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 ...1