Friday, July 1, 2011

Individuals or Persons in Communion?

Radical Centrist Manifesto VI
III. Centered in the Body of Christ, Part 1: Persons in Communion

In an earlier post in this series I pointed out that American conservatives and liberals/progressives have more in common than usually assumed given their shared heritage in Classic Liberalism. Both, in their way, are attached to individualism.

Politically, this gets played out differently as each focuses on different ways in which the individual should be unrestrained, or minimally restrained, by responsibilities for and accountabilities to others beyond those the individual volunteers to recognize. Both appeal to the state as the provider of individual rights and the protector of the individual over against other social bodies. Thus, both collude in the notion that the individual is the basic human unit and the state is the ultimate social body.

Within the church, this gets played out as each, in its way gives priority of the individual over the communion of the church. Some conservatives tend to focus on individual salvation in ways that minimize any other gospel concerns and ignore the interrelated nature of humanity and creation. In such an approach the church serves primarily as the place individuals go to get their respective relationships with Jesus reinforced, but the church, as the body of Christ, is basically nonessential.

Although they tend not to talk about individual salvation, many liberal/progressives reinforce the ideology of individualism by inviting individuals “wherever they are in their (individual) journey of faith” to the Eucharist regardless of baptism. In this approach, the church is also nonessential, becoming just one place where individuals can go to get their idiosyncratic spiritual needs addressed – a sort of public spiritual restaurant where individuals come and go.

During the last eight years or so, during the turmoil in the Anglican/Episcopal Church, I have heard both conservatives and liberal/progressives dismiss ecclesiology (the lived theology of the church) as a secondary (at best) concern. Both those who have pursued schism and those who have provoked it dismiss a robust understanding of the church as unnecessary for understanding soteriology (theology of salvation) or for achieving justice, peace, or other this-worldly endeavors as (defined with or without the church’s scripture or tradition).

For both, the church is basically a free association of individuals with little real commitment, loyalty, responsibility, or accountability. Thus, we have individual “church shopping”, individual congregations shopping for the province that suits them, schism within the Episcopal Church, and a rejection of mutual accountability in the Anglican Communion. And we participate in and reinforce a culture in which few loyalties or vows endure.

For both, the church becomes “no people” (Hosea 1:9). But, if we are radically centered on Jesus, we will be centered in the community he started with his disciples. The God we know through Israel and Jesus is a God who all calls and forms those who were no people to be a people (1 Peter 2:9-10) in covenant with himself and one another. The church – the physical, historical, institutional reality – is that people.

Thus to be Christ-centered is to be church-centered. We will recognize the interconnectedness of salvation and the necessity of being incorporated into and belonging to the church in order to fully live into that salvation.

We will respect the dignity of every human being. But, we will train ourselves to think of human beings in terms of persons-formed-in-communion as opposed to free, isolatable individuals - persons with whom we are inherently connected, whose burden we are to bear (Galatians 6:2), whose feet we are to wash (John 13). For more on this distinction see this: Person vs Individual

Previous - Next

Rather than go on to write more of what I've already written elsewhere on this, here are some other posts where I have tried to explain the necessity of the church and its members as a communion of persons:

Charged With the Holy Spirit

ONE, Holy, Catholic, Apostolic Church

Whose Feet Will You Wash?

Baptized into Eucharist


Anonymous said...

Matt, thank you for this balanced approach. I appreciate and agree with your comment on ecclesiology. I think what has been lost by both sides is an understanding of and focus on ecclesiology. We have forgotten, ignored, or perhaps never knew who we are and who we are called to be. Consequently the church has become a buffet, we take what we like and leave the rest behind. For me ecclesiology is the primary issue (though not the only one) and in many ways underlies what have been made the central issues: scriptural authority and interpretation, hospitality and inclusivity, sexuality and anthropology.

Peace, Mike+

Matt Gunter said...

Thanks, Mike. There are lots of reasons I think we need a "thicker" ecclesiology - not least because it is biblical and it bears witness to what the gospel is actually about. But, I am also realizing that for many it requires something like turning our thinking inside out.