Wednesday, 1 June 2011

Becoming a Christian = Becoming a sheep?

Although I said a couple entries ago that I'd be blogging more frequently that obviously hasn't come to pass. But to be honest I'd rather crack on with an interesting question than excuse myself so let's move on from my inactivity!

A few months back now (*whistles*) I began writing on the beauty of Christianity. Is Christianity something we should desire to be true, or is it instead a rather loathsome message? In this entry I'd like to continue this theme by looking at the claim that becoming a Christian involves a loss of something particularly desirable, namely, your individuality. Does becoming a Christian entail being assimilated into the faceless folds of the faithful? Doesn't even Jesus compare those who follow him to sheep?

It's a concern that has a particular pull on us as modern Westerners; we are people who place an extraordinary emphasis on individuality. Although folks in the Biblical world (and the ancient world in general) wouldn't have shared this concern, I don't think the Christian message ought to make us fret in this regard.

Christians are not called to be sheep in the derogatory way that metaphor now expresses. It's highly improbable that Jesus' use of the metaphor was intended to teach his followers that they are all to be exactly the same. Like much of what Jesus said the metaphor serves to reveal something about him, in this case, that he is like a shepherd - the person who cares for and directs believers. Moreover it is presumed that those who follow him do so because they have been personally persuaded of Jesus' power and love, not because they have blindly followed the crowd (see link at bottom for discussion on whether faith is rational.) Throughout the New Testament there is the expectation that believers have their own individual trust in God, merely being part of a God-believing congregation or family is not enough. The apostle Paul says that it is by believing in your own heart and confessing with your own mouth that Jesus is Lord which admits you into salvation (Romans 10:9).

In fact the New Testament teaching explicitly denies that all Christians ought to be identical. We are told to be united, but not indistinguishable! Paul compares groups of Christians to how a body works and calls them the body of Christ. Check it out:

“the body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would be the sense of hearing? If the whole body were an ear, where would be the sense of smell? But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, yet one body.” (1 Corinthians 12:14-20)

Here it is rightly affirmed that different people bring different personalities, skills, and gifts into the mix.

Another fact that preserves the individuality of Christians is the (perhaps surprising) level of freedom given to Christians to work out what they believe and what they ought to do to please God.

A Christian does not have to sign an already worked out series of propositions about everything the Bible touches on, from the natural world, to politics, in order to enjoy God's free gift of salvation. Exactly how much a person does need to know is a matter for debate but the Biblical focus definitely seems to linger just around who Jesus is and what he did (see again Romans 10:9, and also 1 Corinthians 15:3-6). This is quite a minimal standard! Even the great creeds that the Christian community eventually developed to summarise the correct way to understand the message of Jesus and his disciples leaves large room for debate on a whole host of issues. I tell you, I spend as much time debating issues (theological or otherwise) with Christians as I do with non-Christians!

And when it comes to how you live your life, believers are constantly admonished to grow in wisdom in applying the more general moral principles that are laid out. In other words you are trusted to be responsible in figuring out a lot of stuff yourself! There are entire books in the Bible dedicated to the flourishing of wisdom (of particular interest is the book of proverbs).

It seems to me that a person should not be put off from Christianity by a fear that they will have to lose who they are. There is no pre-set Christian dress code, or pre-set Christian music, or pre-set Christian sports etc. Christians are some of the most varied and 'colourful' people I know. You are encouraged to bring your uniqueness into the Christian community. That said, individual expression is not the Christian's chief virtue. That would be love. A Christian is expected to love God and his community before themselves. There is much in the Christian worldview that confronts our individualism. We are told to no longer see ourselves primarily as isolated individuals, but rather as a living organism of people (plural!) who mutually submit to one another in radical service. Our merits are merits for others. Our failings fail others.

This vision of life doesn't destroy individuality, but it does dethrone it. And the more I find myself in line with it, the more I find myself freed by it. 

(Thoughts on the rationality of faith.)