Recently, I reviewed Chris Brauns’ new book, Bound Together. Around the same time, I had a chance to ask Chris three questions about the book, which he kindly answered with a thoroughness I’ve rarely seen!
Check out the interview below and keep reading to see how you can win a copy of the book for yourself:
In Bound Together, you identify a serious problem—the creep of individualism into the church. How did we let things get this bad?
The question of how radical individualism made its way into the 21st century church is an important one. Answering properly would require a survey of the developments of the Enlightenment. But let me try giving a concise answer:
Radical individualism was the inevitable trajectory of the Modern Age with its emphasis on individual autonomy. Over time, the radical individualism that came to permeate the West in the modern age has affected and shaped the Church.
As I explained in Bound Together, not all individualism is bad. In his essay, “Contrarian Reflections on Individualism,” D.A. Carson has rightly warned that we should not make all individualism some sort of theological “bogeyman.” There is a kind of individualism that is biblical and healthy. But there is a new sort of individualism that is deadly. In Losing Our Virtue, David Wells compared healthy individualism and radical individualism.
Last century’s individualism was one in which personal responsibility played a larger role. It was the kind in which people thought for themselves, owed nothing, and usually worked out their independence within a community…this person was guided by an internal gyroscope of character and belief and, as a result, saw it as a virtue to have clear goals, to work hard, to live by ethical principle. This…is the kind of person who would rather be right than be president.
Today’s individualist, by contrast, would rather be president than be right. It is not character that defines the way that expressive individualism functions today, but emancipation from values, from community, and from the past in order to be oneself, to seek one’s own gain.
In his book, Habits of the Heart, sociologist Robert Bellah does an excellent job tracing the development of radical individualism. He explains:
Modern individualism emerged out of the struggle against monarchial and aristocratic authority that seemed arbitrary and oppressive to citizens prepared to assert the right to govern themselves. In that struggle, classical political philosophy and biblical religion were important cultural resources. Classical republicanism evoked an image of the active citizen contributing to the public good and Reformation Christianity, in both Puritan and sectarian forms, inspired a notion of government based on the voluntary participating of individuals yet both these traditions placed individual autonomy in a context of moral and religious obligation that in some context justified obedience as well as freedom.
In seventeenth-century England, a radical philosophical defense of individual rights emerged that owed little to either classical or biblical sources. Rather, it consciously started with the biological individual in a “state of nature” and derived a social order from the actions of such individuals, first in relation to nature and then in relation to one another. John Locke is the key figure and one enormously influential in America. The essence of the Lockean position is an almost ontological individualism. The individual is prior to the society, which comes into existence only through the voluntary contract of individuals trying to maximize their own self-interest. It is from this position that we have derived the tradition of utilitarian individualism. Habits of the Heart, pages 142-143.
Bellah documents how this new sort of individualism will disintegrate the fabric of a culture. Like Bellah, the late Judge Robert Borck (Slouching Towards Gomorrah) also argued that radical individualism unravels culture and eventually removes the rights of the individual by attacking the family, church, and state. What began in America as an attempt to protect the rights of the individual will ultimately destroy them. In his words:
This individualism, it is quite apparent in our time, attacks the authority of family, church, and private association. The family is said to be oppressive, the fount of our miseries. It is denied that the church may legitimately insist upon what it regards as moral behavior in its members. Private associations are routinely denied the autonomy to define their membership for themselves. The upshot is that these institutions, which stand between the state and the individual, are progressively weakened and their functions increasingly dictated or taken over by the state. The individual becomes less of a member of powerful private institutions and more a member of an unstructured mass that is vulnerable to the collectivist coercion of the state. Thus does radical individualism prepare the way for its opposite (Slouching Towards Gomorrah)
Unfortunately, this radical individualism that developed in recent centuries has made its way into the church.
As you wrote the book, how did you see “the principle of the rope” affect how you approach community?
Writing Bound Together has made me more excited about loving people in our church and community. Studying this subject, I realized that we need to be more intentional about community in our local churches. Community or fellowship (koinonia) is not optional for Christians. When we read Acts 2:42 we see that the early church that they devoted themselves to the apostles teaching, and the fellowship, the breaking of bread, and prayer. There is a tremendous emphasis on community in that passage.
My wife and I have realized that we need to be more intentional about fostering community. Three of our four children are teens. So we have worked especially hard at being inviting to young people. Fortunately, I have a wife who is willing to cook for teenagers at a moment’s notice. Pictures like the one to the right where my wife is feeding hungry teenage guys before a football game are fairly typical in the world. For the record, my son is the one cramming a brownie in his mouth. Of course, we are not so naïve to equate biblical fellowship with eating brownies. But as we are intentional about spending time with our community, opportunities for true fellowship are more frequent.
One practical tip for being intentional about community is that we need to worry less about whether or not our houses are immaculate before inviting someone over. Sometimes we allow our pride to stop us from building community because we are too concerned about what someone might think of an unfinished project in our family room or some messiness.
Daniel Darling recently wrote a helpful post, How to Build Community in Your Church. He offers 5 practical suggestions and his post is worth reading.
What encouragement can you give believers struggling with the need for intentional community?
On a theological level, we need to meditate on all the images that Scripture uses to teach us how intimately we are bound together. We are united to Christ as branches to a vine, as bricks to a building, as an adopted child to a family, as an arm to a body, and the analogy is even made between intra-Trinitarian relationships. We need to study and meditate on those passages. If we do, then we will be more motivated to be in community with one another.
We also need to consider how many times Scripture connects joy in the Christian life to our relationship with other believers. I spend a whole chapter on that point in Bound Together. The warning of Proverbs 18:1 must be heeded, “Whoever isolates himself seeks his own desire; he breaks out against all sound judgment.” Sharing life with other believers in your local church is foundational to joy. See also, On the Danger of Excusing Ourselves from Church in the Name of Family.
I would invite your readers to stop by my web site (www.chrisbrauns.com). In the month of May I am giving away the last of some books as well as some free Nooks (see the Bound Together Quiz). The goal of my web site is to post material that would be helpful to people in our local church. But it ends up being helpful to a lot of other people as well.
Today, Zondervan and Cross-Focused Reviews have provided one copy of Bound Together to give away. To enter, all you’ve got to do is answer one question:
How does your community help you grow in your faith?
Contest ends May 13th at 11:59:59 eastern.