The core values parents instill in their children depend in great part on their culture. I grew up in a context in which independence, usually accompanied by individualism, was instilled in me. The value of independence was ever before me. The urban planning models for most places where I lived consisted of single-family homes, with yards separating the buildings. The farther you travel from the city in your individual form of transportation, the greater the distance between the houses seems to be. The unexpressed cultural value is separation and/or independence. Obviously this is a general observation of an historical reality, and there are always exceptions to the rule. But few native US citizens would deny that the concept of rugged individualism and independence have been woven into the fabric of our society. One outside observer notes, “The most widely studied set of American parental beliefs concerns independence…and in recent years many researchers have come to believe that independence is a culturally specific goal of childrearing (Kim 2006:146).”
What is independence? Obviously the word independence shares something in common with the word dependence. However, the prefix “in” causes the meaning of the two words to be polar opposites. One dictionary defines independence (independent) as not being influenced or controlled by others in matters of opinion, conduct, thinking, acting for oneself, not subject to another’s authority or jurisdiction, not relying on another or others for aid or support; refusing to be under obligation to others (Woolf 2002).
Many times the concept of dependence is associated with small children, elderly people, and mentally or physically handicapped persons. Dependence demonstrated in the lives or attitudes of any others is normally viewed negatively, if not with hostility. A codependent generally refers to one side of a relationship between mutually needy people. The dependent, or obviously needy party may have emotional, physical, financial difficulties, or addictions they seemingly are unable to surmount. This is a form of unhealthy dependence. One could assume that the opposite of unhealthy dependence is independence. From the perspective of my socialization process I might be inclined to agree, but as a citizen of the Kingdom of God, I have strong reasons to reject that assumption.
Interdependence is being mutually dependent, or simply being dependent on each other (Woolf 2002). Two people in a healthy relationship are said to be interdependent. In contrast to existing alone, it is a voluntary recognition that “no man is an island,” and that we must co-inhabit the space in which we live. The most important point to understand is ”this debate positions both independence and interdependence as alternative endpoints of maturity… Independence and interdependence are polar opposites—either the two ends of a continuum, or else mutually exclusive categories” (Kim 2006:146).
We can look to God as the supreme example. God is one essence who exists eternally in three distinct persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. From the earliest pages of Scripture, God refers to Himself in the first person plural: “Let us make man in our image, in our likeness.” (Italics for emphasis) It is not difficult to build a case for the Trinity being the eternal example of perfect interdependence. The Trinity demonstrates perfect mutual dependence. Instead of self-reliance, the Trinity points to inter-reliance.
Another lesson of God’s revelation is that He Himself did not make His creation to exist independently or separately from Himself, nor does He desire to exist independently from His creation. In fact, the basic problem of human history is precisely that humans have attempted to exist independently of God. The central story of the Scriptures is God’s quest to enter into a mutual relationship with all men and women, one in which they are very much dependent on Him. The first rebellion against God by Lucifer or Satan was a selfish intent to be independent of God (Isaiah 14:12-15). Fallen human beings have followed this sinful pattern, and the eternal division is the tragic part of the story of the Scriptures, both in time and in eternity (Romans 3:23). All humans in all times and in all places must learn their basic need for dependence upon God.
Since the beginning of time, God believed it was not good for man to be alone (Genesis 2:18-24). God made humans social beings, to be in relationship with other human beings. Once again, total independence or social separation is an aberration of God’s plan. The second part of the Great Commandment (Matthew 22:39), which summarizes all the law of God, is for all of us to love our neighbor as we love ourselves. That command clearly mandates mutual dependence, or interdependent relationships. In answer to Cain’s question, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Jesus replies, “Yes, you are your brother’s keeper.” Fulfilling all the law of God means we willingly enter into relationship with God and with our fellow human beings. All humans need the love and care that result from loving relationships. We must voluntarily enter into loving, interdependent relationships.
God also views independence as completely unacceptable in the relationship between His children in the Church. No believer must adopt an attitude of independence from other believers. To do so violates multiple divine mandates, such as the Apostle Paul’s teaching that no member of the Body of Christ can act as if other members of the Body are insignificant or unnecessary (1 Corinthians 12). Rather, within the Body of Christ, God’s plan is for all believers to view themselves as interdependent.
Therefore, there are obvious ways in which, from God’s perspective, complete and absolute independence is not only undesirable; it is morally wrong or sinful. We are to be dependent upon God and interdependent within the Body of Christ.
Two factors tend to interfere with healthy interdependence: a self-centered approach to life and human sociocultural norms to the contrary. The first factor is simply egotism, and must be dealt with as such. It is morally wrong, and totally outside the will of God for His children. The second factor is more complex, and one that deserves much thought and attention. Personal sin in the lives of other people is much easier to see than systemic evil within human systems, cultural contexts, or societies. This is especially true if misconceptions exist within the cultural context of our birth, the one in which we spent our formative years, passing through a process of socialization at the hands of everyone we have ever known or who has been dear to us. Sometimes outsiders are best suited to point out shortcomings. Like all criticism, we must learn to divide the wheat from the chaff. All criticism is not destructive, and in this case is very edifying for Christians. One Swedish scholar, obviously from an etic viewpoint of the sociocultural context of the United States, made the following observation: “Abstract individualism is the foundation of democratic theory and practice in the United States” (Svensson 2006:421).
