On Individualism (Answering Doug Wilson, Part 1)

I am very pleased to post this week a series of articles authored by our good friends Joseph Knowles, Terry Gant, and Jeff Wright in response to theologian Doug Wilson’s recent article against libertarianism. While I had intended to write something myself, these three gentlemen have gone above and beyond the call of duty and written a tremendous detailed rebuttal. It’s so large, in fact, that I felt it needed to be posted over multiple days to be absorbed more completely. So, here is Part 1…

Laying some groundwork

Many discussions benefit from a bit of preliminary groundwork, and we find that this topic is no exception to that general rule. Failure to define terms often leads to a good deal of talking past one another rather than getting down to the root of the issue.

For starters—and we hope the reader will forgive the cliche—there are libertarians and then there are libertarians. That is to say that the label “libertarian” is a pretty generic one and can mean different things depending on the speaker and the context. It can refer, for instance, to someone whose preferred outcome is that the state disappears altogether. Murray Rothbard, author/economist David Friedman, and (perhaps) Ron Paul fall in this camp, and is sometimes termed “anarcho-capitalist” or “anarcho-libertarian”. “Libertarian” might also refer to someone who simply believes that the state, in its current form, is far too large but that, nevertheless, a sort of “night watchman” state that performs very limited functions has to maintain basic order. Often termed the “minarchist” position, in this camp would be people like Libertarian Congressman Justin Amash, John Stossel, and (perhaps) Ron Paul.

It’s important to underscore that distinction because the answers that Christian libertarians would give to these questions will differ depending on the camp with which they more closely identify. Based on how he has worded the questions we assume that Wilson is posing his questions to the more radical, anti-state wing of libertarianism. Therefore, we will answer the questions with that in mind.

We also note, however, that even amongst ourselves (i.e., the authors of this essay) there is not full agreement about which school of libertarianism is the most consistent with Christianity. Where the difference between the minarchist libertarian position and the anarcho-capitalist position would affect our answers we have made note of that fact.

In addition, although we don’t think we have been needlessly wordy or circuitous in our arguments, we note that it is often easier to ask a question in succinct terms than it is to answer one. So if our answers seem considerably longer than Wilson’s set up of the questions, that is, we think, inescapable to an extent.

Is the basic unit of society the individual?

The first question asked by Wilson in his article is this: Does society always and in every case break down to atomistic individuals? We interpret his question this way: Would libertarians recognize entities that have rights other than individuals if libertarians were in charge? He lists the examples of a married couple, a family unit, and a local church. There could be many others added to this list. Corporations? Schools? Neighborhood associations? Bowling leagues? Does every voluntary association have rights? What about the ones founded for the purpose of pursuing sin and vice?

As Christians, there are still some discussions to be had on this point. After all, ecclesiology has a major effect on one’s views about civil society and vice versa. For instance, we are baptists. Our children are not members of our churches until they profess Christ publicly, demonstrate an understanding of a complete Christian gospel, and submit to baptism in obedience. Presbyterians have a different view, believing that children of Christian parents are part of a regenerate (or “covenant”) household. This has implications for how much emphasis one places on the individual rather than households. Ultimately, however, it is individuals who must confess Christ or reject him.

Yes, societies can sin at large and be judged at large. This is clear in Scripture, and this is clear in history. We know in the case of Sodom and Gomorrah that the Lord found almost no righteous ones in the city because Abraham’s intercession is recorded for us. We know for a fact there were less than ten. Those righteous that were there were saved by God forcibly. Some in Lot’s household suffered because of their personal choices. Lot’s daughters lost their betrothed men to their own unbelief and Lot’s wife was destroyed for her personal disobedience. These people were part of Lot’s household, but they died because of individual choices. Conversely, Lot, in his role as head of household, also partially caused their suffering by settling his family in that place that was noteworthy for only one thing: sin.

The biblical narrative of Sodom and Gomorrah indicates that the cities were filled with only unrighteous people committing heinous acts at all times. No specific number of righteous people was recorded, but it is very possible that Lot and his family were the closest to righteousness that Sodom and Gomorrah got. The men of the city are described as great sinners before the Lord and the Lord describes the place as having an outcry against it (Gen. 18:20). This could be an outcry from the heavenly beings who are enraged on God’s behalf at what they saw in those wicked cities. It could also be that individual human victims cried out to God for vengeance and justice after suffering from the sinful deeds of Sodom. 

When a person stands before God, he must be judged as a sheep or a goat (see Matthew 25). The question is not “What church were they members of? Were they part of a ‘Christian nation?’ Did their parents believe?” All these things are blessings to the life of a believer, but they are no comfort to one who personally rejects Christ. In that case, they are cause for more condemnation. Christ’s atoning sacrifice was to save individual persons from their sin nature and their sins of commission. Christ did not die for the United States, our (visible, local) churches, or our families (though a presbyterian and a baptist can certainly haggle over the details of this one). He died for the individuals that populate those units, all those who believe.

Another angle to come at Wilson’s question: If we assume families are the basic unit of society, then how has God aimed His instructions to that unit?  The Household Code of Ephesians 5:25-6:9 provides an easy example to work through. If the family is the basic unit of society then surely this passage addresses the family about how to honor God’s vocational calling.  Who, then, obeys these commands to the family? Clearly, it is the individual filling the various roles.  There is an individual husband who must love his wife as Christ loved the church.  There is an individual wife who must lovingly submit to her husband as the church submits to Christ.  There is an individual child who must obey her parents in the Lord and, in turn, an individual father who must not provoke his children.

It appears then that whether the individual or the family is understood to be the basic unit of society, God addresses both when he speaks to the vocational role image-bearers are to fulfill.  This understanding makes sense of history as well.  It could very well be that the church — and Protestantism in particular — gave the Western world the notion of individualism through Martin Luther. Eric Metaxas writes in Martin Luther: The Man Who Rediscovered God and Changed the World, “The quintessentially modern idea of the individual was as unthinkable before Luther as is color in a world of black and white. And the more recent ideas of pluralism, religious liberty, self-government, and liberty all entered history through the door that Luther opened.”

J. Gresham Machen sees the Christian emphasis on individuality, whether individuals are or are not the basic unit of society, holding a powerful check on the collectivism of society.  He writes in Christianity and Liberalism:

It is true that historic Christianity is in conflict at many points with the collectivism of the present day; it does emphasize, against the claims of society, the worth of the individual soul. It provides for the individual a refuge from all the fluctuating currents of human opinion, a secret place of meditation where a man can come alone into the presence of God. It does give a man courage to stand, if need be, against the world; it resolutely refuses to make of the individual a mere means to an end, a mere element in the composition of society. It rejects altogether any means of salvation which deals with men in a mass; it brings the individual face to face with his God.

It seems wise for Christians of good faith to countenance the importance of the individual, regardless of whether the individual or the family he belongs to proves the most fundamental unit of society.

Stay tuned for Part 2 on Wednesday, October 28.

LCI posts articles representing a broad range of views from authors who identify as both Christian and libertarian. Of course, not everyone will agree with every article, and not every article represents an official position from LCI. Please direct any inquiries regarding the specifics of the article to the author. 

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