on my own, as a person-in-relationship, rather than as an individual-in-safety, that is when God’s living Word takes hold of me.


But what about those who are converted to Christ through reading Scripture? Don’t they read as individuals? Maybe – but they don’t stay that way. If we do hear Scripture speak, it is because we have somehow already recognised that our individualistic autonomy is not working.


Christianity never leaves individualism intact.  Individualism says that we find fulfilment by withdrawing into ourselves – Scripture says that fulfilment comes as we reach out of ourselves.  What is the result? In the hands of an individual, Scripture is a puppet operated by a ventriloquist.  In the hands of a Christian, Scripture is God’s life-changing word.


Published in the Baptist Times, Mar 7, 2002