Individualism vs. collectivism—what does the Bible say?
When a person puts the community's needs ahead of his own, that demonstrates collectivism. When a person puts his own needs ahead of the needs of the community, that demonstrates individualism. Some cultures tend to value collectivism (such as Asian and Latino cultures) whereas others tend to value individualism (such as western European cultures). Many times the two are presented as a dichotomy and people want to know which one is better. The Bible holds up positive examples of both.
In truth, what God desires is for people to live for Him (Isaiah 43:7; Romans 12:1–2). We are not intended to live for our own selfish desires or even for other people. When we live for God and look to Him for our identity, worth, and purpose, we'll have a proper balance. Sometimes that will look like collectivism; sometimes that will look like individualism.
In biblical accounts of the early church we see some hints of collectivism. In Jerusalem, the church was able to give to those in need because the people pooled their resources (Acts 2:44–45; 4:32–35). Paul encouraged "equality" throughout the church when he asked the Corinthian church to give to support the church in Jerusalem (2 Corinthians 8:12–14). He wrote, "For I do not mean that others should be eased and you burdened, but that as a matter of fairness your abundance at the present time should supply their need, so that their abundance may supply your need, that there may be fairness."
Part of living out Jesus' call to love others is to be aware of their needs and willing to care for them. This includes practical needs (John 13:34–35; 1 John 3:17–18; James 2:14–17) as well as things like consistent fellowship (Hebrews 10:24–25) and caring interpersonal relationships (Romans 12:15–18). In Christ we are part of a family and we are intended to care for and support one another, sometimes at the expense of our individual desires (Galatians 6:1–10; 1 Peter 4:8–10).
We must remember, when we talk about collectivism and giving for the good of others in the church, the giving represented in the Bible is always voluntary (Acts 5:4). A desire to honor God and benefit the church drove the desire to give, not a mandate (2 Corinthians 9:6–8). Neither our practical gifts nor our relational ones are meant to be forced.
Christians are told to benefit others, but to do so because it pleases God. Hebrews 13:16 says, "Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God." Community is part of God's design. Love for others demonstrates our love for God and is a tangible way for others to experience His love (1 John 4:7–12). It is often in community that the work of sanctification is most fruitful, meaning sometimes our "collectivist" actions have a more "individual" impact. When community is functioning in God's design, the intent is to be mutually supportive. But, again, the focus is on God.
On the other hand, individualism is also valued in the Bible. Jesus tells a story in Luke 19 that illustrates the responsibility of each person to properly steward the things God blesses us with (Luke 19:11–27). The servants were held individually accountable, not judged as a group. Jesus also tells a series of stories in Luke 15 that show the importance of a single lost coin, sheep, and son. The group is left for the sake of finding the one. When the coin and the lost sheep are found, everyone rejoices. When the lost son returns, his father throws a party for all. The rescue is individual and the celebration is communal. We have a personal, individual, relationship with God and are part of His larger family. We serve and worship God both individually and communally.
At times God is glorified when the community is put ahead of the individual, and at times God is glorified when the focus and energies are on the individual. The image of the church as the body of Christ helps make this clear. As Paul explains in 1 Corinthians 12, a body is made up of individual parts. The body as a whole cannot function optimally without the individual members, just as the individual members cannot function
optimally apart from the whole body. There is both individualism and collectivism.
It is futile to try to land on a solid, universal answer to the question about whether collectivism or individualism is more biblical. The question simply cannot be answered one time for all situations.
Christian author C.S. Lewis offers us this advice: "I feel a strong desire to tell you—and I expect you feel a strong desire to tell me—which of these two errors [individualism or collectivism] is the worse. That is the devil getting at us. He always sends errors into the world in pairs—pairs of opposites. And he always encourages us to spend a lot of time thinking which is the worse. You see why, of course? He relies on your extra dislike of the one error to draw you gradually into the opposite one. But do not let us be fooled. We have to keep our eyes on the goal and go straight through between both errors. We have no other concern than that with either of them" (from Mere Christianity, book 4, chapter 6).
When we live with our minds and hearts set on Christ, we can trust the Holy Spirit to lead us. We can trust that He knows and is able to satisfy our every need, so we can rely on Him and obey His call, whatever it might be (Matthew 6:25–34; John 15:1–15). Ultimately it is Christ who we want to put above all.
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