Is Individualism a Bad Thing?

Follow Jesus, Not Self

Everything depends on how people use the term. Individualism can be simply the focus on self. In certain contexts, it would be very difficult to have a deep difference between the two. Individualism may be a good thing in that it may be encouraging people to work out the shape of the gospel on individual lives—to be courageous, not to be shaped by the dictates of a passing cultural fad, be an individual and stand on your own two feet, stand up for Jesus.

That can be a form of individualism. But it can also be a focus on self that forgets that Christians are called to follow Jesus—to take up their cross daily and follow him, to die to self-interest, to love the Lord because he is the Master and King. I’m under his authority.

The Gospel and the Modern World

D. A. Carson, Brian J. Tabb

The Gospel and the Modern World brings together more than 30 of D. A. Carson’s essays from the evangelical theological journal Themelios, with contributions from colleagues Brian J. Tabb, Andrew David Naselli, and Collin Hansen.

And individualism against that is really a form of self-focus. A lot of people are worried today about too much individualism in Western culture over against such focus on self-interest and what I want to do to please myself, what I do with my time, what my priorities are, and so on. Then, we’re supposed to live lives that die daily and take up the mantle of Christ’s lordship and so on. But I sometimes think, in more perverse moments, that the problem is not so much individualism today as it is groupthink.

Make Up Your Own Mind

A lot of fads that come along that were not even around twenty or twenty-five years ago become ways by which some people are claiming they are individuals. They don’t follow this religious stuff from our parents, and they’re individuals and they make up their own mind. But there are so many people that are making up their own mind that there’s a groupthink about making up your own mind.

And there’s a form of individualism that is proud of the fact that they’re not individuals. So again, none of those expressions is intrinsically controlling. It depends on the person with whom you’re talking. Even in Christian ministry, there are some ministers of the gospel and local churches who do things as they’ve been taught. They’re faithful, they work hard, they’re good and honest workers, and they love the gospel and so on.

We’re supposed to live lives that die daily and take up the mantle of Christ’s lordship.

And there are others who are mavericks. What can I say? If you stopped right now and have a little chat amongst yourselves about whom do you know who is a maverick for the gospel, I bet you’re already thinking of two or three names. They are people who are creative and they do things I would never do. But the Lord raises up his mavericks too—real individuals. And that’s not an intrinsic weakness or an intrinsically bad thing.

It can slip the constraints of the gospel and become bad, but it can be a remarkable gift from God to raise up some individuals who are such corkers that they develop new plans and approaches to outreach and so on that are shaped by Scripture but that are not in any mere traditionalist camp. In that sense, we need some individuals, which is merely a way of saying I don’t think we should spend a lot of our time on debating whether individualism is good or bad, because it depends on what you mean by individualism and the context in which you are called to work.

D. A. Carson is the author of The Gospel and the Modern World: A Theological Vision for the Church.

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