A number of websites, mostly published by evangelical Protestants, argue, sometimes vigorously, that a Christian cannot be solitary, cannot exist outside the community of Christians. Or that solitude is not “normative” (whatever that may mean) in Christianity.
See, for example the following, to which many more could be added:
…to separate oneself from community and tradition on one’s spiritual journey is like turning one’s back on a banquet right in front of you, and deciding to go out and forage for food by yourself. Community is the normative pattern of the spiritual life.
There is no such thing as a solitary Christian. We have to abide in Christ, we have to abide within the community.
There is, said Mr. Wesley, no such thing as a solitary Christian. Christian life is life in community, in the fellowship of the Spirit we call the church.
I just need to say, “You cannot be a solitary Christian.” One must not do it alone. Christianity is a community-based faith and that community cannot become ghettoized either.
The New Testament Knows Nothing of Solitary Religion
“No Christian and, indeed, no historian could accept the epigram which defines religion as ‘what a man does with his solitude.’ It was one of the Wesleys, I think, who said that the New Testament knows nothing of solitary religion. We are forbidden to neglect the assembling of ourselves together. Christianity is already institutional in the earliest of its documents. The Church is the Bride of Christ. We are members of one another.”
C. S. Lewis, “Membership” (1945) in “The Weight of Glory”
Such arguments are fundamentally flawed.
Solitude may not be “normative” – that is, the way of life expected of the majority of Christians. But then nor is celibacy and yet Jesus Christ was unmarried. The Christian community has never been intended to be a blur of indistinguishable clones. As Saint Paul declared: “For as the body is one, and has many members, and all the members of that one body, being many, are one body: so also is Christ.” [1 Corinthians 12:12] A foot is not “normative” for the body, nor is an eye or an ear. Each is distinctly different in form and function, and yet none can exist as “the body” in the absence of a union with the others.
Given the history of Christians living a solitary life, recognised and venerated by the Church from the first century onwards, solitude, while it may not be normative, can certainly not be said to be “abnormative”.
The Church, which is the Mystical Body of Christ, is not a variety of worldly organization. Membership of and participation in the Church do not require annual subscriptions, attendance at annual general meetings or the wearing of membership badges. A person could not claim to be a member of a football team, for example, but never to attend training or to play with the team. Membership of a choir presupposes singing with the choir. The violinist who refuses to attend rehearsals or to play with the orchestra is certainly a violinist, but certainly not a member of the orchestra.
But the Church is not just an “outward and visible” organization and the “Church Invisible” consists not only of those who have passed beyond the mortal life. A solitary Christian may be solitary in a worldly, physical and organizational sense, but is nevertheless one of the “fellow citizens with the saints, and of the household of God” [Ephesians 2:19]. Indeed, the solitary life (in a worldly sense) may increase awareness of the vast unworldly communion of the “great cloud of witnesses” [Hebrews 12:1].
Christians are defined not by visible membership of any organization, by words, or by outward actions. They are defined by the manifestation of Christianity in their lives. The rich businessman who is vigorously active in and financially supportive of his Church, but essentially to increase his standing in the community and to improve his business opportunities, any be seen as an active Christian, but it not. The single woman living in relative poverty and isolation who maintains a faithful life of prayer is, spiritually if not in terms of the world, an active Christian.
“Doing good” may involve collecting for charity, feeding the hungry, fighting injustice, comforting the sick and much else besides. Such acts are commanded by Christ. But so is prayer, and fasting, and penitence. Just as the different parts of the body perform different functions, so do different members of Christ’s Mystical Body. Each is called to his or her own ministry. Some are called to labour with visible outcomes; the fruits of the labours of some will be known only to God.
Some are called to solitude, whether temporary or partial or long-term as a manifestation of their Christian life. Solitude is neither good nor bad, worldly nor spiritual, selfless nor selfish: it can be any or all of those things. Those called to solitude will necessary be few in number, and their work will necessarily be largely invisible. But they are essential parts of the Mystical Body of Christ.
I Corinthians 12:
12 Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ. 13 For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink. 14 Even so the body is not made up of one part but of many.
15 Now if the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason stop being part of the body. 16 And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason stop being part of the body. 17 If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be? If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be? 18 But in fact God has placed the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be. 19 If they were all one part, where would the body be? 20 As it is, there are many parts, but one body.
21 The eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” And the head cannot say to the feet, “I don’t need you!” 22 On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, 23 and the parts that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor. And the parts that are unpresentable are treated with special modesty, 24 while our presentable parts need no special treatment. But God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the parts that lacked it, 25 so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. 26 If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.