I was pondering the question posed in Don’t rock the boat. For some time I was aware that the biblical context is more group-oriented than today’s culture in Western countries, and therefore I would guess that churches in our countries probably do not as fully grasp what it means to be “the body of Christ” as people from a group-oriented culture. Therefore, I too find it hard to believe that a group-oriented society could be more abusive than an individualistic society.
This morning, when reading in Ephesians 4, I discovered a possible answer to this question:
15 Instead, we will speak the truth in love, growing in every way more and more like Christ, who is the head of his body, the church. 16 He makes the whole body fit together perfectly. As each part does its own special work, it helps the other parts grow, so that the whole body is healthy and growing and full of love.
The church is the body of Christ, he is the head of this group, and he makes it fit together. This group-orientation is important but at the same time God is interested in the individual. We are called to be personally responsible for what we do, and “stand straight” before God, not “bending ourselves” to the group (cf. Leanne Payne). God is there to encounter each of us in a very personal way, interested in bringing out the full potential of the gifts he gave us, and giving us freedom to go our own way, even if it is detrimental to ourselves and the community.
On the other hand it is important to note that “the fullness of the perfect man” can only be reached as a group, not as an individual (Eph 4:13 according to the German Good News Bible. Unfortunately, this is less clear in most English translations.)
So, what does this mean in terms of the original question?
Every group that is not centered on God and has Christ as its head, will most likely make the group to an idol, the harmony in the group top priority, and the statements of the leader sacrosanct. That can work well for some time. At the moment where the individual members are no longer encouraged to listen to their conscience and “stand straight” in responsibility before their Lord and creator, the group dynamic easily becomes dysfunctional and abusive. This principle applies probably to any group – including Christian groups and churches. The individual needs the group, but the group also needs healthy individuals. This won’t work if the group becomes more important than the individual, and the group harmony is enforced at the expense of the individual.