Individualism Versus Corporatism

No. 2 of the Tightrope Series

God made us as individual, responsible beings that are accountable to Him personally (cf. Rom 14:10; 2 Cor 5:10). So, in a sense, we are ultimately answerable to no man but to God. This is biblical individualism. But when Christ redeems us, He makes us members of His body and requires us to serve Him in union with the rest of the members (1 Cor 12:12-27). Along with that privilege we are called to "obey them that have the rule over [us], and submit [ourselves]: for they watch for [our] souls, as they that must give account" (Heb 13:17). This is the duty required of biblical corporatism.

It is not difficult to see how the demands of individualism and that of corporatism can sometimes clash. We do not, after all, always see eye to eye with the leaders or with other members in the church.

In theory, there is no doubt, that as the members of the church grow in Christ-mindedness (1 Cor 2:16; Phil 2:5), there will be less and less conflict between the demands of individualism and corporatism. But in practice, the conflict can result in a lot of confusion and frustration amongst members of the church.

How should we balance between individualism and corporatism?

Submission as Unto the Lord

First of all, while we must submit to our leaders in all things, our submission must be "as unto the Lord" (cf. Eph 5:22; Col 3:20). As such, the Word of God teaches us that if men, whoever they may be, require us to do something that will cause us to sin against God, then it is our duty to disobey (Acts 4:19; 5:29). Walking in the balance in other words does not involve blind obedience to our leaders or accommodating to man to the point of sinning against God.

This again appears rather straightforward. In practice, however, it is often not so clear because a member of the church may have a different understanding from the leaders of the church on some particular point in the Word of God. This is one of the reasons why Creeds and Confession are important as tools of church unity.

But given the possibility of different interpretations arising in the church, what should we do? Well, the Word of God teaches us that we must always maintain "a conscience void of offence toward God, and toward men" (Acts 24:16). If we cast away our conscience, we will make shipwreck of our faith (1 Tim 1:19). In other words, practically, what should determine whether we must submit or refuse to submit to an instruction or decision by our leaders is our conscience bounded to the Word of God. We must not submit to an instruction or decision that violates our conscience. Thus, for example, if the leaders of our church should decide to organize a food and fun fair on the Sabbath to raise funds for a particular cause, then those of us, who believe it is wrong according to the Word, should raise our objections.

Opinion Vs Conviction

However, secondly, we must be careful not to be too quick to appeal to our conscience. Even Martin Luther took a night to meditate and pray before he boldly declared: "my conscience is captive to the Word of God… Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise." Remember that unless your conscience is bounded to the Word of God, it is not a safe guide. Therefore, if you find yourself conscientiously unable to go along with the leaders of the church on any matter, you should first determine if your basis of objection is biblical and sound. Indeed, you should also examine the basis of your leaders’ decisions before deciding you must disobey.

To put it in another way, we must learn to distinguish between our personal opinions and convictions. Biblical convictions must be soundly founded upon the Word of God. I do not necessarily violate my conscience if I allow or do something against my personal opinion; but I will violate my conscience if I do something against my conviction. Opinions are often based on subjective emotions or some not well-worked out thoughts. When we disagree with the instructions or decisions of our leaders, we should first determine if our view is a matter of biblical conviction or mere personal opinion. If it is an opinion, then I believe a balanced walk will require submission to the authority. If it is a conviction, then a balanced walk will require a refusal to submit.

Thus, for example, what should you do should the officers of the church decide to change the time of worship to a time which in your opinion is inconvenient and disadvantageous? I believe you may raise your concerns privately with the leaders, but to refuse to submit or to stir up dissension over the matter would be to walk out of the balance.

Common Good of the Church

Thirdly, it is important not to confuse biblical individualism with selfish individualism that disregards the common good of the church that we are in. The apostle Paul teaches us:

"Let nothing be done through strife or vainglory; but in lowliness of mind let each esteem other better than themselves. Look not every man on his own things, but every man also on the things of others" (Phil 2:3-4).

This pastoral instruction of the apostle Paul must be borne carefully in mind by all who desire to walk in the biblical balance. But how does this consideration fit into the balance? I would suggest that Paul is not implying that we should not have any personal opinions and convictions. He is suggesting, however, that we view the opinions of others highly and seek to understand their worth. He is also suggesting that we must learn to wash one another’s feet and to include the good of others in the church as a significant factor in our decision-making.

Thus, for example, suppose you disagree with your elders that fellowship lunch should be served in the worship hall. Your elders explain that first of all that we are limited by space, and secondly that under the New Testament economy, there is no intrinsic holiness attached to any place including the worship hall. They also explain that the lunch in church provides a means of fellowship for the members of the church. You feel that eating in the worship hall will destroy the ‘sense of awe and sanctity’ that could otherwise be provoked by merely stepping into the hall. You feel also that godly fellowship can be better enjoyed in the homes of the members inviting one another for a meal on the Sabbath. Your session appreciates your view, but feels that all things considered, having lunch in church on the Sabbath would still be best for the church as a whole for the moment. What should you do? Should you withdraw yourself from lunch duties and indeed refuse to join in the fellowship lunch? I do not think that would be walking in the balance. What really should be done is to consider the view of your session and the good of others so that you can put aside your difference to support the lunch by your contribution and your presence. You may be convinced that it best not to have lunch in church, especially not in the worship hall; but you should also be convinced that your elders "have the mind of Christ" (1 Cor 2:16) and also that your actions of protest could be sinfully divisive in the church. Recognizing then, that your understanding may be wrong, you should really weigh in the opinions of your elders and the good of the church, and seek to walk with the church as much as possible.


The Christian life is lived on a delicate balance between apparently conflicting demands of the Word of God. We say ‘apparently’ because there cannot be any real conflict, for the Word of God is infallibly consistent and coherent. Walking in the narrow way therefore involves balance rather than compromise. If the demands in the Word of God are contradictory, compromise is a must; but if not, compromise is sin. Sin is any want of conformity or transgression of the Law of God. All compromises involve a want of conformity or transgression of the Law of God.

A failure to walk in the balance between individualism and corporatism is sinful. But if we would walk about to the biblical balance, we will be walking according to the mind of Christ. Oh what a joy it will be to you and to the others who make up the body of Christ when all the members of the church are walking according to the mind of Christ! May the Lord help us! Amen. W