History is full on conspiracy theories, and particularly over the last two years they seem to have run rampant. A global pandemic affecting all people and the rise over the last decade of social media channels has enabled conspiracies to amplify misinformation more quickly and deliberately than ever before.
American University sociality professor Cynthia Miller-Idriss states that people tend to turn to conspiracy theories when ‘they’ve lost a sense of control and feel afraid and anxious, because these theories can offer comfort in the form of a black-and-white answer.’
Some of the most popular conspiracy theories over the last 50 years include myths about the Holocaust, the involvement of the CIA in JFK’s assassination, the moon landing being faked, Princess Diana’s death not being an accident, the earth being flat, and that COVID-19 is actually an intentional attempt at population control.
In Miller-Idriss's work as the director of American University’s Polarisation and Extremism Research & Innovation Lab, she has found that one way to combat conspiracy theories is to reach people through a process called attitudinal inoculation. With this technique, researchers strive to teach people how propaganda, misinformation, and conspiracy theories function so that when they come across suspicious claims from dubious sources, they’re appropriately sceptical.
The church is not immune from conspiracy theories, and their effects can often spell disaster for the mission Christ has for His bride.
The conspiracy of individualism
One such conspiracy theory that affects the church of today is the conspiracy of individualism. This conspiracy theory has its roots in the 17th century when social scientists would say that the social construct of individualism was born.
For 1700 years it wasn’t a big deal for the church, but it certainly has been for the last 300 years, and the pace of this theory infecting the church has certainly escalated within the last century. It runs almost unchecked today.
In essence, individualism is the idea that ‘I’ am more important than ‘we’ - Google the theory of individualism and you’ll see many variations of the same theme.
Last year, this conspiracy theory revealed itself in a very public way in a very public speech. Christopher Luxon had just been appointed to the leader of The National Party (the opposition) and his faith was the subject of a lot of questioning. Speaking to Q+A's Jack Tame on TVNZ a week after assuming the leadership in December, Luxon said, "The bottom line is my faith is very personal to me. I don't need to go to church, with my faith.”
This resonated with a lot of people. A couple of weeks ago I was listening to talkback radio on NewstalkZB and this exact topic came up. For 90 minutes every single caller reiterated the same theme. Every one of them – my faith is personal to me and I don’t need to belong to the church to express my faith.
Christian individualism – A fallacy
The problem with this theory of individualistic faith is that this is not what the Scriptures say about being a follower of Jesus.
The foundation for confronting the conspiracy theory is found in the Gospel of Matthew. In chapter 16, verses 13-18, we read of Jesus’ interaction with his group of friends, 13When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” 14They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” 15“But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?” 16Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” 17Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven. 18 And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.
The language Jesus uses is instructive and challenging and its foundation is the Greek word ekklesia (church) which was always a gathering of people. It’s root word within Old Testament also meant the gathering of God’s people. Whichever way we look at it, the ekklesia, the church, are God’s people, together.
This theme is built through the rest of the New Testament, from the demonstration of early Christians in the book of Acts, to the body language of Corinthians and Romans, to descriptions given in 1 Peter and Hebrews.
Confronting the conspiracy
Confronting this conspiracy takes courage, accepting that the Bible is the authoritative Word of God takes faith, and subjecting ourselves to the challenges that come from deliberate relationships where we have the freedom to be vulnerable and accountable is counter-cultural to the individualism that pervades our Western culture.
If we were to apply Miller-Idriss’s process of attitudinal inoculation to the conspiracy of individualism in the church, our attention would be drawn to the width and depth of the Scriptures, rather than the cultural constructs of our times.
With around 59 ‘one-another’s’ being written throughout the New Testament, we would be wise to recognise with suspicion any theory that seeks to drive us from one another and from relationships with our sisters and brothers in Christ.
Perhaps 2022 will be a year where we treat conspiracy with suspicion, and the Word of God with trust.
History will tell us the results.
Grant Harris is a reformed banker who has been the Senior Pastor of Windsor Park Baptist Church in Auckland, New Zealand, for eleven years. Grant’s passionate about seeing people catch a glimpse of who they are in Christ and living out the difference that makes. He’s tried living according to the patterns of this world and found that those patterns came up short. He’s still a work-in-progress and always will be. You can contact Grant at firstname.lastname@example.org.