The Heresy of 'Individualism'?
In her opening address to the Episcopal Church's recent General Convention, the Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori, the church's presiding bishop, made a special point of denouncing what she labeled "the great Western heresy"—the teaching, in her words, "that we can be saved as individuals, that any of us alone can be in right relationship with God." This "individualist focus," she declared, "is a form of idolatry."
There is good news and bad news here. The good news is that the Episcopal Church's presiding bishop is not afraid to denounce heresy. The bad news is that we evangelicals turn out to be the heretics she is denouncing.
I am willing to meet her partway on the subject of her concern. Many of us in the evangelical world have devoted much effort toward remedying what we see as an unhealthy individualist focus in our ranks. If, for example, Bishop Jefferts Schori would take the time to browse through the pages of Christianity Today from the past half-century, she would find many calls for evangelicals to depart from the notion that all that matters is that individuals get saved and prepare for a heavenly reward. Much evangelical attention has been paid to systemic injustice, social structures, the central importance of "body life," and so on.
In all of this, however, the presiding bishop would discover an important nuance. We evangelicals never downplay the importance of individuals—as individuals—coming to a saving faith in Jesus Christ. We never say that an individual's very personal relationship to God is not important. What we do say is that individual salvation is not enough.
In my own thinking on this subject, which has made much of the centrality of the church and the importance of collective Christian address to the issues of injustice and public morality, there are actual stories that have kept me from endorsing the kind of un-nuanced verdict that seems to have come so easily to Jefferts Schori's lips.
Here is one that has stuck with me from my younger years. A man, a prominent leader in his local church, testified that before becoming a Christian, he had lived a dissolute life. A salesperson who was constantly on the road, he drank heavily and was frequently unfaithful to his wife. One evening, sitting alone in his hotel room, be became very despondent. He did not want another evening spent in the hotel bar, nor did he have an interest in seeking a sexual encounter. Remembering that there was usually a Gideon Bible in one of the dresser drawers in hotel rooms, he found the Scriptures, and began to read the passages recommended in the inside cover under the heading, "Feeling Discouraged? Read …". As he read the prescribed passages, he was overcome by a sense of his sin, and finally fell to his knees and pleaded with God to do something in his life. That experience was the turning point for him. He confessed his misdeeds to his wife, they sought out a church, and together they matured in the Christian life.
That story has always fit well with my views of salvation and the church. In a profound sense, of course, the church was a living reality in that hotel room—the invitation extended to him by the placing of a Gideon Bible in that room was as "churchly" a reality as any evangelistic sermon preached from a pulpit. But what the Lord, through the placing of that volume, was doing in the privacy of that hotel room was inviting an individual sinner to bring the burden of his sin and guilt to the Cross of Calvary. The man accepted that invitation, and he rightly moved on to the point of identifying himself with the body of Christ.