Reformed Baptist Fellowship

Communal Individuality

In Reformed Baptist Fellowship on March 5, 2009 at 1:00 pm

My journey into individuality began as the snow gently fell one evening in the winter of 1973. I stood in a cone of light beneath a sidewalk lamp outside my college library, eagerly opening the book I had just checked out. My philosophy professor’s description of Soren Kierkegaard’s quest for authentic individuality resonated profoundly in me. Kierkegaard was a social misfit in his Christianized culture. I was not assimilating into the fundamentalist subculture of my college. The disconnect was complex. I had honest theological and ethical questions that, when asked, elicited a threatened, terse, dismissive response. I was also inhaling the noxious gas of the ’60’s zeitgeist which flattered my youthful pride and incited my romance with rebellion. The darkness of the evening served to highlight the page illuminated beneath the lamppost, as floating flakes of snow drifted about in my peripheral vision. I opened the book to the author’s dedication page. Kierkegaard’s first words electrified me, confirming and inviting: “to that individual.” And so began my journey into existential subjectivity guided by “the melancholic Dane” that culminated five years later with a master’s thesis on Kierkegaard.

My journey into community began in my seminary’s cafeteria on a spring day in 1980. I was working on a paper for one of my New Testament classes in which I was surveying Paul’s salutations. His repeated phrase to the church struck me as significant. I looked up from my paper and gazed out the window at the gothic campus buildings. An unsettling question formed in my mind: “Paul did not write ‘to the seminary,’ did he?” My eye turned away from the widow to catch a glimpse of one of my favorite professors walking down the hallway. At the time I thought I might like to be a professor. That question asked to be asked again: “Did Paul write to ‘professor’ Timothy?” I looked back down at the words in my Bible: to the church. And so began my journey into community that took me to a little country church in a backwater town of western New Jersey in the fall of 1982. (Please do not interpret me as saying there is no place for seminaries and professors. I’m merely recounting my subjective experience of forming both my individual and community identities. Once an existentialist, always an existentialist.)

An emphasis on individualism is characteristic of our western society. It has its roots in Greek philosophy, and in our generation, it has commandeered our cultural values. David Wells in Losing our Virtue (Eerdmans, 1998. p120) surveys the effects of rampant American individualism. Our entertainment, education, economics, domestic patterns and religion are all geared toward the idolatry of self. Most telling, perhaps, is the relatively recent explosion of psychology. Wells writes, “the near obsession with the individualized self has spawned an industry whose watchwords are self-image, self-ideal, the true self, the false self, the inner self, and self-actualization.”  We esteem the self and relinquish all relationships in order to “go off and find our selves.” Then, convinced of ourselves and self-confident, we might, if we deem it to our advantage, concede to the need for community. But we enter community often for self-serving reasons.

The dynamics of the Bible are precisely the inverse. Now you are Christ’s body, and individually members of it (1 Cor 12:27). The community is defined first and that corporate identity then gives significance to the individual’s identity, function and purpose. In Scripture, we see the Lord forming a people for Himself. We, as a community of redeemed sinners, are to be a sanctified society, a prototype of the eschatological culture that will be manifest in the resurrection at the restoration of all things. We, as a city set on a hill, are to emit the light of righteousness and gospel grace.  Corporately, we are to attract others to leave the tyranny of Satan and his demonically deceived cultures and, by faith, to follow Jesus our Lord and King. However, following Jesus in individual discipleship is accomplished in the community of disciples. John 13:34,35 A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another. I cannot follow Jesus unless I am learning to love His disciples. Jesus is building a community of love and if that is the kind of community Jesus is building, then I must be the kind of individual who can have membership in that community. My individuality must be shaped in the matrix of relationships which are shaped by the gospel. My individual salvation is bound up with the salvation of the people of God. My personal ethics are dictated by the corporate good. Phil 3:3,4 Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind let each of you regard one another as more important than himself; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others.

In the body of Christ, the individual is not lost, although he is called to lose his life for Christ’s sake in order that he may find it. But note, it is his life, his individuality, that he finds. He finds himself in Christ through self-denial, burying himself into sacrificial service to all men, but especially to those who are of the household of the faith. (Gal 6:10)  The community is not shaped by communism that abolishes individuality and private ownership. No, it is a community shaped by the gospel, that kingdom and His righteousness which we are to seek first. Only in the community of King Jesus, will we find that beautiful balance that gives due validity to both the individual and the community. Christopher Wright (Old Testament Ethics for the People of God, IVP, 2004. p.366) notes the covenantal nature of our relationship with God and His people. “The essence of the covenant relationship is corporate: ‘I will be your God; you will be My people.’ Here ‘you’ and ‘your’ are plural. But the primary demand of the covenant is addressed to the individual, with a singular ‘you’: ‘You shall have no other gods before Me.'”  If the Lord Jesus Christ is my God, then I will know Him as my God only as I take my place among the people to whom He says, “I will be your God, and you will be My people.”

Kierkegaard’s dedication “to that individual” and Paul’s salutation “to the church” both speak to me. I am an individual in the community of the church. Paul says, Now you are Christ’s body, and individually members of it (1 Cor 12:27). That is the proper balance: first, understand your community identity (Christ’s body), and then in that context, discover your individual identity (individually members of it). My experience was precisely the opposite. I first delved into existential subjectivity to the point of imbalanced indulgence and now, in a process of repentance, I am learning to embrace my place within the body of Christ. As a recovering existentialist, I am in a lifelong pursuit of “communal individuality.”

Alan Dunn, Pastor
Grace Covenant Baptist Church
Flemington, NJ
  1. “My individuality must be shaped in the matrix of relationships which are shaped by the gospel.”

    delicious! Thank you Pastor Dunn!

  2. Alan,

    Thanks for the stimulating read. You are a gifted writer and a keen thinker.

    Your friend,
    Bob Gonzales

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