January 25, 2008

Individualism vs. Unity for Baptists

Posted in Christian culture, Commentary at 3:53 pm by Matt Porter

(This is the final part of a four-part series. Part one dealt with the tragedy of the divided Church. Part two summarized the commonalities of all Christians in Christ. Part three discussed how to deal with real or perceived differences among Christians.)

Finally we come to the inspiration for this four-part screed. In a lunch conversation earlier this week, the question came up, “Why is independence among Baptists so often expressed as individualism?” Put another way, why are so many Baptists so determined not to be like any of those other churches? I see this as both a corporate and an individual tendency.

It is difficult for me to comment objectively on the Baptist denomination. On the one hand, I have exclusively attended Baptist churches since my childhood. On the other, I have been disenchanted with many aspects of Baptist culture and practice. Keeping a fair outlook is a bit of a tightrope walk for me between blind loyalty and overreaction. I realize that not every Baptist church fits all, or even most, of the things I’ll mention here; but I think they are trends among Baptist churches in general.

First, the corporate aspects. Baptist congregations tend to be overwhelmingly uniform in many areas. Most are politically conservative. Issues such as homosexual civil unions and abortion are frequently targeted from the pulpit, often with verbal encouragement from the pew. Church dinners and dessert socials punctuate the calendar at regular intervals and are well-attended. The liturgy is remarkably similar among Baptist churches. Given cultural differences, personal standards are still broadly homogeneous.

So what’s the problem? Well, nothing is particularly wrong about having so many similarities. Members of other denominations could probably write a list for their own churches. It is even natural for people with similar opinions and tastes to congregate together. Opposites may attract in physics, but churches function more like flocks of birds. The problems arise when those similarities become a source of division from others. When we are comfortable with one another, we can unintentionally exclude those different from us. This exclusion often happens by default—others are excluded because we don’t purposely include them. This is the source of complaints about people at church not being friendly to visitors. We are busily staying in our comfort zone and never notice the people outside it.

This also has an effect between churches. Baptist churches almost never fellowship or work together as part of a larger body of Christ. Why not? I believe there are two reasons. First, we see differences between our churches—economic, philosophical, social, or whatever—and don’t make the effort to overcome them, choosing instead to shun fellowship and cooperation. This is a very American failing, but the church has no reason to partake of it. This is in spite of the overwhelming similarities we share as members of the same denomination! Secondly, we take a perverse pride in our isolation, as if it were a sign of a deeper spirituality that others just can’t stomach. “Woe are we, the persecuted church! Nobody knows the trouble we’ve seen…” In reality, it is our hubris that isolates us. If there are still lingering doubts that our isolation is self-inflicted, a simple exercise should alleviate them. At the next business meeting, suggest that your church take part in a campaign (any good cause should suffice) including all the Baptist churches in town. Rare indeed is the congregation or the pastor that doesn’t voice concerns about ecumenism or compromising standards, and we’re not even talking about bridging denominations here! (Make sure you don’t invite those Southern Baptists, now…)

On top of the corporate effects, individuals are often caught up in the same spirit. For Baptists in the U.S., this may be a case of superimposing our political freedom upon our church philosophy. We are slow to listen, swift to speech, and swift to wrath when we perceive ourselves being restricted. This is borne out in a variety of ways. We are quick to hammer the lost for sins which disgust us (homosexuality, anyone?), but try finding the last sermon on gluttony, for instance. This in spite of gluttony running the lives of more Christians than homosexuality, or perhaps because it runs more lives. We are a stiff-necked and rebellious people who stone the prophets God sends to us unless they tickle our ears. Those with the most ornate prayers, the loudest amen‘s, the flashiest offertories, and the most impressive special music are usually seen as the most spiritual and most edifying members of the body. Even bizarre or disruptive behavior such as running laps or waving handkerchiefs is passed off as valid and genuine spiritual expression. Asking to tone down such behavior in the service may result in accusations of selfishness(!); being insensitive to the leading of the Spirit; trying to force a dead, formal, service on everyone else; or being (gasp!) a closet Catholic. Neither will suggesting that the service should be more about worshiping God than displaying our personalities and talents will not win any hearts. Such individualism can lead people to unnecessarily leave or even split the church. Our churches are as uniformly individualistic as the rest of our culture, needing no one who is different and heeding no one who disagrees.

Excessive individualism and isolationism hurt the church and the individual. They contribute to the problem of the church at Laodicea: we have need of nothing, and know not our sorry condition. They divide us from the rest of the Body, cutting us off from vital fellowship, feedback, and help. They divide us from each other by needlessly emphasizing our differences instead of our similarities. They cause us to fall short of the ideal expressed by Christ in John 17: “That they may be one.”


  1. Lisa said,

    very good word.

    I’ve often (?) thought about that passage in John 17 and maybe subconsciously wondered why we’re not… “one,” I mean. It’s hard to know what issues should be divisive and which shouldn’t when they are taught with mostly equal emphasis. Hmmm!

  2. Karla said,

    Yeah, when Dwayne once preached a sermon on Gluttony; the reaction was quite “comical”. No, really, you are quite right on your view of the church today. We have, in many ways, lost site, once again, on who we are serving and for what reasons we come together.

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