I was listening to a sermon recently and the preacher was making the point that “Radical Individualism” could be one indication that our relationship with God might be more akin to that of a servant than of a son. While I was thinking of that and wondering if I agreed with him or if I thought he was right, he went on to point out that as Christians and members of the church we are interdependent on one another.

I certainly do not disagree with the second point; after all Paul tells us we are all members of one body and the eye can not say to the hand, “I have no need of you”. We are certainly interdependent. Even as I agree with this point, I could not quite shake the idea that something just did not settle right with me that “Radical Individualism” was somehow not healthy. I might not have bothered about this, except that it was not the first time I had heard “Radical Individualism” disparaged by a Christian leader.

I will confess that maybe I didn’t really get the point of the sermon, but I want to defend “Radical Individualism”, that quintessentially American trait. The trait has often been maligned as incompatible with the teaching that we are to be interdependent on other members of the body of Christ. Paul teaches us that we are to submit ourselves one to another. How is that possible if we are “Radical Individuals”?

I have to give the disclaimer that I am partial to the idea of “Radical Individualism,” so maybe my perspective is off, but it seems to me that individualism is a good thing and, indeed, in their July 2009 edition, Christianity Today said, “We [evangelicals] are, of all Christian traditions, the most individualistic. This individual emphasis has flourished in different ways and in different settings, and often for the good. It has challenged moribund religion (Reformation), prompted revival (Great Awakenings), ministered to the urban poor (Salvation Army), abolished slavery (William Wilberforce), and led to explosive worldwide church growth (Pentecostalism). But it is individualism nonetheless….”

Maybe this is why Americans are so individualistic: we come from a Christian tradition that formed and founded our nation. I would add to the above list by saying it is individualism that comes up with new ideas, new products, and new innovations to improve peoples lives. From Rockefeller to Sears to Jobs, the Wright Brothers, Edison and Gates, it is individuals who are associated with great leaps forward. No great invention or no great discovery was ever made by a committee. Our radical individualism contributes to the benefit of others.

When our individualism is stifled it can lead to a dependency culture. I sure appreciate the radical individualists who do not look for a hand out, but look to provide for their own. When the job ends, instead of immediately looking to collect unemployment benefits for two years, they are looking for ways to support themselves and their families. It is individualism that built a nation of achievers that invented the large majority of the modern conveniences that we, as well as much of the world, now enjoy. This individualism has accrued to the benefit of most of the world. This seems to me to be what God made us for. He made us to be creative and adventurous and to pursue the dreams that He actually put in us.

It is hard for me to reconcile this kind of individualism with something that is unhealthy. How does this individualism fit into the concept of the church, that “the body is not one member, but many”? If we are radical individuals how are we to “be subject to one another in the fear of Christ.”? I would suggest that there is no submission at all if we do not bring to the submission the full measure of who we are as individuals in Christ.

If I come to the body of Christ and I submit myself to the church, but say I have no real talent, skills or abilities to offer to the whole, what kind of submission is that? That actually sounds like freeloading. In fact, it is easy to submit if I have no ambition or skill or ability, but if, in fact, I am talented or skilled, there is real hardiness to my submission. I am willingly bringing who I am to the body and submitting myself and my talents to the good of the whole. That is real submission.

It would actually be healthy to try to resurrect and/or celebrate the idea of radical individualism. It might help people to get off the welfare roles and to become productive members of society. Submission, without developing our potential, is either freeloading or surrender or both.