Tag Archives: individualism

The Limited Evangelical Religio-Cultural Toolset

Michael Emerson and Christian Smith in Divided By Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America have a provocative thesis: Well-intentioned evangelicals want to solve the “race problem” in America, but are both failing to solve it and, in some ways, are exacerbating the problem. How do they come to this startling conclusion?

In my last post, I talked about how white and black evangelicals think about race and racialization in vastly different ways. In this post, I want to introduce you to a central theme of Divided by Faith which explains this division: the limited evangelical religio-cultural toolset.

As a sociology book Divided by Faith relies heavily on surveys and personal interviews. These personal interviews reveal prototypical ways in which white and non-white Christians view the “race problem” differently.

Consider Debbie, a born again white evangelical. When asked if America has a race problem she said we did, but only because we make it one: “People are gonna have arguments with people. I feel like once in a while when an argument happens, say between a black guy and a white guy, instead of saying, ‘Hey, there’s two guys having an argument,’ we say it’s a race issue” (70). By contrast, consider Otis, an African-American evangelical. He readily admitted the race problem. He described it as follows: “[t]he community is divided in many ways. It’s divided by race. It’s divided by income. And then you have the people who like to scratch each other’s backs. And they kind of form this net, and in this area, they call it the good ol’ boy system. They dominate like a monopoly. But is that really a Christian principle? And yet all of them go to church.” Otis saw the system (good ol’ boys) as exacerbating racial division.

Smith and Emerson try to explain these different perspectives through the concept of a religio-cultural toolset. This “toolset” is a way of looking at the world. Through it, we identify what is broken and recommend how to make repairs. What did they discover about the white evangelical toolset?

Religio-cultural toolset

According to Emerson, “The racially important cultural tools in the white evangelical toolset are ‘accountable freewill individualism,’ ‘relationalism’ (attaching central importance to interpersonal relationships), and antistructuralism (inability to perceive or unwillingness to accept social structural influences)” (76).

Individualism: Americans are individualistic in general, but evangelicals add to the baseline cultural individualism theological beliefs about the world. “Accountable freewill individualism” arises from the belief that only free individuals, who are independent of structures and institutions, can be truly held accountable for the moral decisions they make before God. Racial problems (like all others) must arise from the individual heart, from personal bigotry or bias.

Relationalism: Evangelicals place a strong emphasis on interpersonal relationships. Again, this arises from the theological understanding that Christians have a personal relationship with Jesus. This foundational relationship extends to our relationships with others. As we are reconciled with God, so we are reconciled interpersonally. The Christian experience moves from love of God to love of neighbor. As this pertains to race, racial problems occur when we fail to love one another in one-on-one relationships (for example, acts of discrimination) because of individual sin.

Antistructuralism: Anti-structuralism (resistance to seeing structural issues or considering structural solutions) arises as a corollary to individualism and relationalism. In interviews, white evangelicals saw systemic/structural thinking as a way of denying personal responsibility in a way that undermined individualism.

For that reason, evangelicals tended to view systemic or structural solutions with skepticism. They saw them as either missing the point because they failed to identify the root of the problem (sin within the individual heart) or as counterproductive (because they short-circuited individualistic solutions). 

Two things are worth noting on this last point: First, the equation “individualism + relationalism = antistructuralism” isn’t inevitable. The non-white and white-but-not-isolated interviewees affirmed personal salvation and the importance of interpersonal relationships but did not deny structural causes. Second, white evangelicals were selective in seeing structural causes for racial division. For instance, one responded to the interview as follows: “I think you can blame our government for some of [the race problem]. A lot of politicians have used the welfare system to make a dependent class of people. The politicians abuse that class so they can stay in office” (80).

Connection to the miracle motif

If Emerson and Smith found that white evangelicals saw racial problems to be individual/relational (and not structural), then we would expect the solutions to follow that same pattern. This is exactly what they found. The solution most offered by white evangelicals was the “miracle motif.”

