Church Discipline and Expressive Individualism
Expressive individualism, the phrase coined by philosopher Charles Taylor in A Secular Age, captures the largest ideological shift in America during the twentieth century. It represents the cumulative effect of secularism’s insatiable appetite to understand the self. Two other phrases coined by Taylor provide some background.
The first is “exclusive humanism,” the idea that humans are exclusively responsible for the happenings in our world. This idea, on a societal level, cuts off any true contact with transcendence. Exclusive humanism means humans on their own, without God.
This leads to a second phrase—the “immanent frame.” This is Taylor’s term for a “constructed social space where instrumental rationality is a key value.” In other words, humans who have abandoned God still long for meaning, and if that meaning can’t be found in transcendence, then it must be found in what is immanent—in what is here, accessible, earthly. The immanent frame infuses depth in material things, but in isolation from the Creator that exclusive humanism denies. The immanent frame requires that the things of this world must be special.
This is the thinking behind our society’s fairly recent infatuation with “organic,” “hand-crafted,” “home-made,” and so forth. Take a look in your pantry and notice the plethora of these buzz words. Remember that ideas influence the market, but then the market drives ideas. We’re largely comfortable in the immanent frame because it sells, and that’s finally what gives way to expressive individualism.
If exclusive humanism (i.e., a world without God) leads to the immanent frame (i.e., searching for meaning in the immanent, where we do have contact), then the burden for finding that meaning falls on the individual, which is what our society means when you hear talk of “finding your own way,” or “doing your own thing,” or “you do you.” This is expressive individualism.
Since we’ve done away with God, we need to find our own “origin story.” The individual must construct his own meaning, and then publicize it. And it’s especially in the publicity that the individual is fulfilled because the publicity is immanent and accessible—coram populo.
Carl Trueman then takes sociologist Philip Rieff’s idea of “psychological man,” who lives to attend to his own inner self, and combines it with Charles Taylor’s expressive individualism. “You do you” is the result, and that only counts if you’re letting everybody know about the “you.” It’s not hard to see how social media has intensified the game—again, chasing the idea, but also driving it.
The way this idea has touched everything is stunning. I’m confronted with it each time I put on a pair of St. Louis Cardinals dress socks, grab my St. Louis Cardinals coffee mug, and hop into my car that has a St. Louis Cardinals decal. There’s also the mousepad, the key chain, and even of course my Bitmoji—a digital avatar of myself wearing a St. Louis Cardinals ball-cap and t-shirt. I own all of this because, personally, I’m a fan of the St. Louis Cardinals. The forms of expression are almost endless, even for just one little detail about my self-understanding.
While not everything to do with the expressive individual is nefarious, neither the aspects of selfhood nor the forms of expression stay as benign as a Cardinals coffee mug. Expressive individualism has infiltrated the deeps—most notably seen in our society’s confusion over sexuality. The tectonic plates of our humanity have shifted as the modern self has triumphed. All of this has accompanied a deep suspicion and even aversion to church membership generally and church discipline in particular.
So now we come to the real topic.
FIRST, CHURCH MEMBERSHIP
The high calling of the local church is to officially affirm and shape the regenerate individual’s life in Christ. Membership in a local church, as Jonathan Leeman describes it, “is a formal relationship between a church and a Christian characterized by the church’s affirmation and oversight of a Christian’s discipleship and the Christian’s submission to living out his or her discipleship in the care of the church.”
This care includes the continual affirmation that the Christian is indeed a Christian, expressed by the church’s attentiveness to the Christian’s confession of the gospel and conduct consistent with that confession. Dependent upon the Scriptures, the church vouches that the individual is a Christian because they believe rightly and live rightly.
Therefore, for a Christian to even join a local church—or rather, to submit to a local church—they must directly renounce expressive individualism by accepting the church’s role in announcing and shaping their public identity.
For pastors, explaining this counter-cultural reality of church membership is the first step to teaching our people the necessity of church discipline. When Jesus is worshiped rather than self, and when membership of a body (1 Corinthians 12:18–20) is rightly understood in contrast to expressive individualism, then the actions required to restore wayward members and guard the church’s purity make sense.
THE AUDACITY OF DISCIPLINE
What happens when a member’s “inward quest for personal psychological happiness” contradicts the teaching of Scripture? Who decides whether that’s true? Who has the authority?
By becoming a church member, an individual Christian relinquishes to the church the authority to discern whether one’s conduct is sinful, as guided by the Bible. The individual effectively says, “I’m no longer an independent authority unto myself. I invite the church in.” For example, imagine that a church member abandons his spouse because he finds the marriage no longer fulfilling. He’s convinced that Jesus desires his personal fulfillment above all things, and so he walks away from his marital vows, disobeying Ephesians 5:22–33. What’s really happening here is that the member is forsaking Jesus to serve self, and it’s the church’s responsibility to exhort the member to stop. On the authority of God’s revealed will in Scripture, the church judges this member to be sinning and takes the necessary steps of correction, whether the member agrees with the judgment or not.
Increasingly, though, the mindset of expressive individualism tempts Christians to disagree with the church’s judgment or even count such confrontations as sinful. In many cases, the individual will find a way to justify his behavior on the grounds of what Trueman calls an “anarchic emotive morality.” Expressive individualism cares less about unrepentant sin and more about the unrepentant audacity of the church to judge behavior sinful when the individual disagrees.
THE NEED FOR COMPASSION AND COURAGE
These days, pastors are desperate for wisdom from above in order to be wise as serpents and innocent as doves (James 3:17; Matthew 10:16). Compassion and courage have always been relevant to the pastoral calling, but perhaps especially today, in two particular applications.
Regarding compassion, we must remember the difference between the deceivers and the deceived. Most of our church members who buy into the most tragic manifestations of expressive individualism have been led astray. They’re the deceived. Pastors should not let their frustration over an ideology like expressive individualism turn into a frustration with everyone influenced by that ideology. Compassion affords patience, and we should give individuals ample room to hear the church’s correction and welcome its discipleship.
Regarding courage, we should prepare for discipline situations to raise larger criticisms related to church authority and the validity of discipline. Yet we must not let that deter us from obeying God (see Acts 5:32). There will likely be discipline situations in your church that lead to public criticisms. When the church of Jesus Christ undermines the god of self and exercises discipline, the expressive individual sometimes takes to Twitter. The internet will shake its fist; your church will be misrepresented; and you’ll know that it all could have been avoided if your church let that member continue down their ruinous road of sin. But what is right is rarely popular, and in this climate it takes uncanny, Spirit-led courage to say “That is sin.” God help us.