Salvation is Social, Political, and Individual in “The Transition Zone”

The thesis of these blogs has been that the contemporary church can develop a meaningful theology of evangelism in a postmodern world (“the transition zone”) by recovering the Anabaptist vision of the church.  Thus far we have defined postmodernism, investigated the roots of the Anabaptist tradition, and examined the major tenets of the Anabaptists’ approach to ecclesiology and evangelism.  The next several blogs will discuss some of the areas of renewal that I believe the Anabaptist vision could bring to the church in the transition zone.

Christian Community in an Age of Individualism

In the book Habits of the Heart, Robert Bellah characterizes Western society as marked by rampant individualism. This characterization touches at the very essence of North American culture.  “Individualism is a calm and considered feeling which disposes each citizen to isolate himself from the mass of his fellows and withdraw into the circle of family and friends; with this little society formed to his taste, he gladly leaves the greater society to look after itself.”[i]  In other words, in Western society the individual is an independent unit.  Social relationships with others are viewed as a restriction of an individual’s liberty.  In such a culture the only purpose for entering social relationships is personal gain.  Even basic social systems such as the family and the church are seen as “a collection of individuals created by individuals for their own individual advantages.”[ii]  In this self-centered “dog-eat-dog” world, other persons are not colleagues, but competitors. The individual is of supreme importance—the rest of society must bend to the whims and wishes of the one.

The result of this excessive emphasis on individualism is a widespread feeling of isolation—individuals rejecting their link to others and even God.  The outcome of isolation is a sense of despair and loneliness. Art Gish laments our society’s disposition towards individualism, saying

“Often it results in a directionless wandering usually mistaken for a pilgrimage.  It means that we become our own authority, cutting ourselves off from others and the meaning of our existence.”[iii]

In the transition zone, the communal aspects of Anabaptist ecclesiology can provide an alternative to the lonely isolationism of rugged individualism by reminding us of the political and social dimensions of biblical salvation.  Of course, in many religious circles it sounds odd to refer to salvation as either political or social.  Salvation is thought to be a purely private relationship between an individual and God.  As such, the church (as a social and political body) is in no way integral to salvation.  Instead, the church is merely a group of saved individuals who occasionally gather for reassurance and inspiration.  The primary problem with this view of salvation is that it denies that the structures of society and the relationships between individuals also need redemption.[iv]  Those who claim that social justice has no place in the ministries of the church have missed a major part of the biblical witness.   The Anabaptist tradition can help the church bring the biblical witness to social justice back into perspective. 

The early Christians believed that the work of God through Christ was the climax of a battle between the demonic powers of darkness and the heavenly forces of light.  In Christ’s resurrection all the forces of evil were defeated.  The resurrection vindicated Christ’s teachings and confirmed his authority as Lord.  Because of His resurrection, the Christian community could follow Christ, obeying his teaching, despite the persecution brought against them.  The resurrection confirmed that there was another sociopolitical reality of surpassing importance—that being the kingdom of God of which they were citizens.  With Stanley Hauerwas we observe that

It was the presumption of those Christians that they were participating in a grand drama of God’s salvation of all creation.  Salvation was cosmic, as in Christ’s resurrection the very universe was storied by God’s purposes.  The church did not have an incidental part in God’s story but was necessary for the salvation wrought in Christ…Without the church the world literally has no hope of salvation since the church is necessary for the world to know it is part of a story that cannot be known without the church…God in Christ has defeated the powers so that as disciples we can confidently live as a cruciform community in a world that has chosen not to be ruled by such love.[v]


The Anabaptists correctly affirm that God’s salvation is both political and social.  First, God’s salvation is political in that it affirms the Lordship of Jesus Christ over and against the authority claimed by the presidents, potentates, and power structures of this world.  As such, Christian community exists to be what liberation theologian Juan Luis Segundo called a sign community of the coming reign of God.[vi]  The church exists to express to humanity what life is like under the rule and reign of God.  In his book, Forming Christian Disciples, David Lowes Watson writes,

Pending the fullness of God’s salvation, the task of the church, and of the Christian disciples who make up its work force, is to direct the world toward the kingdom which Jesus announced and inaugurated.[vii]

Second, the Anabaptists also assert that God’s salvation is social. Anabaptists understand the church to be a community of individuals who have experienced the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and in response to that grace are committed to loving and caring for others in need.  They believe that the individual cannot experience the fullness of God’s redemption without first caring for his or her fellow human beings—specifically their material needs.

One of the ways that individualism is exemplified in Western society is in its pervasive preoccupation with material possessions.  Material possessions are nothing more than another resource for gratifying the individual’s wants and desires.  Recovering the Anabaptist understanding of the social dimension of salvation might serve to liberate Christian people from our society’s captivity to materialism. Certainly generosity and ministry must be broader than the giving of material possession.  Nonetheless, in a culture marked as it is by individualistic materialism, it is precisely the sharing of possessions that will provide our society with a powerful and visible witness to the Lordship of Jesus Christ. 

It is no secret that our contemporary society is addicted to materialism and is dysfunctional in interpersonal relationships.  Unfortunately this is also true of the vast majority of churches in America.  Rather than being places where people gather to worship, pray, care for each other, and become freed from their bondage to our society’s preoccupation with power and possessions, the church has instead become a place that confirms those addictions.  The best way to begin to rectify this problem, I believe, is for would-be disciples to repent of their acquisitions and convert to a lifestyle that more closely reflects citizenship in God’s kingdom.  In this way the church will become a vision of what life is like in God’s new order.  That is the type of vision Anabaptist ecclesiology offers the church.

[i] Robert Bellah, et. al., Habits of the Heart:  Individuals and Commitment in American Life, (Berkley:  University of California Press, 1985), 37.

[ii] Kraus, The Community of the Spirit, 32.

[iii] Gish, Living in Christian Community, 54.

[iv] Denny J. Weaver, Becoming Anabaptist, 132.

[v] Stanley Hauerwas, After Christendom:  How the Church is to behave if freedom, justice, and a Christian nation are bad ideas, (Nashville:  Abingdon press, 1991), 36-37.

[vi] Juan Luis Segundo, The Hidden Motives of Pastoral Action:  Latin American Reflections, (Maryknoll:  Orbis Press, 1978), 72, quoted in David Lowes Watson, Forming Christian Disciples:  The Role of Covenant Discipleship and Class Leaders in the Congregation, (Nashville, TN:  Disciple Resources, 1991), 24.

[vii] Ibid.

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