Some Assembly Required

“Me and Jesus got our own thing goin’.  

Me and Jesus got it all worked out. 

Me and Jesus got our own thing goin’ .  

We don’t need anybody to tell us what it’s all about.”  

      ~Tom T. Hall

Perhaps no subject in Christendom evokes more indignation (and indigestion) than does the subject of Christian worship.  Knowing full well the dangers that this discussion involves and being of a sound mind and body, I jump headlong into the fray.  I come armed with olive branches but some will scarcely notice.  Some will only notice that I am, in fact, armed.  Then all bets are off.  It’s every man for himself.  I have sometimes quipped (yes, I sometimes quip) that my “life verse” should probably be Psalm 120:7, “I am for peace, but when I speak they are for war!”  

So, for the Queen and Old England, it’s onward to the trenches.  Here goes.  Christianity is a religion, not a relationship.  I am aware that dem’ be fightin’ words.  You’re probably already looking at your screen rather squinty-eyed.  8 words just raised your blood pressure by 80 points.  Please relax and breathe normally.  Give me a few moments to explain myself just a bit.

I break out in hives over most anything that ends in –ism.  A great deal of trouble is contained in that little suffix.  There is nothing wrong with piety, for example, but pietism has caused no end of grief.  So it is with individualism.  Now, when I speak of individualism I am not dismissing the importance of individuals—after all, we go to heaven or hell by ones.  Individualism is that cognitive disfunction which results in taking each individual and treating them, not as a man or a woman created in the image of God, but rather as a self-contained epistemology.

Don’t blame me, Descartes started it!  The rationalist philosopher was seeking to find an absolute kind of certainty, the kind that was indubitable.  He imagined that the best way to do this was to do some real dubiting (that’s doubting in philosophish).  Radical doubt, he said, can get to everything except the fact that I am doubting.  That cannot be doubted.  If I doubt that I am doubting, then I actually am doubting.  In order to doubt then I must be!  It’s like the philosophy student who asked his professor, “How do I know that I really exist?”  To which the professor replied, “Who wants to know?”  The Self, in Descartes’ thinking, was the ground of ultimate certainty.  His epistemic system was completely reliant upon an anthropocentric point of origin.

It didn’t take long for this leaven to work its way throughout the whole loaf of Christendom.  Those who were more “liberal” began to exalt a form of rationalism that viewed the Scriptures as being beneath, and therefore subservient to,  human intellect.  Those who were more “conservative” began elevating their experiences over sound exegesis.  All in all, it’s the same whore, different dress.  By the time Chuck G. Finney came along, this notion had metastasized to the point where God was not even necessary for the churches to function.  No unction necessary, apparently.

Multiply that by, say, a large number and you’re getting close to where we are today.  The result is that now we have this vice that we see as a virtue—our individualism.  Those kinds of virtues are the hardest things in the world to repent of.  Jesus taught that swindling tax collectors and prostitutes were closer to the kingdom of God than the hypocrite because they knew they had a problem.  But the Pharisees, full of hot air which they mistook for the Spirit of God, were confident of their own righteousness.  Since they were in fact unrighteous, that confidence was sorely misplaced.

The sin that has us by the throat is the sin of individualism.  It has us by the throat because we see it as a virtue.  It is, in point of fact, a most vicious vice.  By its very definition individualism causes us to be self-centered.  Self-centeredness cannot and will not submit.  When there is no submission, strife breaks out.  When strife breaks out, preachers get “run’d oft.”  In congregational churches (read ‘Baptist’), people start lobbying for the congregational meeting where the “split and seize” will take place.  Presbyterians, on the other hand, adjudicate every dog fight up to the General Assembly, followed by a church split.  The Baptists are far more efficient and have the church split right away—and with far less paperwork.  Why?  Individualism.

This canker sore is the basic assumption that underlies most modern Bible-reading.  For example, Paul wrote the book of Ephesians to a church, but countless quiet times have taught us all to regard it as “a message just for me.”  “How should I behave today?  What should I do tomorrow?”  Instead of seeing Scripture as a most holy collection of the church’s covenant documents, we tend to see it as a grab-bag of inspirational quotes for personal victorious living, and the original covenant community be hanged.  Heavenly Flintstone vitamins…

Having said so much against individualism, it is important to note that a corporate, covenantal understanding of Scripture does not exclude personal faithfulness; rather, it requires it.  One author is fond of saying, “It’s impossible to make a good omelette with rotten eggs.”  So, nothing written here should be taken as a disparagement of personal faithfulness.  On the flip side, all the good eggs in the world do not necessitate that someone make an omelette.

Someone will surely jump right up and down and ask, “But isn’t Christianity personal?  Did not Jesus die for me?”  Of course Christianity is personal.  But when did personal come to mean private?  Jesus died for me but he did not do so in a corner.  He also died for an incalculable number of other wretches as well.

Christianity is a religion; a very personal and very public religion.  We must stop thinking in self-centered, individualistic categories.  Christianity is covenantal.  It is communal.  It is the Church, the Body of Christ with its many members, the Vine and its numerous Branches, mountains of salt and innumerable rays of light, the Family of God, a City set on a hill, the General Assembly, and much, much more.  Christianity is nothing if not public and societal.  It doesn’t exist apart from the Church.  To quote Calvin, who quoted Cyprian, “No man can have God as his Father if he has not the Church as his Mother.”  Paul gets in on the action too.  “Jerusalem above is free.  She is the mother of us all.”

More to follow…

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