Question: "Individualism vs. collectivism—what does the Bible say?"
Answer: Individualism can be defined as putting the interests of the individual above those of the group. The idea of collectivism is that the needs of the group take precedence over each individual in it. There are entire cultures that have a bent toward one of these two philosophies; for example, the United States has historically encouraged individualism, while the culture in South Korea leans more toward collectivism. Is one better or worse than the other, from a biblical standpoint? The answer is not a simple “Thus saith the Lord.” The truth is, the Bible gives examples of both individualism and collectivism.
Individualism puts the focus on doing whatever’s best for “me,” regardless of what effect that has on the “group.” Collectivism puts the focus on doing whatever’s best for “the group,” regardless of its effect on individuals within the group. From a biblical perspective, neither of these ideologies—when played out to their full extent—are what God intends. Ultimately, God created humans for His sake (Isaiah 43:7), not for their own or any other person’s sake. A godly focus would be to do what is best for God and His kingdom (Matthew 6:33a).
There are verses in the Bible that illustrate collectivism to a certain extent. Caiaphas’s inadvertent prophecy that “it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish” (John 11:50) is one case of collectivist thought. In the early church in Jerusalem, people pooled their resources and gave to those in need so that no one lacked anything (Acts 2:44–45; 4:32–35). In 2 Corinthians 8:12–14, Paul encourages the church in Corinth to give financially to the church in Jerusalem “that there might be equality” (verse 13). The key to note in these examples, however, is that the people who gave had a choice in the matter. Their giving was strictly voluntary (Acts 5:4). No one was forced to give his resources for the benefit of the group, but they willingly did so out of love for the Lord and for the church. As an individual gave to benefit the group, that individual was blessed, as well (2 Corinthians 9:6–8). This principle of the Kingdom contains some elements of collectivism but goes beyond it. Our motivation for serving the church is not just to benefit the church as a collective; our motivation is that it pleases God (see Hebrews 13:16).
Other verses in the Bible illustrate the value and significance of the individual. In one of His parables, Jesus emphasizes the importance of growing and stewarding well the things God gives us because individually we are held accountable (Luke 19:15). In Luke 15, Jesus tells the story of a shepherd who left his flock to seek one lost lamb and the story of a woman who turns her house inside out to find an individual piece of an heirloom (see Luke 15:3–10). Both parables illustrate the value God places on the individual over the group. As we saw with collectivism, though, these examples demonstrate the idea of individualism only partially. God values the individual over the group at times because it pleases Him and gives Him glory. When God is glorified, everyone benefits, individuals and the group—notice that in the parables of Luke 15, every time what was lost is found, everyone rejoices (Luke 15:6, 9).
God values both the individual and the collective. The Bible doesn’t really argue for either individualism or collectivism as the correct ideology. Instead, it offers something else altogether, illustrated in the description of the Body of Christ in 1 Corinthians 12. Paul tells us that individual believers are like parts of a body, each playing an incredibly important and vital role to the success of the body to function as it should (1 Corinthians 12:14, 27). The various parts of a body function only when they are a part of the body as a whole. A thumb can do things no other part of the body can do, but only when it’s connected to the hand! (see 1 Corinthians 12:18–20). Likewise, the body as a whole is an amazing organism, but only when all the parts are taken care of individually (see 1 Corinthians 12:25–26).
The debate over what the Bible says about individualism vs. collectivism will no doubt continue; nevertheless, we can all learn from C. S. Lewis on the topic, no matter what position we take: “I feel a strong desire to tell you—and I expect you feel a strong desire to tell me—which of these two errors [individualism or collectivism] is the worse. That is the devil getting at us. He always sends errors into the world in pairs—pairs of opposites. And he always encourages us to spend a lot of time thinking which is the worse. You see why, of course? He relies on your extra dislike of the one error to draw you gradually into the opposite one. But do not let us be fooled. We have to keep our eyes on the goal and go straight through between both errors. We have no other concern than that with either of them” (from Mere Christianity, book 4, chapter 6).