Americans value individualism. We love our freedom of self-expression, independence and fiercely defend our individual rights. Dutch researcher Geert Hofstede developed what is known as the “cultural dimensions theory” which seeks to express the values of particular cultures. On a scale from 1-120, America scored the highest in individualism with a 91. So, what is individualism? According this research, it is “the degree to which individuals are integrated into groups.” The emphasis is on an individual’s achievements, rights, and ability to choose their own affiliations; and this (in Hofstede’s scale) is directly opposed to a more communal/collective value.
While there is nothing specifically wrong about individualism, there can be a danger when it is emphasized at the cost of community. Too much focus on the individual can tend toward isolation and loneliness. And, in what has been called the “loneliest generation” we should ask the question whether we tend toward overemphasizing the value of individualism, particularly in the church.
As we read the Biblical story, community is highly valued. According the Bible, community is about mutual dependence (John 15), appreciation (1 Corinthians 12) and responsibility to carry each other’s burdens (Galatians 6:2). How do we reconcile this emphasis on community with the American value of individualism? I know that I have been guilty of reading individualism into the Bible by reading as if it is all about my ‘personal’ relationship with God.
This interpretation is challenged when I realize that nearly every book of the Bible is written to a community of people rather than individuals. This means that the message is a communal expression of a relationship with God, not just mere individuals. What is more, nearly every command in the Bible is given to a group or the representative of a group (such as Abraham or Moses representing God’s people). Joe Hellerman, professor of New Testament at Biola University points out that, “When Paul, for example, uses a first-person possessive pronoun with the word ‘Lord’ in his letters, he writes ‘my Lord’ (singular) only once (Philippians 3:8). But he writes ‘our Lord’ (plural) 53 times. When Paul thought about the Christian faith, he apparently thought in terms of ‘us-and-Jesus’ more often than he thought about ‘me-and-Jesus.'” To approach Scripture or my faith in purely individualistic terms will necessarily miss the mark because the Bible seems to be primarily focused on community.
While Americans value individuality, God values community. In His final prayer just before being led off to be crucified, Jesus prays for His disciples. Read closely what Jesus prays:
“I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” John 17:20-21
Jesus begins by clarifying that his prayer is for all who would believe in Him, namely, you and me. He specifically asks the Father to make us all (those who believe in Him) one. What does He mean by one? Jesus indicates that He wants to see a oneness among his people similar to the oneness expressed in His relationship to the Father. This relationship between Jesus and the Father (as well as the Holy Spirit) is understood in the doctrine of the Trinity. If we are to understand the type of oneness/community that Jesus longs to see from us, we must understand the Trinity.
When we speak of the Trinity, we say “three-in-one.” What that means is that there are three distinct persons known as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Yet, these three distinct persons make up one person who is God. So, there are not three gods, but one God expressed in the Trinity. The three persons are so intrinsically connected and unified that they are quite literally one being. There is much theological groundwork to be done to understand this further. But what should become clear is that, while distinction of persons exists, oneness/unity is the strongest expression of Trinity.
This same unity expressed in the Trinity is what Jesus desires to be true in the Church. We are to be so intricately woven together and connected that unity is the clearest expression of our community (known as the Church, or body of Christ). Distinction of particular individuals/persons will be seen, but only as contributing to the oneness. Like cells each playing their role yet bonded together to form one physical body, individual Christians must live out their faith yet unify as the body of Christ. This oneness in community is both horizontal (people one with people) and vertical (people one with God). This essential expression of oneness is the foundation of the value of community expressed in Jesus’ final prayer and in the metanarrative of the Bible. As James Houston said, “If the church is going to experience a second reformation… then we’ll need to recover the doctrine of the Trinity and understand its implications for human community.”
It is my desire that we can move closer to the oneness that Jesus desires when He prays in John 17. I believe this is a foundational issue for the church in America. Because our tendency as Americans is toward individualism, we need a healthy appreciation for the value of community as expressed in God’s Word.