The Anemic Individualism of White Evangelicalism

Individualism thoroughly pervades evangelical culture, which prepares evangelicals and evangelical churches to deal with racism poorly and even counter-productively.

There are many ways of grappling with the individualism that afflicts us. As just one consideration, evangelicals have heard for generations that Jesus is “my personal savior,” and this reality happens when I “ask him into my heart.”

This conception is nowhere in the New Testament, of course. NT texts portray Jesus as cosmic Lord, the King of his kingdom into which he calls all people to participate in a political order of justice and ongoing renewal under his life-giving and joy-generating reign. This political entity is called the church, which relates to the wider culture with hospitality toward the marginalized, service to the needy, and advocacy for the oppressed and vulnerable.

The New Testament clarifies our corporate identity and public behaviors, and if we had been raised and trained in such a vision, we would be prepared to meet the current moment, as we would have met many previous moments.

But we have not been so trained. Rather, we know that Jesus is in our hearts but we have thought little of what claims he has made on our bodies, nor how God by his Spirit has united us as bodies into one political body—the body politic of Christ.

With Jesus in our hearts, we have been taught that being Christian involves allowing Jesus to heal our inner wounds, to make us feel warm during times of “worship,” and to give us a devotional buzz when we read our verse or two for the day. And to the extent that he’s ever outside my heart, he’s the one whose singular footsteps are seen on the beach of my life.

We imagine that to really love Jesus is to feel, perhaps closing our eyes and lifting our hands to really feel during “worship,” or to weep when we hear a touching anecdote or testimony.

This is why so many of us are responding to this moment with our hearts, with sentiment.

When we hear of outrageous injustices we do what we’ve been trained to do for centuries, going back well before the Victorian era with its hymns about walking in a garden alone with Jesus (church music as love song has quite a pedigree). We express our emotions. We feel. We cry. “Our hearts are with you! We mean it! We’re really feeling!”

But what is needed is not emotion, nor feeling, nor sentiment, nor even our thoughts. What is needed in this moment, as ever, is white bodies joined together with black and brown bodies as a body—bodies and body committed to God’s public justice. A justice that confronts power rather than cozying up to it; a justice that enters the Oval Office to point a finger and speak prophetically, not to shake a hand and smile for the photograph; a justice that puts itself on the line for the oppressed; a justice that sacrifices its comforts; a justice that is visible and long-term rather than episodic and spasmodic.

It’s a good time to step back and look at how and why we are here, and what this moment may reveal about our training and our condition. It’s a good time to revisit the New Testament conception of the people of God as a body that embodies God’s righteousness/justice by God’s Spirit, for God’s glory, and the for the life of the world.

3 thoughts on “The Anemic Individualism of White Evangelicalism

  1. Jeff Petersen

    Hi Tim, thank you for your podcast and your thoughts on individualism and faith. I agree that this is a very important topic that needs to be addressed in the church and your thoughts have been helpful to me. It seems to me that in the Bible it’s not either a “personal relationship with God” or a relationship we have with God together, but the Biblical writers present our faith both ways: we’re reborn individually as God’s children, into the family of God; we’re indwelt by His Spirit individually and collectively; we’re individually gifted for the common good; in matters where we differ we’re to live out our personal convictions, in love; Jesus judges His church, but we’re also judged individually. And I think we find this same dual emphasis in the psalms: in some psalm God’s people are coming to Him together as His people, but in others we find the psalmist living out of what we might indeed call “a personal relationship with God” (such as Psalm 42, 63, and 139 to name a few). So thanks for the call away from the almost exclusive and harmful individualism that’s so pervasive in parts of the church, but I hope in our growth in Christ together we don’t lose the personal intimacy of our walk with Him (which I believe actually enables us to walk with Him well together)..

  2. Allen Browne

    Thanks for this Tim. I just noticed your new commentary on Mark (Story of God series) is available for pre-order at Logos.
    The intro on the scope of the gospel is spot on. Looking forward to reading the rest when it comes out.

  3. Matt

    Dr. Gombis,

    These are notes actually related to your ‘MAGA’ podcast episode, but I could not find an email or contact for the podcast. Feel free to remove it from the blog as it’s out of place.

    I may need to check out Evil Geniuses, but my book list is long and time is short. I wonder if Anderson talks about some simple demographics that drive the nostalgic propaganda. Some research has suggested people idealize the world as it was when they were young. The baby boom generation caused the cultural changes of the 60’s and early 70’s when they came of age and their brute numbers made them the economic and political force to reckon with. Now that they have aged, they idealize the world as it was when they were young. In addition, the baby boom’s voting power in the 70’s brought about political change, but now their voting power is enthralled with the nostalgia you refer to. In 1950, 8% of the US population was 65 or older. By 2018, that age group had doubled in proportion: the US population age 65 or older was 16%. I wonder if the Civil Rights legislation of the 1960’s would have happened if the proportion of voters over 65 at that time had been doubled.

    I appreciate your theology and will continue to listen.

    I also have a little blog. I’m currently doing a series about why one political party may have gone down a more undemocratic road. That series begins with this post, if you’re interested to check it out. https://matthewcomments.blogspot.com/2020/08/the-2020-vote-bending-toward-justice.html

    My book recommendation for you is Caste, by Isabel Wilkerson.

    Thanks,

    Matt

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