Individualism is an approach to decision-making that presumes benefits for an individual person should be given higher priority than benefits for a wider group. In other words, individualism says the needs of each person outweigh the needs of the larger culture or group. As with any human philosophy, individualism can be used beneficially or as a pretext for abuse. As one might expect, the Bible denounces an extreme approach to individualism. Scripture suggests that each person is morally obligated to consider others as more important than oneself. At the same time, Scripture powerfully speaks to the value of the individual. In some ways, individualism has biblical merit, usually in narrow, spiritually related circumstances.
The Bible contains examples of individualist thinking. This is most often seen where someone chooses to do what is moral or right, regardless of whether the wider culture approves (Joshua 24:15; Acts 5:29). Jesus indicated that following Him might offend others (Matthew 10:34–38)—and that’s especially true when the Christian individual refuses to revel in something the larger culture thinks is acceptable (John 15:19). Christ also spoke positively of a person’s right to decide how to use his own property and abilities (Matthew 21:33–41; 25:14–30).
In such circumstances, the desires of “the many” are secondary to the interests of a single person or family. In the strictest sense, this is a form of individualism: choosing what is best for that person, regardless of whether it’s compatible with “the greater good.”
Note, however, that the biblical examples narrow the context for legitimate individualism to instances of spiritual righteousness. When a godless culture claims that obeying God is harmful to “the many,” a Christian is still obligated to choose what is right (Acts 5:29). Those who have wealth or talents are expected to use them wisely, in accordance with good judgment, and not foolishly (Luke 12:41–42). Acting individualistically, against the “greater good,” then, only aligns with Scripture when a believer has reason to think that what he’s being asked to do isn’t actually “greater” or “good” according to a godly worldview. Scripture’s form of individualism is centered on each person’s need to personally follow the will of God, regardless of how others perceive that obedience.
Scripture gives much broader, widely applied examples of collectivism, such as Acts 2:44, Acts 4:32, Philippians 2:3, Romans 12:10, Ephesians 5:2, and even Romans 5:15–19. Of course, because the Bible commends a moral, ethical type of individualism, collectivism ought not be carried too far. When a culture begins to demand individuals violate their own conscience for “the greater good,” that culture is dabbling in tyranny, not charity.
Scripture also speaks of a slightly different, but very important form of individualism—that of individual human value. Not all persons have the same skills, intellect, physical ability, or health. In a non-biblical worldview, some persons are less valuable than others and their needs worth overriding for the sake of the larger group. A culture entirely committed to whatever is advantageous for “the many” marginalizes or even eliminates certain groups of people. Historically, this is exactly what happens when collectivist thinking runs rampant.
In contrast, the Bible imbues every individual with worth as an image-bearer of God (Genesis 1:27; 9:6). Jesus made a special point of ministering to people whom society cast aside (Mark 2:1–7; 5:1–20). A cornerstone of Christian ethics is the individualistic idea that no person—not one, ever, anywhere—is worthless, disposable, or less beloved than any other (Galatians 3:28; Colossians 3:11). No person—not one, ever, anywhere—is beyond forgiveness and redemption through Jesus Christ (Luke 7:34; 1 Corinthians 6:9–11).
The Bible places an extremely high value on the individual. It particularly highlights the need for individual moral reasoning and culpability (Ezekiel 18:20; Romans 2:6). The key weakness in extreme versions of collectivism is that it completely discards individual rights and responsibility in service of the so-called “greater good.”
Ultimately, the battle between individualism and collectivism is simply between human beings and their own sin nature. If we were able to follow God perfectly and abide in perfect unity, we’d find that what is good for the individual is also good for the many. Humility and self-sacrifice by individuals result in great blessings for others. Compassion and self-sacrifice by the group bless the disadvantaged and result in a greater appreciation for humanity. We will only see these two ideas in perfect harmony in eternity, when the redeemed are entirely attuned to the will of God (1 John 3:1–3).