Others have pointed to the tendency in the United States to overemphasize individualism and independence, many times to our own demise. For example, “because Westerners value independence, most research on aging in Western societies has focused on how to help the individual maintain his or her functional independence throughout the life-span, and it is common to find elderly persons who live alone… but not so in non-Western societies” (Eyetsemitan, 2002). S. M. Lipset’s analysis of North American history and society is that “collective considerations and obligations, such as maintaining a stable marriage or family life, obeying society’s laws, or participating in the political system, are less important to Americans than their individual freedom to do as they wish” (1996: 13, 26, 46). When independence and individualism are taken to an extreme, family and community values tend to take second place.
A good friend and colleague from Australia, Dr. David Cummings, spent over twenty-nine years working alongside people from the United States in his role as international director of Wycliffe Bible Translators. While living in the US, he worked hard to understand its culture in order to deal with issues flowing from the cultural perspectives of North American mission candidates. While he complimented what he saw as a generous spirit, in general, one of the intrinsic values that he observed that worked against missionaries from the United States was their strong emphasis on independence. In a 1987 Evangelical Missions Quarterly article Dr. Cummings wrote:
The Word of God does not teach independence. It teaches self-control. It teaches commitment -commitment to God, and to one another. One cannot be committed to another person, or to a group, and maintain his independence. (Cummings 1987)
It can be very difficult and painful to examine and critique our own cultural values. However, as Christians, we must do precisely that. Dr. Cummings noted that when asked what they most desire in life, many citizens of the United States often included independence as something they longed to attain. Christians in this context were seldom different in this life goal and desire. However, Dr. Cummings rightly declares this value flows more from cultural norms and human systems than from Scripture. Furthermore, an overemphasis of this value can most certainly lead to a harmful view of life, relationships, and ministry.
Many believers find it difficult to accept help from other believers. When in need, any sense of recuperation is normally measured by the amount of time in which the person in need is able to achieve independence from help. What God very well may want to teach us in these situations is precisely how much we all always need one another, and how we need to learn to depend on each other. In what could be a circumstance permitted by God to help diminish pride and enhance humility, often just the opposite takes place. This could be due to a strong cultural value of individualism and independence, reinforcing a very strong internal desire on the part of individual believers to refuse to show weakness by soliciting or accepting help from others. In turn, this hampers the ability of the believer to freely offer help to others in need. In some cultural contexts, it will be counter cultural to follow the Apostle Paul’s admonition to glory in our weakness and dependence on God (2 Corinthians 12:9), as opposed to being strong and independent individuals.
Sadly, Christian leaders who have been taught to value individualism and independence may view and judge other believers’ maturity based on their ability to be independent of others. They tend to desire and to seek out believers who, at least from all outward appearances, have no needs, and value those who somehow take care of all their own needs. If we were to debate this issue in a group of pastors or missionaries, a very practical point might arise. That is, you have to have people with means in order to help those in need. Plus, from a caregiver’s perspective, it is a breath of fresh air to have parishioners who give rather than take. But once again, is that a value that flows more from Scripture or more from human cultural values? I contend that it flows more from human cultural values than it does from Scripture. The Scriptures remind us of our need to carry each other’s burdens, and by this fulfill the law of Christ (Galatians 6).
Interdependence does not mean individuals can be lazy, nor can they expect others to do for them what they are capable of doing for themselves. God instructs His children to work in order to provide for their own needs as well as to have something to share with others (2 Thessalonians 3:10; Ephesians 4:28; 1 Timothy 3:4). Also, as we work and God blesses us, we are to be responsible and faithful stewards of what God entrusts to us. Jesus powerfully demonstrated to His disciples that people and changed lives are more important than earthly possessions, and therefore should be the central focus for Christian leaders (Luke 18:18-30).
Church planters also work to help new believers, new leaders, and local congregations as they mature. Our core values impact not only what we teach, but also what the people around us catch from our attitudes and lifestyle. It is very easy to simply accept and to allow our cultural ideas concerning the development from complete dependence to less dependence to dominate our thinking in missions. Nonetheless, we have a greater and higher need to think about reality from another perspective. That is, we must rise above our cultural understanding of reality and attempt to view it from God’s perspective, based on our understanding the Scriptures.
In the development of the field of missiology, many different ideas, values, and experiences have given rise to principles and practices that guide cross-cultural workers. Works such as those of Charles R. Taber (1991) reveal that the development of some Protestant mission principles have origins other than the Scriptures. It behooves us to carefully examine each principle and practice from a Kingdom perspective.
