As a chaplain in the army, when a soldier came to faith in Christ, I would tell him that being a ‘hermit Christian’ is an oxymoron. Just as a soldier finds it hard to fulfill the mission to defend one’s country ‘against all enemies, both foreign and domestic,’ single-handedly, apart from the church, a believer cannot fulfill the law of Christ in bearing one another’s burdens (Galatians 6:2), fulfill the great commission (Matthew 28:19-20), or keep the two greatest commandments to love God and neighbor (Matthew 22:37-40). Just as there is no such thing as “an army of one,” neither is there such a thing as a “Church of one.”
In our sermon this past Sunday on the second petition of the Lord’s Prayer (“Thy kingdom come”), I made a comment about how just as there is no such thing as “an army of one,” there is no such thing as a “church of one.” In the Scriptures, we are told over and over again how the Lord constitutes His kingdom as a people, not just a bunch of individuals.
The Spiritual Army of the Church
Under the Old Covenant, God constituted His people as a military force. As He brought them out of bondage in Egypt, the Bible tells us that “the sons of Israel went up in martial array from the land of Egypt” (Exodus 13:18). As they crossed the Jordan River to take possession of the land that God had given them, God told the Israelites to cross over in “battle array, all your valiant warriors” (Joshua 1:14).
With the coming of Jesus Christ and the Kingdom of Heaven on earth, God still calls His people to muster in martial or battle array. Except, now, God’s people are not confined to one nation as before, but are comprised of the spiritual descendants of Abraham, by faith in Jesus Christ (Galatians 3:29). And, our enemies are no longer a specific people group or nation, but the rulers, the powers, the world forces of darkness, and the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places (Ephesians 6:12).
In the New Testament, God’s people are still called soldiers – soldiers of Christ (1 Corinthians 9:7; Philippians 2:25; 2 Timothy 2:3-4; Philemon 1:2). Indeed, much of the language of Paul’s letter to the Philippian church uses military language to speak to the unity of Christ’s church.
An Army of One?
After having served in the army for ten years, I took a four year break in my military career to attend seminary and then intern in a local church. About the time I returned to the army as a chaplain (in the Fall of 2000), a lot of changes were going on in the military. In the February 5, 2001 issue of The Army Times, the cover story was concerning the Army’s new slogan, “An Army of One.” The headline read, “Soldiers hate it. Teens like it. What’s next?” In a way, it was a microcosm of a larger paradox which the Christian church (particularly in America) has been dealing with for a long time now: How much should the institution – if at all – adapt to the culture around it that holds to individualism as one of its highest ideals?
When the soldier in the Army commercial says, “I am my own force. I am an Army of one.” He is basically saying that the individual is more important than the group. While the PlayStation generation may get it, this idea doesn’t hold up in the face of battle. Historians who study soldiers and why they behave the way they do in battle have come to the conclusion that soldiers typically do not fight, kill, and die for an ideal. Rather, they display illogical feats of courage because they feel a part of a small group, a tiny tightly knit community. Usually, this community is no bigger than a squad or platoon. Consider these words of Peter Karsten in the introduction to his book The Military in America (1986):
The Stouffer team study of The American Soldier in World War II reported that few combatants were primarily motivated by patriotic or idealistic impulses; rather, they saw themselves as fighting to defend their immediate comrades-in-arms (“the primary group”) and for their own survival. (Karsten, 9)
What are the ramifications of such studies? These studies teach us that in order to succeed in battle, in order to train soldiers to do those things which defy the basic instincts of self-preservation, leaders must instill in them an esprit de corps which supersedes the dangers that they are facing. The ‘small group’ mentality, the sense of belonging to a community is a value which far outweighs any selfish motive of maintaining one’s own individuality.
Have it your way?
But the Army is not the only institution which has made the mistake of catering to the felt needs of its ‘target group.’ The Christian church often does the same thing. The Christian church has striven, especially in the last 200 years, to become more like the world around it in an attempt to attract more members. The “have it your way” theory of marketing which has made Burger King such a success seems very attractive to a lot of church leaders who are only interested in numerical church growth. Inevitably, what happens, however, is that the doctrines of the church are changed and, sooner or later, the Christian church ceases to exist. It becomes just a gathering of people who affirm one another’s beliefs.
The Apostles were cognizant of the fact that people would attempt to twist and change the doctrines unless they were written down, and that is exactly why they wrote the New Testament (Luke 1:1-4). They did not want people trying to mold the doctrines of the Christian faith to fit their own belief systems. If a person wanted to become a Christian, they had to submit to Jesus Christ, and conform to His teaching (Matthew 16:24 — Then Jesus said to His disciples, “If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me…”).
This is a lesson the Christian church must learn over and over again. The church is not supposed to conform to our own preferences and predilections, we are to conform to God’s will and Christ’s likeness. That doesn’t mean that one loses his individuality when he becomes a follower of Christ and a member of the church. Actually, the metaphor that the Scriptures employ to describe this phenomenon of becoming a part of the whole, is the human body:
12 For even as the body is one and yet has many members, and all the members of the body, though they are many, are one body, so also is Christ. 13 For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free, and we were all made to drink of one Spirit. 14 For the body is not one member, but many. 15 If the foot says, “Because I am not a hand, I am not a part of the body,” it is not for this reason any the less a part of the body. 16 And if the ear says, “Because I am not an eye, I am not a part of the body,” it is not for this reason any the less a part of the body. 17 If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? 18 But now God has placed the members, each one of them, in the body, just as He desired. 19 If they were all one member, where would the body be? 20 But now there are many members, but one body. 21 And the eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you”; or again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” 22 On the contrary, it is much truer that the members of the body which seem to be weaker are necessary; 23 and those members of the body which we deem less honorable, on these we bestow more abundant honor, and our less presentable members become much more presentable, 24 whereas our more presentable members have no need of it. But God has so composed the body, giving more abundant honor to that member which lacked, 25 so that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. 26 And if one member suffers, all the members suffer with it; if one member is honored, all the members rejoice with it. 27 Now you are Christ’s body, and individually members of it. (1 Corinthians 12:12-27)
I can’t count how many times I have heard someone say, “I’m a Christian, but I don’t go to church. God and I have our own arrangement about things.” To which I usually respond, “You may have made that arrangement, but I doubt that God has.” Ever since the beginning, those who became Christians, only did so, by being added to the church (“And the Lord added to the church daily such as should be saved” — Acts 2:47). As the Westminster Confession of Faith so aptly and succinctly puts it:
The visible church, which is also catholic or universal under the gospel (not confined to one nation, as before under the law), consists of all those throughout the world that profess the true religion; and of their children: and is the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ, the house and family of God, out of which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation. (WCF 25:2)
As a chaplain in the army, when a soldier came to faith in Christ, I would tell him that being a ‘hermit Christian’ is an oxymoron. Just as a soldier finds it hard to fulfill the mission to defend one’s country ‘against all enemies, both foreign and domestic,’ single-handedly, apart from the church, a believer cannot fulfill the law of Christ in bearing one another’s burdens (Galatians 6:2), fulfill the great commission (Matthew 28:19-20), or keep the two greatest commandments to love God and neighbor (Matthew 22:37-40).
Just as there is no such thing as “an army of one,” neither is there such a thing as a “Church of one.” It just doesn’t exist.
Peter M. Dietsch is pastor of Providence PCA in Midland, Texas. This article first appeared on his church website and is used with permission.