Subverting White Discipleship and the Myth of an Apolitical Jesus, Part 3: 
Blinded by Individualism

If you’re just tuning in, this is the third installment in a series on the intersections of what it means to be the church in America, how American racialized society forms our social imagination, and how that formation affects the perspectives of the privileged when it comes to political engagement and biblical interpretation. If you haven’t already read the first two posts in this series, I’d encourage you to read those first: Part One; Part Two.

We’ve established that the Scriptures teach God’s people to live as exiles in Babylon, not by Separatism or Escapism, but by seeking the shalom of the city. And we’ve established that the context in which American Christians are seeking shalom is a racialized society. But what happens when the people of God bear more resemblance to Babylon than the Kingdom of God? We’ll look at one important way that has happened in the case of Western Christians: Individualism.

The American Church is Babylonian

God’s instructions to God’s people in Babylon was to seek the shalom of the city, but never to compromise their convictions. We’ve seen how Daniel is a model for such faithfulness, even under threat of death. God’s people are called to never bow down to Babylon’s idols, even if those idols aren’t golden statues, but are instead philosophies that pervert and distort our understanding of ourselves and God. When the church has bowed down to the idolatrous gods of Babylon, they have become enslaved by them. But this enslavement can be either so insidious that the church is unaware they are enslaved, or enslavement is the result of incising deceptions that God’s people sinfully choose for themselves.

In his landmark book, The Next Evangelicalism: Freeing the Church from Western Cultural Captivity, Dr. Soong-Chan Rah writes about the Babylonian captivity of the American church:

“In church history, the phrase ‘captivity of the church’ has been used in different contexts with varied meanings. In the context of the Protestant Reformation, Martin Luther wrote the tract _On the Babylonian Captivity of the Church_, likening the Catholic Church’s stranglehold on the sacraments to the capture and exile of the Israelites by the Babylonians. To Luther, the church’s lack of understanding and application of faith and grace revealed a doctrinal captivity of the church. Luther asserts that the medieval Catholic Church held little resemblance to the characteristics of the community of God found in Scripture. […]

The phrase ‘captivity of the church’ points to the danger of the church being defined by an influence other than the Scriptures. The church remains the church, but we more accurately reflect the culture around us than the characteristics of the bride of Christ. We are held captive to the culture that surrounds us. To speak of the white captivity of the church is an acknowledgement that white culture has dominated, shaped and captured Christianity in the United States. At times the white evangelical church has been enmeshed with Western, white American culture to the great detriment of the spread of the gospel. This state of American evangelicalism cannot continue if we are to move toward the future of a next evangelicalism.” (p.21-22) [1]

In The Next Evangelicalism, Dr. Rah points to three major ways the American church is held captive by Babylon:

Racism: The Residue of Western, White Cultural Captivity;
Consumerism and Materialism: The Soul of Western, White Cultural Captivity; and
Individualism: The Heartbeat of Western, White Cultural Captivity.

Individualism is the foundation upon which the other two are built—the heartbeat of Western, white cultural captivity.

The Individualistic Heartbeat of the Babylonian American Church

Heartbeat is a good metaphor for the way individualism operates in the Babylonian American church, since it is a steady cadence that often goes unnoticed unless someone has their finger on the pulse. Individualism is also a force that animates American evangelical theology, the way the heartbeat circulates blood all throughout the body.

“The American church, in taking its cues from Western, white culture, has placed at the center of its theology and ecclesiology the primacy of the individual. The cultural captivity of the church has meant that the church is more likely to reflect the individualism of Western philosophy than the value of community found in Scripture. The individualistic philosophy that has shaped Western society, and consequently shaped the American church, reduces Christian faith to a personal, private and individual faith.” (p.30)

Dr. Rah was well aware of the backlash that he would receive when he criticized individualism. Evangelical theology is so thoroughly saturated with individualism, it’s impossible for many American evangelicals to conceptualize Christian theology outside of an individualistic framework. Nevertheless, Dr. Rah differentiated between a healthy sense of individuation and the unhealthy implications of individualism.

“One of Western Christianity’s greatest contributions is the possibility of experiencing the grace of God on a personal and individual level. However, this individuation does not need to occur at the expense of an appreciation of a corporate point of view. Excessive and hyper-individualism contrasts to the healthy process of individuation by enslaving the individual to the tyranny of individualism, leading to personalism and privatism. The danger of the Western, white captivity of the church is an excessive individualism and personalism that reflects the narcissism of American culture rather than the redemptive power of the gospel message.” (p.33)

The tyranny of individualism leads to the enslavement of evangelical theology and practice. One of the starting places for this captivity is how we approach biblical interpretation.

