The Individual and the Church: An Introduction to the Problem

How does an individual believer incorporate him/herself into the Church without losing his or her personal identity; likewise, how does the Church as a communal Body incorporate the individual believer without calling for the individual’s resignation of personal freedom for the sake of the whole?

Soren Kierkegaard (19th century Danish philosopher) posed the problem in perhaps the most challenging of ways. Using the story of Abraham’s trial of faith (being instructed by God to sacrifice his son Isaac), Kierkegaard shows how Abraham’s trial could not be effectively communicated to anyone else; hence why he was unable to reveal to his wife, his son or servants his true intent on that fateful day when he and Isaac set off for the place God had determined. Part of what made Abraham’s trial a true “trial of faith” is that he could not blindly follow an objective course of action predetermined by a communal standard of ethics; his faith left him alone before God and confronted with an either/or moment of decision. Abraham’s obedience to the command of God made his actions appear to any outsider as an attempted murder – as hatred; but in truth, his was a trial of faith not because he hated his son, but precisely because of his great love for him – “Take now your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love… and offer him” (Gen 22:2).

There is no ethical category to validate the righteousness of Abraham’s action. Through the objective and calculated nature of ethics, whether secular or religious, Abraham’s attempted sacrifice remains an evil act. However, Abraham is declared in Scripture as the “father of faith.” What he did was incommunicable to his community, and would equally be incommunicable to the Church community today, yet the fact remains – Abraham acted in faith, a faith unrecognizable by his contemporaries.

Kierkegaard referred to Abraham’s trial of faith as the “teleological suspension of the ethical,” meaning the individual’s duty to God, at times, requires a suspension of one’s duty to the ethical. Said another way, the “the single individual determines his relation to the universal (ethics) by his relation to the absolute (God),” and not the other way around (Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling).

And here is the dilemma: what is the individual to do when her absolute duty to God comes into conflict with her ethical duty to the Church community? We see in Abraham’s case that there was, on the surface, no way to synchronize his obedience to God with his duty to the community. How does one using the religious ethics of Judeo-Christianity justify killing one’s son. There have been many men whom we see as heroes for sending their beloved son’s off to war to fight and die for the common good. But Isaac was not to be sacrificed for any “common good,” for any betterment of the community.

Using Kierkegaard’s challenge we will look to each of the listed theological perspectives for an answer. For clarification of what is being asked, we will pose the question with a different articulation:

How is the Church supposed to fulfill its role as the Body of Christ (where the “many are made one”) and aid the individual through his personal journey with the Lord during those times when one’s personal journey of faith retreats into the inner chamber of his or her soul in such a way that communication with the community is cut off; or worse, falls into apparent conflict with the community as in the case of Abraham?

Another avenue the question might take is this: is it possible for the Church to serve a necessary role for the realization of the kind of faith expressed by Abraham, or is the Church simply ‘in the way’ of the Abrahams among us?

At the root of this dilemma between the individual and the Church is a fascinating history of the evolution of our understanding of both concepts – the “individual” and the “Church.” This article is the first in a series that will explore both concepts from four of the major ecclesiastical perspectives: the Roman Catholic, Lutheran, Reformed, and Eastern Orthodox. To help make the study digestible (and writable) I’ll limit the perspectives to one major contemporary voice within each of the traditions whom I believe represent a large contingency within their given tradition: Carl Rahner and the Roman Catholic perspective, Helmut Thielicke and the Lutheran perspective, T.F. Torance and the Reformed perspective and John Zizioulas and the Eastern Orthodox perspective.

Hope you’ll join in the discussion. Thanks for reading!

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