By Bishop Sunny Emmanuel*
I’ve been thinking about how religion identifies people by which group they belong to, while the Bible identifies us as individuals within a family. “I bow my knees to the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, of whom the whole family in heaven and earth is named.” (Eph 3: 14-15)
I’ve observed that organized religion removes a person’s individuality, lumping each person and their uniqueness into a large homogenous group of people identified by denomination, program, stream of faith, conference theme, or other movement in the faith.
Jesus – not part of the pack
One reason Jesus made the Pharisees, Sadducees, Herodians, scribes, and lawyers angry was that he refused to be identified with one of their groups. Religion hates individualism because it can’t control individuals. They didn’t know what to do with Jesus because in their thinking if you weren’t in one of their groups they could not relate to you at all. An individual is allowed to express their uniqueness only as it fits into the thinking of the group (and with group approval), and Jesus refused to play by their group rules.
But really, they had no way to get their mind around what Jesus was doing because their world view could only be understood through group thinking. They saw God as flowing through their way of thinking only and didn’t even know how to relate to someone outside their group.
Their disapproval of Jesus’ behaviour was in part rooted in the fact that he didn’t fit into their group thinking.
Out of place in the church
If you understand how Jesus was viewed as not being part of an accepted group, then you can understand the thinking of the modern traditional church. I don’t blame them really because group thinking is traditional church culture. Scan back through church history and non-group thinkers like Luther and Wesley and others stand out.
I’m just trying to explain the differences in thinking. The traditional church in its many and varied groups trains people to relate to people as a group through the eyes of a program; be it Sunday morning service or neighbourhood outreach, just as in Jesus’ day.
If you start talking to them about relationship based Christianity they have nothing to compare it to, so their eyes just glaze over or they look for the first break in the conversation so they can run for the exit.
It took years for me to figure out that this is why I always felt out of place in the traditional church. I have always seen people as unique individuals for whom Jesus died, without consideration which group they belonged to. I refused to be territorial, play political games, include or exclude my care for people based on which church they attended or what gender they were, or what sin held them, and that made me stick out like a sore thumb.
A danger to the pack
By its very nature the group must label people and assess their value or danger to the group and react accordingly. If a person retains their ability to think while they are within the group, they become a danger to the group.
On most every church application there are questions on attendance, tithing, where a person has been involved in the church – all designed to assess group mentality, among other things. In every Bible school I’ve seen and many church volunteer classes there is something on the subject of the group’s thinking along the lines of “Submission and Authority”, which is the means by which control is exerted.
Group thinking cannot relate to individualism in Christ. People ask me “what about accountability?” in relationship based Christianity because accountability to them means accountable to the group via a program or by attendance or giving. They can’t even relate to having close relationships in Christ in which accountability and intimacy is attained in pure friendship because traditional church structure promotes relationship with the group rather than people within the group, so they have nothing to compare it to.
In the past when I’ve read I Corinthians 3: 4-5 I’ve shaken my head at those crazy Corinthians who wanted to be put into a group, and thought that can’t happen in OUR day! “For while one says, I am of Paul; and another, I am of Apollos; are you not carnal? Who then is Paul, and who is Apollos, but servants by whom you believed, as the Lord has given to each of us a part? I have planted, Apollos has watered; but God gave the increase.” Paul rebuked them for thinking like a group rather than one family and body in Christ.
Even within the house church movement – uh oh, there is another group to identify with – there are ‘streams’ in the faith. That’s why I go by what I’ve been calling Relationship Based Christianity, which is focused on there being neither Jew nor Greek, male nor female, bond nor free, but all one in Christ. (Galatians 3:28).
*Bishop Sunny Emmanuel is a Senior Pastor with Christian Faith Centre International, Tilburg (Holland). He may be reached on firstname.lastname@example.org