“The miracle motif is the theologically rooted idea that as more individuals become Christians, social and personal problems will be solved automatically.” (117)

Interviewees consistently pointed to individual conversion as the solution to the race problem. If society is the aggregation of individuals, then if you change the individuals, you change the society. Individual change starts with conversion. “When people become Christians, they are overwhelmed by the love, respect, and dignity given to them by God. And this overflows such that Christians inevitably impart that to others” (117). Racism is first solved in the heart and is then solved through a series of interpersonal relationships. Broad societal changes – if needed – happen automatically thereafter.  

There are several problems with the miracle motif. First, theologically, it short-circuits the need for discipleship. It imagines that people “automatically” change at conversion. Second, practically, it just hasn’t worked. American history is littered with well-intentioned Christians who held to a conversionist theology and completely missed the horrors of slavery and segregation. Third, while it contains an important kernel of truth, it presents an incomplete picture of the gospel and its effects. 

Not faulty, but limited

Smith and Emerson go on to argue that this cultural toolset fails to address racism in a meaningful way, not because it is faulty, but because it is insufficient. Many evangelical versions of individualism and relationalism exclude structural and systemic responses. Consider again, for instance, institutional division in Jim Crow. Southern white Christians believed that the race problem was largely solved: They did not (at least on their assessment) feel any personal malice towards African Americans. And, from their perspective, whites and blacks seemed to get along fine interpersonally. They failed to see the injustice of segregation because it didn’t register as part of their religio-cultural toolset.

A personal note and further reading

I want to strongly affirm aspects of this toolset and the “miracle motif.” I believe that we are individually accountable before God, that Christians have a personal relationship with Jesus, that interpersonal love for neighbor and relationship building are essential, and that transformation happens through both a moment and a process of conversion through the Holy Spirit.

However, while I have not abandoned individualism or relationalism as defined above, I have become less antistructural. I want to offer a small list of references to explain a little better why:

  • Emergent systems: This is the idea that some systems are more than the sum of their parts. Society is not just a sum of individuals and therefore some change needs to occur at the systemic level, not just the personal. In this post, I apply the idea of emergent systems to the Church.
  • John Piper’s influential article on how racism becomes institutionalized. Piper starts with pride (individualism) and moves to systems in his explanation of structured sin.
  • A growing understanding of the cosmic components of salvation. This post shows how personal, communal, and social aspects of salvation are intertwined and, I hope, corrects some overly individualized notions of salvation.
  • Along the same lines, I’ll share this reflection on whether the gospel is sufficient to deal with systemic racism. My answer: Yes, but only insofar as we adopt the full gospel and don’t settle for a truncated version of it.

Re-Reading 1 Corinthians With Collectivist Eyes

In Misreading Scripture With Individualist Eyes E. Randolph Richards and Richard James help us see the meaning of the Scriptures through the categories of the collectivist cultures to which the Scriptures were written. Those categories are kinship, patronage, brokerage, honor, shame, and boundaries.

Instead of merely explaining these categories I will show how each of them (except brokerage) helps us understand different portions of the book of 1 Corinthians.


For I do not want you to be ignorant of the fact, brothers and sisters, that our ancestors were all under the cloud of and that they all passed through the sea.

1 Corinthians 10:1

Kinship refers to the deep bond, or solidarity, that exists between members of the same family. Of course, individualists share this bond, but collectivist cultures expand that bond to a wider group of people across more generations.

In individualist cultures, “family” most often refers to the smaller family unit of father, mother, and kids, but can include “extended family” as well: grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, etc. Collectivist cultures, especially those to which the Bible was written, start with the multi-generational “father’s household” as the smallest family unit. These cultures then expand out kinship into the categories of clan, tribe, and nation.

A shared family history solidifies kinship at these higher levels. This history bonds the people together and sets the example of how the current generation should act. These stories define how members of the family should or shouldn’t act as kin across time.