One such principle has often been called the three selves: self-government, self-support, and self-propagation. Taber noted that this idea in Protestant mission work first appeared in the early nineteenth century, attributing it to Henry Venn and Rufus Anderson (Taber 1991:61). We need to understand that they also believed in the superiority of Western civilization, assumed cultural and racial superiority, and a de facto cultural establishment of Christianity. Without going into great detail, there is good reason to ask ourselves if the idea of self-governance, self-propagation, and self-support are biblical concepts, or are they concepts and values that flow from human cultural values? Gary Corwin wrote that on occasions the implementation of these principles “appear contrary to the biblical teaching on interdependence in the Body.” (EMQ, Corwin 2005)
The essence of the three selves principle has been to set as a goal the complete autonomy of believers, local churches, and Christian organizations. We must differentiate between autonomy and interdependence. While helping the new believer, the new church, or the organization mature, the goal is to bring them to the point in which they will be able to function on their own, and to enter into interdependent relationships with others in which they give and receive. As in the life of a small child, an unhealthy dependence on parent organizations is undesirable and counterproductive. But, going to the extreme of complete and absolute independence should not be the goal in mission work. We must understand that in the Kingdom context the idea of give and take involves much more than money. How many times have workers and parent organizations lamented the fact that believers, local churches, and groups of churches have completely separated themselves from the one who brought them to faith?
While the answers are complex and vary from situation to situation, it may be that at least part of the problem is that missionaries instill within new believers and leaders the idea of complete independence, as opposed to the Kingdom value of interdependence. Missionaries desire that new converts and new church plants mature and continue the process of multiplication. That is a good and healthy desire. However, what is the proper balance in our concepts of complete autonomy versus healthy and biblical interdependence? If we teach complete self-reliance, we build in the ingredient for an eventual separate existence, something that we really do not want or desire. Even more importantly, that is not what God desires. We need to rethink how we go about teaching and instilling the idea of individual responsibility while at the same time continuing to value and cultivate healthy interdependence. I do not advocate the complete abolition of the three selves, but rather that we reflect on their origin and on a balanced contextualized application. Whatever we do, we must honor the biblical value of healthy mutual dependence.
Another area of missiological concern that relates directly to the subject of independence versus interdependence is subsidization. In the late nineteenth century, Dr. John L. Nevius, a Presbyterian missionary working in China, received an invitation from a group of seven young missionaries beginning a work in Korea. Based on the talks he gave these young missionaries, Nevius delivered a series of articles on missionary methods in the Chinese Recorder in 1885, now recorded in the book Planting and Development of Missionary Churches (1886). From very negative experiences in the work in China, Nevius questioned the idea of expatriate workers giving money directly to local workers. The young missionaries going to Korea heeded Nevius’ suggestions. Today many church historians attribute the growth of Christianity in Korea to that decision. From that time on, Protestant leaders have debated the proper and improper use of money in mission subsidizations.
As ideas, concepts, and practices concerning subsidization have formed, some workers speak of subsidization that leads to dependence versus subsidization that leads to independence. Do we want either? In light of our value of interdependence, we need to add a new category and speak of subsidization that leads to interdependence. In what ways does that change our thoughts about subsidization? If God desires for His children to live and work in healthy mutually dependent relationships (i.e., interdependence), we must view even subsidization in that light. Possibly we should speak of subsidization that produces healthy dependence and more responsible believers. It should stimulate the type of maturity that causes believers to rely more on God, to enter into healthy interdependent relationships with other believers, advance the Kingdom, and ultimately bring honor and glory to God through the cooperative effort.
When the Lord Jesus Christ entrusted His Church with the responsibility of extending His Kingdom throughout the world and throughout the ages, there can be no doubt that His vision was wrapped around the core value of healthy interdependence. Interdependence is one of the key virtues that will draw a lost world to Jesus Christ, as well as the only way the Church can accomplish the task of world evangelization. Interdependence is a core value of Christian missions.
Corwin, Gary, 2005, Church Planting 101. Evangelical Missions Quarterly: April 2005.
Cummings, David, 1987, Programmed for Failure – Mission Candidates at Risk. Evangelical Missions Quarterly: July 1987.
Eyetsemitan, Frank, 2002, Life-span developmental psychology: Midlife and later years in Western and Non-Western societies. In W. J. Lonner, D. L. Dinnel, S. A. Hayes, & D. N. Sattler (Eds.), Online Readings in Psychology and Culture (Unit 12, Chapter 2), (http://www.wwu.edu/~culture), Center for Cross-Cultural Research, Western Washington University, Bellingham, Washington USA.
Kim, Uichol, Guoshu Yang, Kwang-kuo Hwang, 2006, Indigenous and Cultural Psychology: Understanding People in Context. New York: Springer Publications.
Lipset, S. M., 1999, The Origins of American Individualism. Canadian Journal of Sociology 23, 4 (1999): 511-533.
Nevius, John L., 1886, Planting and Development of Missionary Churches. Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company.
Svensson, Frances, 2007, Liberal Democracy and Group Rights: The Legacy of Individualism and Its Impact on American Indian Tribes. In the Journal Political Studies, Volume 27 Issue 3, pages 421 – 439, University of Michigan.
Taber, Charles R., 1991, The World Is Too Much With Us: Culture in Modern Protestant Missions. Macon, GA: Mercer University Press.
Woolf, Henry Bosley, Editor, 2002, Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary. Springfield, MA: G. & C. Merriam Company.