“The priority of the individual shapes how American evangelicals live out our local church experience, how we study and learn Scripture, how we shape our corporate worship and even how we live and interact in community. For example, our Bible studies become the search for a personal and individualized understanding. If we were to pay attention to the intended audience of the various books of the Bible, we would find that only a handful of books were actually written exclusively to individuals—such as 2 Timothy, Titus, Philemon. An overwhelming number of books in the Bible are written to communities: the people of God, the nation of Israel, the church in Colosse and Corinth, the seven churches in Asia Minor, etc. Yet, why is it that our reading of the text centers so much on the individual reading of Scripture versus a corporate reading as the overwhelming majority of the Scriptures demand?

In a typical American church, are we taking teaching intended for the community of faith and reducing it to an application exclusively on the individual level? Our Sunday sermons emphasize how the individual can live his or her best life or how to have a purpose and direction from Scripture for his or her personal life by claiming the promises of a specific prayer for the individual. Too few Sunday sermons focus on how the community is called to respond to social problems or to reflect a corporate identity as God’s people.” (p.33)

If our hermeneutics are held captive by Babylon, then so also will be our application. We cannot faithfully live a life of discipleship if our biblical interpretation is corrupted by philosophies foreign to the Scriptures. It’s no wonder the church is often less of a threat to the fallen Powers than it is a comfort, when the Powers control how the church reads the Bible.

Misreading Scripture Through Individualistic Lenses

The ways our interpretation of the Bible are held captive to the Powers of Western, white philosophies is often invisible to us. They are part of things we take for granted, so that, for example, it “goes without saying” that we should read the Bible individualistically. But, what happens when our assumptions based on our cultural conditioning run headlong into the different, even opposite, assumptions of others who don’t share our cultural conditioning?

That’s what missionaries and Bible translators, Dr. E. Randolph Richards and Brandon J. O’Brien, help Western readers discover in their fantastic book, Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understand the Bible. They devote an entire chapter to the ways individualism distorts our biblical interpretation, and how the Bible doesn’t share our Western individualistic assumptions. These assumptions often lead to misunderstanding of the Bible.

“Our individualistic assumptions affect our reading of Scripture in many ways, some of them more series than others. Because individualism goes without being said in the West, we can often get the wrong idea of what an event described in the Bible might have looked like. This can lead to the more serious problem of misunderstanding what it meant.” (p.100) [2]

Richards and O’Brien point to some very important subjects as examples. Western individualistic assumptions even shape how we view salvation and conversion. Because it goes without saying in the West that individuals make a choice to become Jesus’s disciples, we assume that is how it happened in the Bible. But that is a mistake caused by our cultural captivity.

“In collectivist societies, conversion is not strictly an individual decision, so it is often not an individual experience. This may seem strange and even unbiblical to Western Christians, who emphasize a personal and individual decision to follow Christ. But in non-Western cultures, group conversions—when whole families or tribes come to faith at once—are not uncommon.” (p.103)

Group conversions are actually quite common in the New Testament, like in the case of the jailer in Acts 16. But Western readers are so conditioned by our cultural assumptions that we read our individualism into the narrative and assume each person made an individual choice.

“For many Western readers, what goes without being said about the conversion of the jailer’s household is that we assume each person in the family must have been convinced independently and privately of the truth of the gospel and must have made a personal decision to follow Jesus.” (p.104)

Assumptions like these have a much broader destructive impact on the theology we derive from Scripture. Individualism erodes and corrupts our corporate view of the church as the family of God and our view of the Kingdom of God as a social reality. As Richards and O’Brien so succinctly put it:

“[Jesus] came to establish a people of God, over which he would reign as king. It is not really ‘me and Jesus.’” (p.110)

What if individualism were more than just a slightly off way of viewing things? What if Individualism was a fallen Power that seeks to enslave us, and against which we are called to revolt? That’s what Dr. Greg Boyd believes.

Revolting Against the Power of Individualism

In his book, The Myth of a Christian Religion: Losing Your Religion for the Beauty of a Revolution, Boyd doesn’t just depict individualism as an odd quirk of Western culture, he casts it as a fallen Power—something “contrary to God’s will”—against which we are called to revolt.

“…the world is oppressed by fallen Powers that influence human culture in ways contrary to God’s will. One primary way the Powers operate in Western culture is by promoting an ideology of ‘Rugged Individualism,’ which runs counter to God’s will for us to live in community. We place unprecedented stress on our individual freedoms and rights. While people in traditional cultures tend to define themselves by their ties to a particular community, modern westerners tend to define themselves *apart* from ties to a particular community—‘over and against’ others instead of ‘in relation’ to others.” (p.70) [3]

Not only does Boyd consider the idol of individualism destructive to our view of ourselves in relation to community, he also considers it destructive of us personally.

“It is against our nature to be isolated. It makes us miserable, dehumanizes us, and ultimately destroys us.” (p.72)

According to Boyd, followers of Jesus are called to resist individualism as an evil Power bent on destroying us. By viewing ourselves primarily as part of the body of Christ, God’s family, we fight back against the Western cultural captivity of the evil Power of individualism. By living out Christ-like love in community and by putting on display the power of the Gospel, we shine like light in the darkness.

Elsewhere Boyd again critiques individualism as contrary to the Bible’s teaching about how we are to view ourselves and our relationships.