This brings us to 1 Corinthians 10:1-13. Paul is addressing a deeply divided church, many of whom are gentile believers. Note that he refers to Israel as “our ancestors” and then recounts a shared history: “our ancestors were all under the cloud and… passed through the sea.” Paul wants these divided gentiles to see themselves as part of a new family, a new kinship, that includes Israel as their ancestors. This new ancestry gives them a new family history that includes the exodus and wilderness wanderings.

Furthermore, “by making the exodus the story of their ancestors, Paul is using collective pressures on them” (47). As an individualist, I can see how Paul might use Israel as an example of what not to do (10:6, 11), but collectivists see more than just a distant story upon which to draw a moral abstract principle. They see a shared family history that ought to define their present values, in this case, through the negative example of idolatry, adultery, and divisive grumbling.

The passage is not without hope for, even though this new family has a history of failure, it also has a history of seeing God’s faithfulness: “God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear, he will also provide a way so that you can endure it” (10:13).


God is faithful, who has called you into fellowship with his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

1 Corinthians 1:9

There are two parties involved in patronage, the patron and the client. The client needs help and the patron gives it. A wealthy patron may have many clients but clients are expected to be faithful to a single patron. The patron gives freely – he is under no obligation to give – but his gifts have strings attached. As individualists, we see this as a negative (and it can be), but the intent of the patronage system was merely transactional, but to establish a lasting relationship between the patron and the client.

In a moment we’ll see a positive example of patronage in 1 Corinthians, but first, let’s look at how Paul tries to avoid its abuse. The authors point out that the church was divided into factions. Each faction likely had its own patron and its own favorite apostle (1:12). Paul, who accepted patronage from others (likely Lydia), nevertheless refused financial support from the Corinthians. He insists on it: “I have not used any of these rights” (9:13).

Richards posits that he refuses patronage from the Corinthians precisely because it is split into warring factions/patrons. To accept aid from one faction would attach him to that faction and further divide the church. He refuses support to demonstrate that his sole allegiance is to Christ.

More significantly, though, Richards shows us how Paul uses the language of patronage: grace (charis) and faith (pistis), to describe the mystery of salvation.

The Greeks “used charis to refer to the way patrons gave benefits to their clients. They also used charis to refer to the gifts themselves” (103). When we read, then, that God gives us grace, we’re invited to see God as the good patron who gives freely to those who come to him for help.

The Greeks also used pistis (faith/faithfulness) to describe patronage. “Pistis described the way a patron was faithful or loyal in acting to benefit their clients. Pistis referred to the way clients trusted that the patron would indeed care for them and provide them with benefits” (104).

In 1 Corinthians 1:9, we read, “God is faithful (pistis), who called you into fellowship with his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.” Again in 10:13, we read, “And God is faithful (pistis); he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear.” Here Paul is describing God as a faithful patron, demonstrating that he will continue to provide for what his clients need.

His gift is freely given, but it is intended to establish a relationship with his people. The gift comes with “strings attached”, though not in the sense that the gift can be paid back. Instead, His people reciprocate with pistis: trust, allegiance, and loyalty.


But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.

2 Corinthians 12:9

I’m going to cheat on this one and focus on 2 Corinthians instead of 1 Corinthians to illustrate honor more clearly. We’ll begin with a few notes about honor.

First, while honor was and is very important to collectivist cultures, “honor is not a value but a means of enforcing and reinforcing a value” (129). Honor, along with shame, are tools used by collectivist cultures to pass along cultural values that define a group as a group. So, while all collectivists use honor, they will use it to uphold different values. In the movie Mulan, for instance, honor and shame are used to uphold the values: loyal, brave, and true.

Second, there are two kinds of honors that someone might possess: ascribed honor and achieved honor. Ascribed honor is unearned honor, like being the firstborn or being anointed by God through a prophet. Achieved honor is won and the achievements which win honor will differ from culture to culture depending on that culture’s values.

