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Volume 14, Issue 3: Presbyterion

Individualism

Douglas Wilson

Virtues are the hardest things in the world to repent of. Jesus taught that quisling tax collectors and prostitutes were closer to the kingdom of heaven 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, this confidence was obviously misplaced.

In the conservative church today, the sin that has us by the throat is individualism. And the reason it has us by the throat is that we see it as a virtue—the rugged individualism that made America great.
There are many forms of individualism, but the one thing they all have in common is the refusal to submit to lawful authority. Harmony in the church is possible only so long as everyone agrees. But as soon as disagreement arises, submission becomes impossible for the individualist. But of course, submission is actually impossible for the individual unless there is disagreement. If a husband were to ask his wife to put on her favorite red dress, baby, as the blues song puts it, so that they could go out to a fancy restaurant, she would not say, "Honey, I submit." The place were submission is tested is always at the point of significant disagreement.
When we think we have only two options—complete agreement or open defiance—we have left out the greenhouse where true humility grows. That greenhouse is a place of cheerful compliance with a legitimate authority that is believed to be mistaken.
Individualistic objections crowd into our minds. But what if a husband commands his wife to commit adultery, what then? Well, she respectfully and submissively disobeys. But that is not the problem we normally face. What if the elders excommuniate the godliest person in the church? Well, that happens sometimes too—but such exceptions are not where the action is. The kingdom of God grows because of all the controversies and splits that don't happen because the saints were busy submitting one to another in the bond of peace. If we are constantly on guard againts the monstrous tyranny, we will never learn to humble ourselves when we differ in ordinary things. And ironically, because we have not learned humility before God, we are more susceptible to the tyranny if and when it happens.
Every individualist has his very own sword to fall on. It might be birth control, elder qualifications, church government, education methods, pietistic scruples, or just personal animosities. When the moment of crisis comes, the church has apparently just "compromised" in the eyes of the individualist, and this amounts to a declaration of ecclesiastical war. In Presbyterian churches, somebody brings charges, and the elders get the bureaucratic "church discipline trial machine" oiled and lubed. In Baptist churches, people start lobbying for the congregational meeting where the church split will happen. In both cases, people start preparing themselves to ignore what the Scriptures teach about mutual submission. Presbyterians adjudicate every dog fight up to the General Assemby, followed by a church split, while the Baptists are far more efficient and have the church split right away, and with far less paperwork.
The worst species of individualism is the pietistic strain. Individualists on governmental or social issues can sometimes be made to see that there is a deeper right than being right about whatever their issue is. But because pietists have staked out the ultimate high ground—communion with God, walking with Jesus, and mystic fellowship with the Holy Spirit—their issue trumps all others. To this kind of superspirituality, we should respond the same way that Luther did to his enthusiast opponents. He did not care if they had swallowed the Holy Ghost, feathers and all.
This pietistic individualism always leads directly to impiety. But the impiety is frequently invisible impiety because the paradigmatic assumptions about what is occuring are so strong. I have seen very pious people do and say some awful things, and all with a serene lack of awareness that they were disobeying what God said to do in His Word. This usually results in setting up false standards of holiness—you must not drink alcohol, you must witness every day, you must separate from churches on the slightest provocation.
It also results in a jaundiced and backward view of the world. Doctrine and love cannot be separated, and when people try it, it is in order to make an idol of one of them. But of course, we always lose the very thing we idolize. This is why the besetting sin of doctrinalists is that of irrationalism. Read through transcripts of church trials from staunchly doctrinal churches and you find yourself at the Mad Hatter's Tea Party. But spend any time at all with "all you need is love" Christians and you will discover just how nasty they can be. This is because their highest virtue (evaluated individualistically, of course) is piety. Who could be against that? And who can prove them wrong about themselves?
We get messages from the outside—which we as sinners desperately need—through submission. We submit to God and His authoritative and infallible Scripture. We submit to God and His authoritative and fallible Church. We submit to God and the fallible familial authorities He has placed in our lives. We submit to God and to the fallible and frequently unrighteous civil authority He has established over us. When we are in positions of authority in any of these settings, we teach the people under us how to submit by demonstrating it for them, living it out.
And in so doing, we learn wisdom.

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