It is not uncommon for some to claim the title “Christian” while disdaining denominational affiliation. They may attend a Baptist or Lutheran church, but they refuse the label. The words, “I’m just a Christian,” pass freely from their lips and in the process demonstrate their ignorance of what exactly the title they claim entails.
Many believe this path allows them to hold themselves above petty denominational squabbles, but in reality it simply isolates them from the surrounding community of believers. The Christian faith is a corporate faith and cannot exist apart from community. While it may be deeply personal, it is never individualistic.
A Church of One?
A soldier can claim the title soldier only by virtue of his membership in an army. An un-enlisted soldier is logically incoherent, and, previous recruitment campaigns notwithstanding, an Army of one is a contradiction of terms.
In the same way, a Christian can only claim the title Christian by virtue of membership in the Church. A Christian is united with the Church through faith, and it is this unity with the body of Christ that validates that faith. A solo Christian epitomizes oxymoron, and it is for this reason that questions such as whether salvation necessitates baptism—a mark of community membership—are so disordered. While a personal relationship with Jesus Christ is a crucial aspect of the faith, Christianity is much more than that.
Christianity stresses community, having at its foundation the eternal communion of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and “God’s purpose for his people is that they be brought together into a corporate body, a human community, rather than remaining as isolated individuals.”
The Idol of Individualism
Our culture exalts the individual to the point of idolatry. This is reflected both by those claiming the title Christian who nevertheless deny the necessity of church membership and those who misunderstand the purpose and nature of the churches they so faithfully attend. The former reduces Christianity to an elusive sense of spirituality, a tool for personal self-fulfillment with the Bible as just another self-help book.
The latter, however, sees church membership as just another bullet point in their personal faith journey. Attending church encourages them to go out and live the Christian life—by which they mean a moral life, however they may define it—until they return the next Sunday to receive more personal encouragement.
There is a grain of truth in this lie, but it is a lie nonetheless. This understanding reduces the Church to a personal spiritual discipline, making it the servant of the individual, a means of self-improvement. Does a soldier go to war to improve his personal physical condition? Of course not. A soldier practices personal training habits to improve his skills and abilities as a soldier in his army.
In the same way, Christians do not attend church merely to improve their personal faith, though it may. Rather, Christians should practice the spiritual disciplines, such as prayer and fasting, in order to improve their skills and abilities in service of the body of Christ. Christians should avoid sin, not simply because it displeases God on an individual level, but because we are not isolated practitioners of the faith. Our individual sin injects a cancer into the entire body of Christ, and its ramifications reverberate throughout the Church.
The Christian exists to serve, not to be served by, the Church. Christians often fail to understand the role of the Church and its importance because they fail to appreciate its true nature.
The Church is not an organization; it is the unity of all those placing their faith in Christ, forming a single universal entity. And yet, the Church is more than the sum of its parts. The Church is the body of Christ, meaning that the Church is Christ. It is not all of Christ, but it is part of Christ nonetheless.
Any schism in the Church, therefore, is equivalent to amputation. Some Protestant traditions reserve one day a year to celebrate the Reformation. Even as a Protestant myself, I find this inherently disturbing. Perhaps the Reformation, like an amputation, was necessary, but it is nothing to be celebrated.
“Here I Stand”
This understanding of the Church should impact how we view clergy. It is common in Protestant circles for Christian leaders to encourage believers to follow their individual conscience. After all, in our individualistically idolatrous generation, it would be arrogant for any leader to say, “Follow me” in matters of faith. Submission to spiritual leaders is so foreign to us as Protestants that words priest, bishop, and pope conjure up connotations of idolatry. Many Protestants, however, have made an idol of themselves.
Submission to the individual conscience encourages submission to nothing at all. The years I have spent following my conscience have led me to conclude that it cannot be trusted and, left to itself, will lead me where I do not want to go: deeper into myself and away from the body of Christ. Luther’s conscience may have been captive to the Word of God, but mine tends to be held captive only to itself.
Scripture urges us to submit to those placed in authority over us, and Christians today would do well to observe this apostolic decree. Paul shatters our cultural mores with his charge, “Imitate me” (1 Corinthians 4:16). When those succeeding the apostles echo the spirit of Paul, perhaps we would be wise to heed the call.