Third, boasting is not altogether frowned on in relation to honor so long as it is used to reinforce the correct communal values. That’s because honor in collectivist cultures is communal. The honor given to one is not intended to raise that person over the community, but to elevate the entire community (again, think Mulan, “you have brought honor to us all”). So, “for individualists, boasting is a way to put yourself ahead of your peers. For collectivists, boasting is a way to put you and all your peers (group) ahead” (150-151).

With this in mind, we can now turn to 2 Corinthians. Note that while Paul often condemns boasting (Ephesians 2:9), he himself boasts. He boasts in his and his companions’ integrity (2 Cor 1:12), in the Corinthians themselves (1:14, 7:14, 9:2), in his service to God (10:13), in his sufferings and apostleship (ch 11), and in his weakness and dependence on Christ (12:8-10).

Paul’s talk of boasting in relation to honor shows that his values have changed. As we said earlier, values are tied to the community, so Paul changed what he honored when he changed communities:

As a Pharisee, he valued his ascribed honors: the tribe of Benjamin, son of a Pharisee. He valued his achieved honors: advanced in training beyond his years, zealous for traditions, and a persecutor of the church… After he encountered Jesus and came to belong to the followers of Jesus, Paul valued this new community’s ascribed values: being a slave to Christ (Rom 1:1), of humility and weakness and of his reliance on Christ (2 Cor 12:9), and being called an apostle to the Gentiles (Rom 11:13)… He also changed his achieved honors: suffering for Christ (2 Cor 11:30-33).

Misreading the Bible Through Individualist Eyes, 156

Honor still mattered to Paul, but in the community of Jesus, what was honored – and therefore worth boasting about – radically changed.


But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong.

1 Corinthians 1:27

We have a hard time talking about shame, or understanding the Bible’s use of shame, in a Western individualist culture. Part of this is linguistic. We only have one word to talk about shame and we always use it in a negative sense. You should never shame someone. You should always try to rid yourself of the feeling of shame.

Collectivist cultures have a more nuanced perspective. First, like honor, shame is a tool used to reinforce communal values. Second, collectivists perceive different kinds of shame.

On the one hand, there is the shame you feel, or the community imposes after you violate some communal norms. This is the negative side of shame. This is the feeling of condemnation. Abused, this sort of shame leads to exclusion.

On the other hand, there is a sort of shame that one feels before violating the norms of the community. The authors describe this shame as a sort of “alarm bell” or warning sign. It forecasts how you would feel if you, say, lied to your father. This sense of shame is unpleasant, but a person in a communal culture would never want to lose it. Such a person would be “shameless.”

To me – and the authors – this second sort of shame feels a lot like a conscience, but collectivists see a distinction. I think that distinction is bound up in the distinction between guilt (individual) and shame (communal). That is, a guilty conscience flares when an individualist is about to break one of their own boundaries. A collectivist experiences this internal shame before breaking a communal boundary, the conscience of the community.

Third, whereas we think of shame as something that always excludes someone from a community, the goal of shame (even the public sort) was to restore someone to the community.

Let’s consider how this plays out in 1 Corinthians. In 1 Cor 1:27, we see that God is not above using shame: “But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong.”

You may say, well, sometimes it’s Ok for God to do something that we cannot, but even Paul, an apostle, used shame. In 1 Cor 6:4-5, Paul says “Therefore, if you have disputes about such matters, do you ask for a ruling from those whose way of life is scorned in the church? I say this to shame you.” Paul is showing that the Corinthians have not only violated the community value of unity but that they are broadcasting to the watching world that they can’t even get along with each other. He “shames” them to guide them back on course.

Again, we see in 1 Cor 15:34 “Come back to your senses as you ought, and stop sinning; for there are some who are ignorant of God—I say this to your shame.” In this context, he is referring to false teaching about Christ’s resurrection. The Corinthians, who supposedly have the knowledge of God through the Spirit, nevertheless are still ignorant of God. Paul uses shame to restore them to right knowledge. He wants them to sense that false teaching about the resurrection breaks a boundary.

