I’ve been reading a book titled “Misreading Scripture with Individualist Eyes: Patronage, Honor, and Shame in the Biblical World.” It has me thinking about the dynamics of people that think primarily in terms of groups versus individuals, and about the patterns in American culture and society of the use of authority – and especially about how this shows up in church life.
The book points out that the single most individualist-thinking society on earth is America. Second is Great Britain, and third is Australia.
As a summary:
With our individualist thought process, Americans seem prone to creating power structures where an individual is – or at least considers themselves to be – an absolute authority over a group. Any sense of accountability is often secondary to that sense of personal authority.
This American individualism applies to all walks of life – religious, civil, and family.
But much of the world – especially Asia and the Middle East – instead think about the group before thinking about individual rights. And I’m learning that’s also true of the cultures into which the Bible was written and lived. As such, the Bible speaks to and teaches collectivist ideals – where the group and its relationships are the focus, not the individual.
This has some intriguing consequences for my belief structures.
(Listen to this entire post on my podcast at https://anchor.fm/crucibleofthought/episodes/A-Collective-Identity-e183gqd)
Let me divert from the point of this post for a moment. Please don’t get triggered by the term “collectivist.” This does NOT refer to a Communist or Marxist view of economics or social structures. It is purely a term referring to thinking about the society or situation in which a person exists primarily as a collection, not primarily as a number of individuals, and valuing the good of the society over the self. Collectivism is abused by communism, but this post and the concept of the book have nothing to do with communism.
Also, this post contains a lot of generalizations. I’m well aware of that, and well aware of the dangers of generalizing. However, I believe there is great value in looking at patterns, even if there are many exceptions. I find that when I reject my own sense of offense at being part of a group that is being discussed, I learn a lot about my own thought process and tendencies, even if I’m not personally at fault or doing what is discussed.
So let’s get into the heart of the matter.
Americans and Royalty
It’s always interested me that we Americans are so fascinated with royal families and societies. We devour movies and television shows and books that depict kings and queens and the associated politics. For a nation that explicitly and deliberately cast off royalty 250 years ago, we’re surprisingly stuck on the idea.
I think maybe it’s because the idea of personally being king or queen deeply appeals to us as individualist thinkers. We WANT to be completely in charge of something, without having to answer to anyone. So while we Americans deeply value our own independence, and we don’t want anyone else telling us what to do, we also wish we could tell everyone else what to do. And that conflict is probably a fairly universal human tendency, not just for Americans.
What We See Isn’t Necessarily What Was Written
At any rate, as individualists that grew up in an individualist society and with individualist thinking and ideals, we American Christians often see individualist patterns in what was never meant as individualist. So, as the book “Misreading Scripture” posits, we American Christians generally seem to have misread the intent of various scriptures about how to rule. Our view generally diverges from an understanding of rule being about relationship between the authority and those under their care, and in fact all of the society around that relationship and authority. Instead it leads to a pattern that seeks to collect and silo power into a single person or role.
Unfortunately, that misunderstanding opens the door to unchecked abuse, because there’s nobody looking over the shoulder of the king of any given domain. Even a dad/husband under the authority of a pastor is still usually thinking of himself as the sole authority in “his” house, and always choosing whether or not he really trusts and submits to the pastor. If he’s challenged too hard, he can just leave and go to some different church. If his denomination really offends him, he can switch to a different one.
The book “Jesus and John Wayne” chronicles the development of the American Christian concept of “patriarch,” among other things, and calls it one of the evangelical church’s “most deeply held values.” It also explores the development and idolization of the American “nuclear family.” “Misreading Scripture” shows how this view is rather different than how the family is viewed in much of the rest of the world, and in Biblical societies. Taken as a whole, these books, and plenty of others, posit that the Western Christian view of patriarchal authority residing within individual nuclear families may have serious flaws.
The Non-American Reality of Patriarchs
But things appear different in a collectivist, Biblical-era society. For example, a young daddy and husband was NOT a patriarch. At the time he had young children, a young father was probably barely out of his teens. He was just a dad of his children and a husband to his wife – living in a very tightly-knit society with lots of oversight. The family patriarch was likely several generations up from him – in all likelihood, his grandfather or possibly great grandfather was head of the family. As a young parent and husband, he never had the opportunity to be “patriarchal” in his household, and he had a lot of both support AND oversight from his elders and peers. By the time he was recognized as the family patriarch, he was many years into his marriage, his children were probably already parents themselves, and he had personally observed and learned from literally generations of experience in the process.
Furthermore, as a collectivist culture member, he would be well-trained in thinking about the needs of the community far above his own needs and desires. Any decision he made as a patriarch would be well-understood to affect dozens if not hundreds of people. It would never have been about what HE thought was best; it would be a deeply important choice for the welfare of many, with a great weight behind it and lots of very interested and personally-affected observers giving him wisdom and guidance in the choice.
At best, it seems that we must look more closely at Biblical teaching about authority and submission and honor and respect and obedience and rule. Keeping in mind the inherent framework of understanding – that was often unwritten because everyone originally reading the letters from Paul would have understood the teachings from this collectivist framework – what have we individualistic thinkers misunderstood based on our differing mindsets?
So the American concept of a nuclear family – where daddy is the Father and the Patriarch of his house and the spiritual ruler and sole authority – is quite aberrant from a Biblical perspective. It’s even worse if you start trying to read into it the various Biblical commands regarding authority and roles and responsibilities.
And I think that same tendency has spilled over into all kinds of other non-family authority structures. How a boss treats “his” or “her” employees, or how a pastor treats “his” or “her” flock, or how a politician treats “his” or “her” constituents, comes from that same well of thinking that says “I’m in charge here; I’m solely responsible, and I get to choose what will happen.” Even if there’s a desire to have the Holy Spirit guide the choices, the structure of thinking has been tainted by that same individualistic pattern of understanding.
The ramifications of this change in my thinking are widespread.
How should I view Scriptural commands about honor and respect and obedience, in light of the cultural understandings that preexisted those commands, and were left unspoken? The heart of exegesis of the Bible is truly understanding not only the nouns and verbs, but also the context. Certainly this context is deeply important to understanding authority and power structures in the Bible.
How should I view my relationship with my family, not only with my wife and children but also my parents and grandparents, in light of a collectivist or group pattern of thinking in which the Scriptures were written?
How should I view my relationship with my church and my pastor, in light of what “shepherd” and “pastor” and “deacon” and “overseer” and “elder” meant to Jesus and Paul and the other authors?
How should I view my relationship with civil authorities, in light of what we are commanded to do in the Bible by those who thought collectively when they wrote things such as “Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities?” Does that change my understanding at all?
This is a deep subject and can affect quite a bit of my theology.
In particular, I find that it requires me to reevaluate quite a few things I thought I absolutely knew to be absolutely correct about the patriarchal leadership of the nuclear family. I never realized how those foundational understandings that under-gird my leadership patterns were culturally shaped, instead of automatically being true representations of the Bible’s teachings. I’m not asserting that they’re wrong – but I also can no longer assert with utter confidence that they are absolutely correct, without significant further study.
And understanding the cultural context of both the writers and myself is critical to really understanding these things.
There are not really any answers here, but that wasn’t my goal. Instead, I hope I’ve raised some questions that will encourage us both to ask the Lord for insight and clarity free from cultural biases.