One of the worst things a Christian can ever do is begin thinking their faith is their own personal private business. Shallow relationships with other Christians are one of the best ways to guarantee that you will become discouraged in your faith, drawn into sin, and compromised in your joy.
In America especially, we’re drawn towards this hermit-like approach to our spiritual life. We intuitively believe the best way to grow spiritually is to go off into the woods by ourselves, or visit some monastery where no one talks. People who do those things are the really spiritual Christians. The ones who are most willing to deprive themselves of any and all distracting interactions with people are the ones most like Jesus, somehow.
There is something right to that. We should remove the things that distract us from our walk with Christ. But our walk with Christ is not solitary. We cannot afford to be isolationist Christians. The Lord did not just save a bunch of individuals. He saved a church made up of individuals. Part of how we know we have fellowship with Christ is that we have fellowship with the believers (see John 13:35or 1 John 1:1-3).
Sometimes, though, the cure we apply is worse than the illness. Instead of responding to our sinful isolationism with godly fellowship, we resort to sinful communalism. Not communalism of the hippy, pot-smoking, free-love variety, but sinful even so.
Our sinful natures lead us to sin no matter where we are. Whether we live in isolation or in constant interaction with people, we will find ways to sin. If we live like a spiritual hermit, we will fall into sin by neglecting our brothers and sisters, and because of a lack of serious accountability. But, if we live like a commune, we will fall into sin by relinquishing our own personal responsibility for our spiritual growth. We will establish acceptable sins.
The commune error isn’t as natural to us in the West as the hermit error, but that means that when we do fall into it, we fall for it hard. All it takes is a two-week trip to the Middle East or China for some young Christians to leap headfirst into a community devoid of individual responsibility.
A sinful commune is a passive community where there are all sorts of potential accountability and stirring one another up to good deeds, but none in practice, since no one holds anyone responsible for their sins. Instead of church being a place of God-honoring fellowship, it becomes a place of gossip, of backbiting and social maneuvering. Instead of being a place where people are spurred out in holiness, it becomes a place people are lured into complacency.
The answer to the spiritual hermitage is not the spiritual commune.
If you look at history, the fact that we have these two extremes today is not surprising. The early monastic movement was extremely individualistic, with monks retreating out into the desert to be holy through isolation. The reaction against that were monasteries like what we think of today, establishing communal-like fellowships. That solution was better than the hermit monks, but it still wasn’t great.
The solution is not to try to find the balance between being a hermit or a commune. Christians are not meant to be people of the Middle Way, we are supposed to be people of the Book. When we try to find our way through life simply by avoiding extremes, we inevitably fall in a new direction. The error of these two positions is actually the same – both are focused on the self, more than the world the Lord has left us in. Both are obsessed with personal fulfillment or holiness. Both are mindsets that revolve around humanity, not the Ruler of Creation.
The way to guard ourselves against those sinful inclinations toward the hermitage or the commune is to run toward the way of life that the Bible does present. Christians are neither merely individuals nor merely a group. We are a church, a family, a fellowship of individual persons who have been redeemed by Jesus Christ. He is where we look first.
We must recognize that we, as individuals, have bowed the knee to Jesus. Therefore you and I are each individually responsible to live lives to the glory of God. And how are we to live those lives? In community with other believers. As the author of Hebrews says, “Do not forsake the assembling of yourselves together” (Heb 10:25).
We are individually responsible to help build up the body of Christ, for that is how God will make his glory and wisdom known to the powers that be (Eph 3:10-11).
That is what will glorify God, and that is what will bring us the most joy in our Christian lives.
Caleb Greggsen lives and works in Louisville, KY. He serves as a member of Third Avenue Baptist Church in Louisville.He holds a Master’s of Divinity and a Bachelor’s of Applied Science (Psychology), and is pursuing fulltime ministry.