Finally, we see shame at work in 1 Cor 5:1-5. In this case, a member of the church is engaged in open incest, and the community is proud! Where they should feel shame, they feel honor. In this case, Paul does call the church to expel the brother (5:13) for the sake of the community (5:6). The sin, and the community’s reaction, is searing their collective conscience so Paul appeals to shame and (right) communal values to restore the community. Even for the man engaged in incest Paul’s purpose is ultimate restoration (5:5).

Shame can be and often is misused to damaging effects. Communities misuse it when communal values are the wrong ones or are when minor values are held too highly. Or, shame can be misused to exclude or ostracize without giving an offending person a path to restoration. Still, it’s an important concept to understand to see Scripture more clearly and, importantly, it’s an aspect of collectivist culture that the gospel transforms, but does not fully condemn.


If, as individualists, we sneer at “shame”, we despise boundaries. But let’s take a step back and understand why they were important to collectivist cultures. Individualists find their identity in their individual self. Collectivists find it in their group. Maintaining a strong group identity is important.

Boundaries define the group. Boundaries turn a crowd into a community. Not every cultural difference is a boundary. “What makes something a boundary is that a collective group sees it has a significant part of establishing who they are” (208).

Like honor and shame, boundaries are tied to values. How can a group maintain its shared values? By maintaining boundaries. By keeping boundaries a group keeps its values and, thus, its group identity. Without boundaries, a community dissolves into a disconnected crowd.

This is the challenge Paul finds in the Corinthians church, which he addresses in 1 Corinthians 10:1-25. The church was made up of Jewish and Gentile believers. For Jews, food was a significant cultural boundary that set them apart, not only as a unique community but as the Torah observant people of God. It connected their group identity to their religious identity.

As an individualist, I tend to read this section about personal preference, but for the original readers more was a stake. “Suddenly, a boundary problem has arisen. It’s not really about meat. It’s about values. Living by different values means living by different identities, which threatens the church’s having one single identity” (219).

To heal this division, Paul reminds them of their shared kinship (10:1-13) and urges believers not to do things which would “cause anyone to stumble, whether Jews or Greeks or the church of God” (10:32).

Collectivism and the Lord’s Supper

We will now turn to the problems the Corinthians church faced with the Lord’s Supper (1 Corinthians 11:17-34). Richards and James explain that the church was bringing in the cultural values and boundaries of Greek “dinner parties.”

These dinner parties (conviva) were marked by drunkenness, gossip, and social stratification. The wealthy patrons ate first while the slaves went hungry. “Good hosts” were even expected to provide their slaves as escorts to their guests. These parties reinforced pagan values (a warped form of hospitality) and boundaries (in social stratification). The problem is that these values directly conflicted with the values of the new Christian community.

Note Paul’s admonishment of the Corinthian church:

17 In the following directives I have no praise for you, for your meetings do more harm than good. 18 In the first place, I hear that when you come together as a church, there are divisions among you, and to some extent I believe it. 19 No doubt there have to be differences among you to show which of you have God’s approval. 20 So then, when you come together, it is not the Lord’s Supper you eat, 21 for when you are eating, some of you go ahead with your own private suppers. As a result, one person remains hungry and another gets drunk. 22 Don’t you have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God by humiliating those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I praise you? Certainly not in this matter!

1 Corinthians 11:17-22

The old values of the pagan world were pulling the Corinthians away from the new values embodied in the church. What they were failing to realize was that they were part of a new family (kinship), with a new patron (God), and therefore had new values (established in Christ). Maintaining those values gave new meaning to shame, honor, and boundaries that both drew on the structures of their collectivist cultures and strongly critiqued both Jewish and Gentiles forms of those collectivist cultures.

The Bible does not commend or condemn collectivism, but it was written to a collectivist culture. Understanding collectivist values and tools can help us see its meaning more clearly.