“…the church is much more than a collection of individuals. Rather, when a person surrenders to Christ, the Spirit of God incorporates them into a living organism that the New Testament calls “the body of Christ” (1 Cor 12:27). Each newly incorporated individual is organically related to other members of the body the way a person’s foot is related to their hand, for example, or the way their eyes are related to their ears (1 Cor 12). In other words, each member of the body of Christ is related to every other member as part of a single, living organism.

This is difficult for many in Western culture to grasp, largely because our culture is intensely individualistic. We tend to define individuals over and against others rather than in relationship to others. We thus tend to view the individuals that comprise a given social group (family, church, nation) as more real than the social group itself. In our view, individuals can join and leave a social group without significantly affecting either the individual or the social group.

This is far from the view of the Bible (as well as most other cultures). The Bible views individuals and social groups as equally real. In fact, biblically speaking, individuals and social groups are two sides of the same coin. Who we are individually is inextricably associated with who we belong to.” [4]

When followers of Jesus take seriously their revolt against the demonic Power of individualism, and take seriously their calling to view themselves as members of the body of Christ, then power of the collective witness of the church comes into clearer focus. Together, followers of Jesus, as the body of Christ, function in the world like one “big Jesus” (Boyd’s concept). What Jesus did in his life, the church is now called to continue (cf. Acts 1.1-2).

“…when Jesus set aside the riches of his divine prerogatives and sided with the poor and oppressed (2 Cor. 8:9; cf. Phil. 2.5-11), he was revolting against cosmic powers that fuel sociopolitical systems that privilege the few by oppressing the masses. So too, when Jesus praised the faith of a Roman centurion (Matt. 8:5-11) and held up Samaritans as heroes (in contrast to Jewish leaders) in some of his illustrations (Luke 10:29-37), he was revolting against the powers that fuel sociopolitical hierarchical systems that privilege some over others on the basis of their ethnicity. Similarly, the respectful way Jesus treated women revolted against oppressive powers that fuel sociopolitical and religious systems that empower men and dehumanize women. Moreover, the dignified way Jesus identified with beggars and others on the fringe of society revolted against the cosmic forces that fuel sociopolitical systems that ascribe worth to power on the basis of class, wealth, and power. And the manner in which Jesus uniformly resisted all attempts to lure him into the heated nationalism of his day revolted against powers that support idolatrous nationalistic ideologies and allegiances.” (p.138-139) [5]

Individualism Blinds Westerners from the Political Nature of Jesus

Jesus’s life had profound sociopolitical implications, as Boyd points out. But these sociopolitical implications are often lost on those who interpret the Bible through an individualistic lens. This is because much of Western theology is individualized—sin being one of the most obvious examples. American Christians often cannot fathom sin in a corporate context or wrap their minds around systemic sin. Dr. Rah points this out.

“Why are American evangelicals so willing to overlook corporate sin, such as the torturing of political prisoners, an unjust economic system leading to structures of poverty, or structural racism? Is it because we may personally benefit via cheaper gas prices, an improved economy and economic privilege? Is it because our favored political candidate will benefit when we overlook certain social and political injustices? As Richard Kyle explains: ‘Reflecting the old Puritan heritage and American individualism, evangelicals focus on abortion and sexual immorality while downplaying the issues of poverty, racism, and social injustice. And when they address such problems, they believe they can be solved primarily through individual, church, or local efforts.’ Corporate sin is so disconnected from the reality of our typical American Christian life that we are shocked when it actually enters our world. Rather than confront sin, we begin to look for ways of categorizing it as a theologically liberal agenda—thereby stripping corporate confession and repentance of its prophetic power.

Furthermore, an overemphasis on individualism in our theology and practice yields an evangelical Christianity seeing social justice and racial reconciliation as a distraction from the ‘real work’ of personal evangelism.” (p.41) [6]

The Power of individualism is a large driving force behind the myth of an apolitical Jesus. It has blinded the eyes of many American followers of Jesus to how their cultural conditioning colors their interpretation of the Bible—even the life and teachings of Jesus. Individualism blinds many American followers of Jesus to the sociopolitical nature of Jesus’s Kingdom vision and to the corporate and systemic nature of sin. In part four, we will explore in more detail The Politics of Jesus.


  1. Soong-Chan Rah, The Next Evangelicalism: Freeing the Church from the Western Cultural Captivity (IVP: 2009).
  2. E. Randolph Richards and Brandon J. O’Brien, Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understand the Bible (IVP: 2012).
  3. Greg Boyd, The Myth of a Christian Religion: Losing Your Religion for the Beauty of a Revolution (Zondervan: 2009).
  4. Greg Boyd, “Dismembered: The Church and Individualism” (Feb. 2, 2016) [].
  5. Greg Boyd, “The Ground-Level Deliverance Model” in Understanding Spiritual Warfare: Four Views (Baker Academic: 2012).
  6. Rah, The Next Evangelicalism