Christians defining their own theology

Had a friend pass some news on to me. Which was passed to me as "interesting and disturbing" (Hat tip to Todd). And for another take on this, check out John Meunier's blog.

When an article starts off by saying "American individualism has made its imprint on Christianity" - you know its about to get fun. Because isn't Christianity about making an imprint on American individualism?

American individualism is nothing new. Its taken different flavors over the years and manifests itself in different ways from musical interests to America's insistence on influencing other nations.

Two thoughts:

1. We are all theologians. According to the article,
"Growing numbers of people now serve as their own theologian-in-residence," said George Barna
Is that a knock? What gives? Every human who's ever walked the earth has engaged in their own theology (seeking God's truth). It should come as no surprise to find that people choose to claim theological beliefs as their own, as opposed to sticking with the hard line of whatever faith they claim. I can understand both the danger and the joy of defaulting to the doctrinal truths upheld by particular churches - it is freeing to sometimes not have to think for yourself. But does that cheapen our own ability to reason, struggle with life, and claim knowledge for ourselves? Aren't we supposed to work out our own salvation with fear and trembling?

That of course must be said that we are responsible for seeking Christ out for ourselves and we would do well to use the traditions we came from. We cannot forget our story. We can't forget God's story - and there are those that came before us who sought God out and we can benefit from that. We stand on the shoulders of giants, to steal a popular phrase. Only an idiot would try theology in a vacuum. So there is a tension, I'd say, between the individual and the community, which leads me to...

2. America's attitudes towards individual salvation stands in contrast to the Biblical attitudes to communal salvation.

Its interesting to hear the theological backflips Christians will sometimes use to imply that salvation is strictly individual. Because biblically, you find case after case of entire communities either receiving condemnation or salvation. We have to struggle with the idea that in the Old Testament entire cities were destroyed for communal sins. In the Book of Revelation, whole Christian communities were praised for their ability to love their neighbor, or rebuked for becoming luke-warm. The story of Israel and God's saving act of Jesus Christ is not just about the King or the priests or specific pieces of nations - its for all communities. Why do you think we wrestle with the Bible saying that a spouse may be saved by the faithfulness of their husband/wife? Because American individualism (and as a by-product, American Christian theology) screams that the only one responsible for your salvation is yourself - so you better get serious about it now.

The article is right. We've tossed the baby out with the bathwater - so to speak. In rejecting communal salvation, we have rejected the community. Instead, for safety's sake, we have turned Christ into our personal Lord and Savior, with added emphasis on our and special distinction between that being my salvation, not yours. Church practice doesn't teach that it ends with personal salvation. It might start there, but it ends with communal salvation. It is much easier to only be concerned with myself and to not be concerned about my community. God had a response to that, actually - the Sacrament of Holy Communion. An act that makes it _almost_ impossible to speak of salvation as simply individual.

This is the power of the Eucharist, of Communion, or the Last Supper. Have you ever heard of a preacher taking communion by themselves? Nope. Never will - salvation is (in my humble opinion) both/and not either/or. Its both individual and communal salvation. Not either individual or communal salvation. The Kingdom of God would not be a Kingdom if it was only one person.

So, the Body of Christ needs individuals because it is those pieces that make up the Body. The body needs individuals - individuals that are in different places, faith walks, stories, theologies (don't read too much into that), and communities - or else it it would be quite a worthless body indeed.

To me, the issue isn't that people are thinking for themselves, it is the disconnect between the individual and the community. Is it bad to disassociate from any faith community? Or a city? Or nation? Definitely. Should we care for our communities? Absolutely.

And for what its worth, my opinion of the article is that its mostly hogwash, but it got me going. It doesn't really say what it means by exclusivity or inclusivity. It doesn't describe the process by which an atheist might find salvation (by remaining an atheist?! or finding Jesus?! What do they mean!?). I'll leave you with this tidbit:
The survey also asked about views on how one obtains eternal life. Among all adults with a religious affiliation, 30 percent say correct beliefs are what counts, 29 percent say salvation depends on one's actions during life, while 10 percent say both are essential. Those who emphasize the impact of actions are more inclined to believe that practitioners of non-Christian faiths can achieve eternal life. Most of those who emphasize beliefs say non-Christian paths do not lead to heaven.
Ah, the old Faith/Works debate rages on. It has just broadened now to include everyone under the sun and not just Christian communities (because really, have you tried counting how many different Christian communities are out there? As many as there are people.)

Why don't you stop worrying about everyone else and worry about yourself? You can't change anyone but yourself. You can't live other people's lives for them. You can't make excuses for others. You can't change anything. Look out for number one. Its just an agreement between you and God. It doesn't have to go any further than from your brain to your lips.

And if you believe any of that, its time to find a community of believers that can help you find Jesus again (or for the first time).


  1. One of the funny things about the missional conversation, my friend, is the number of people who are living, or trying to live, into the tenets of what that conversation has become without even knowing it. Here, you've begun to get at what the missional guys (unfortunately they haven't caught on to the need to include women and minority in the public eye) are discussing. Good stuff. Keep going!

  2. Here's a question (it stems from an article I'm reading my way through):

    How often do we as Christians, supposedly as part of the body of Christ, participate as part of that body? An example from another area of life might look like this - if someone plays the violin part, they are playing as part of the symphony (it is played as party of something else being played). The fancy word for this is "collective intentional action."

    So, in today's church (inundated with individualism), are you as a pastor giving a sermon able to do so as part of that congregation, or have we as the body of Christ in N. America become so individualistic that you are simply an individual with said Scriptural authority speaking to a bunch of other individuals? If so, what are the implications of this? If not, are we headed that way or are we trying to balance the overweight problem of individualism in our society?

    Just some thoughts that I considered while still processing your blog and reading this article...Peace.

  3. I am going to attempt a go at this. I always feel, for lack of a better word, dumb when reading your posts. However, they do enlighten me and make me think.

    So, when you say community I think of the greater Ham area. I don't ever think MY community, my marriage, my son, my family. I realized just now that my community is these things. Therefore, what am I doing to make sure it isn't just MY relationship and walk with God.
    I know for me, I get lost in the community. I get lost in all these people and reaching out to them. I know I am doing so through Footprints but I don't think of it like that. I guess I have the image in my head of getting out into the community as going to the homeless shelter or walking the streets of Ensley or something like that. Where as I AM in the community through the NICU.
    I don't know this makes any sense to anyone outside of myself. However, I think you will follow what I am saying. I hope so anyway.

    Thanks for making me think. Ya know, cause I wouldn't without these posts! ;)

  4. I think that individuals have become their own theologians because the (established) church no longers teaches theology from the pulpit. if I am not taught from the pulpit, I form my own thoughts. when was the last time you heard of a sermon delivered on the meaning of the virgin birth, or (God help us) on the total depravity of people? everyone knows/feels community is important, that is why they participate in corporate worship on Sunday monrings. But the identification with the theological community is waning. we don't want to offend those whose theology might not be Weslyan or to place "lables" on people (even if the "label" is "Methodist.") I'm not saying this is good or bad; just making an observation.


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