So in Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others. — Romans 12:5
It seems clear that the corrosive force of individualism has infiltrated the church. Many Adventists have a natural aversion to church as an organized “institution.” So in the name of democracy and freedom of conscience, they eschew any serious discussion about theology or collective life. The gospel has, as a result, been reduced to “whatever suits my spiritual needs.” Thus, they reduce the church to merely a collection of individuals who happen to use loosely related words like “God” and “potluck.”
As a frequent speaker at churches, I often hear “this does not work for me” when church members disagree with a theological position. “This does not work for me” has become a “conversation stopper.” When these magic words are uttered, any attempt to push the conversation further and to critically engage the issue at hand becomes an infringement on autonomy. After all, how dare anyone question another person’s “personal” relationship with Jesus? Jesus has, in a sense, become an imaginary friend who is there to fulfill our spiritual needs. The historical Jesus, who made people uncomfortable and called his disciples to give up their personal agendas to follow him, has been exiled from the church.
I am disheartened by the fact that many Adventists think the “I” should be the measure of all things. I often wonder where this egocentric religious orientation came from. Some would no doubt blame Friedrich Schleiermacher’s theology of the “feeling of absolute dependence.” Others would blame certain pietistic tendencies in Protestantism. Whatever the answer, this religious tendency is very real and should be challenged by those who take the gospel seriously.
Are belief and theology merely personal affairs? No, they never have been. From the early church to the various church councils, Christians have always thought both God-talk and worship should be done in community. Why? Because that is the only way for Christians to learn about love and mutual accountability. More importantly, that is how Christians embody Christ and discern the message of the gospel. It is clear that Paul took Christian communal life very seriously. He took it more seriously than his own life and reputation.
For Paul, theology is a communal matter. He believed theology was intimately related to communal practice. Recall Paul’s letter to Philemon. In the letter, Paul draws an important connection between his theology and church practice: if Christ’s lordship entails the brotherhood of all believers, then treating someone as less than equal is no longer justified. Of course Philemon could have replied, “Well, your theology does not work for me; my relationship with Jesus is quite consistent with slavery.” But, for Paul, the gospel clearly has a determinant content that challenges Philemon’s preconceptions of Christianity. That is to say, the gospel is anything but what suits our personal desires. Christians should be worried when the gospel ceases to be challenging.
What we believe as a community matters. We go astray as individuals. Sometimes, we misunderstand what the gospel requires. We simply cannot think correctly apart from community. Why? Because when there is no one to keep us accountable and to challenge our positions, falsehood tends to prevail. Imagine scientists conducting their experiments based solely on what works for them. Imagine a society governed by people who can freely impose their ideologies on the people they serve. If we agree that these two scenarios would lead to catastrophe, why do we treat theology and spirituality with less respect and rigor than we would science and politics?
Some of us might deem theological concepts like the “trinity” or “the kingdom of God” irrelevant to our spiritual lives. But does that warrant relating to God however we want to? What if Christians have a higher calling than to fulfill their personal spiritual needs? In fact, Christians are called to be the body of Christ and to preach the gospel. It follows that our relationship with Christ is always a relation in community: “when two or three are gathered, I am in their midst.” We need each other because others might see things that we miss as individuals.
Speaking the gospel presupposes that we understand what the gospel is. Now, anyone can pull bible texts together and cook up his or her individual gospel. But in order to understand the Christian gospel, we need to take history seriously and think about why our predecessors said the things they said. For instance, we need to think about why the church chose to speak the gospel through the doctrine of the trinity. Leaving personal taste aside, we also need to think about why it ought to matter to us as a community. What works for one or not should never be the primary issue when it comes to speaking the gospel.
Christians should allow the tradition to challenge them just as much as they challenge the tradition, because without this dialogical process and the willingness to be accountable, the gospel will be lost to our arbitrary desires.
For an extended version of this article, visit Interlocutors: A Theological Dialogue.
Yi Shen Ma is a third year Ph.D. student in Claremont School of Theology. He is the Development Director of Adventist Peace Fellowship. Prior to his service in the United States Navy as a religious program specialist, he worked as a young adult pastor. He blogs with Matt Burdette and Shane Akerman at Interlocutors: A Theological Dialogue.
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/6157