When Individualism and Autonomy Rule (a meditation on the sense of self in the Christian life)

In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in their own eyes. ~ Judges 21:25

If you were looking for a Bible verse to describe the attitude and ethic in western culture today, Judges 21:25 might be your verse. We live in a culture that values individualism and autonomy so much that the greatest wrongs seem to be offending someone’s feelings about himself or herself and limiting a person’s self expression.

We even see a love for autonomy in many churches. The churches of my tradition tend to wear it proudly as a badge: We are an autonomous body under no other ecclesiastical control.

Yet, if you read through the book of Judges where this verse is used twice (17:6 being the other time), it is clearly not a good attitude. In this way the verse reflects a most dangerous idol: seeing ourselves as ‘god.’

On the one hand there is goodness in these traits when properly ordered. All you have to do is read Genesis 1-2, Psalm 139, Romans 12, or 1 Corinthians 12 among other passages. God created each of us unique. God loves variety in his creatures and not a strict uniformity. Even people created in the image of God and followers of Jesus filled with his Holy Spirit have different looks, personalities, talents, abilities, experiences, tastes, and gifts. We are unique individuals. Through Jesus God brings these unique creatures together in the great mosaic of the body known as church.

And as we age in life, we reach a point where God says we leave mother and father. We grow up and our family dynamic changes. Where once we lived under the care and decision making of adults, we become the adults who make decisions and care for others.

There is room for individuality (which is different than individualism—the former being a sense of our uniqueness, the latter being an attitude that posits individual freedom as the highest good) and autonomy, to a certain degree.

Yet we go off track when we value these things over obedience to God, accountability to others, and the good of the community. God didn’t create us to be on our own and completely separate from the influence of others. He created us to live within the midst of vertical and horizontal relationships.

Vertically, we are to submit to God and to his rule. This is why Jesus isn’t interested in just portions of our lives. He’s not interested in being a priority on a list of many priorities. He demands everything from us and calls us to follow him (Luke 9:23). When we choose to let our sense of individualism and autonomy dictate to God what we think is right, instead of submitting ourselves under what he has declared is right, we have made an idol of ourselves. Just like every other false god the world has to offer, in the end the god of self will crumble and fall. God gives us plenty of room for creativity and self expression, so long as we live under his good rule. Self idolatry enslaves and destroys.

Horizontally, we are to love, serve, and submit ourselves to others. When we become followers of Jesus we give up our autonomy to God and to the community of his people for their good and ours. “Don’t judge me” is a mantra of our age. But no Christian should ever utter this phrase to another Christian.

According to Paul in 1 Corinthians 5, we are not to judge people who make no claim to be followers of Jesus. Yes, they live in sin; and yes, they do things of which we should not partake. What they need from us, though, is to see the love, grace, and joy that we have in Jesus. They need to hear the good news that is the message of hope in him. They don’t need our condemnation or our judgment. As Paul wrote, God is their judge; not us.

But when it comes to each other, Paul wrote that we judge one another. This is the same thing Jesus said in Matthew 7. Yes, we must judge ourselves first and be dealing with our issues (the planks in our eyes), but that allows us to help our brothers and sisters in Christ with their issues (the specks in their eyes). It’s also what Jesus said in Matthew 18. If you see a brother or sister sin, first go to them in private and seek to win their repentance. If they refuse, then go with one or two others; and then if they still refuse, take it to the church.

The goal of our judgment of each other also is not condemnation. In Galatians 6:1, Paul said to seek to restore with a spirit of gentleness those who are caught in sin. This is a loving concern that wants to help our brothers and sisters be fully committed to Jesus, as should be our desire for our own lives.

So in the Christian life, we must keep our sense of being an individual and our desire for autonomy in their proper places. They should not rule as king and be, in our minds, our greatest virtues. We should first submit ourselves to God and second submit ourselves to others. A person committed to Jesus doesn’t look at other people and say, “I don’t care what you have to say, I’m going to live the way I want to live.” Instead they look at others and say, “Since we are brothers and sisters, I want you to help me follow Jesus more fully as I want to help you do the same.”

May it not be said of us, “Everyone did what was right in their own eyes.” Instead may we crucify the idol of self and do what is right in the eyes of our Lord.

This post is part of our ongoing journey through the Bible as a church.

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