How do we balance the two?
Scripture presents us with two seemingly opposing forces: the call for evangelism and the call for separation. It is often captured in the phrase “in the world but not of the world”. That is fine as a slogan, but how does that work itself out in the community of believers? I would argue (and have just recently) that typically it doesn’t. Let’s look at both sides, starting with the separation side. The most overt verse and the one most often quoted is found in James:
Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world. (James 1: 27)
James later in his epistle rightly pegs the source of contention and strife in the church, i.e. worldliness….
What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you? You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel. You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions. You adulterous people! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God. (James 4: 1-4)
James describes worldliness as spiritual adultery, wanting to have Christ as Savior but the world as lord. It is pretty clear from what James writes and likewise it is confirmed by what we see all around us that it is worldly desires that cause the strife and contention in the church. When the church fights about money, when it quibbles about doctrines, when it follows after personalities, all of that stems from worldliness or more specifically an entanglement with and love for the things of the world.
We read something similar from Paul regarding the world, warning us against being “conformed to this world” in Romans 12…
I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. (Rom 12: 1-2)
We often hear about being renewed in mind but we need to recognize that the opposite is also true, we are not to be conformed to this world. Three times in John’s Gospel he quotes Christ as referring to Satan as the ruler of this world (John 12:31. John 14:30 and John 16:11). John also speaks of the world in his first epistle….
Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride in possessions—is not from the Father but is from the world. And the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever. (1 John 2: 15-17)
Jesus is even harsher in His condemnation of the pursuit of the world and His warnings (promises?) of persecution by the world. Read John 14-17. So the world kind of gets a bad rap. Whether it was the Israelites getting entangled with pagan people and their practices in the Old Testament times or the church today adopting the world's standards and methods, being too comfortable or even loving the world is a recipe for disaster.
Conversely, separation as a concept gets the stink-eye in most of the church and not without cause. Separation is most typically linked to extreme fundamentalist movements and degenerates into either extreme isolationism or a focus on external pietism (‘No Pokemon Cards or Harry Potter books!’, as if avoiding those things will make one holy).
So what are we to do?
The solution to worldliness is clearly not being religious. That sort of belief gets a pretty rude treatment by Christ in his condemnation of the empty religious ritualism of the Jews. Unfortunately that is pretty much how most of the Body thinks. If I go to church on Sunday and perhaps Wednesday, don’t watch (many) R-rated movies, don’t drink and don’t let my kids read Harry Potter books or Twilight books or play with Pokémon cards, I am not being worldly. There are not a lot of Christians who openly proclaim their desire to be worldly and most condemn worldliness but you see how they live and wonder what exactly is markedly different from the world.
To compound matters, we have 1 Corinthians 5: 9-13 which speaks of the importance of discipline within the church (something that is only really feasible with a regenerate church). So we are not only to avoid entanglement with the world, we are also to enforce pretty serious discipline upon the unrepentant sinner among the Body, “purging” them from among ourselves. All in all, a pretty strong mandate to be separate from the world and from unrepentant sin within the Body.
On the other hand we have a pretty important call to proclaim Christ to the world.
And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matt 28: 18-20)
That doesn’t have much ambiguity unless you think it applies only to the disciples which I think is an untenable argument given the rest of the New Testament. Nor is it something that is reserved to just a few people (see Acts 8: 1-4). How we accomplish that is another matter. We often get the example of Paul in 1 Corinthians 9, the “all things to all people” passage:
To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings. (1 Cor 9: 22-23)
That is often (mis)interpreted as being a call to fit in with the world so that we can win the world to Christ. That idea seems to be at odds with what Paul says elsewhere about not being conformed to this world, what James says about being unsoiled by the world and the general principle throughout Scripture of God’s people being segregated from the unbelieving world. It seems to me that the church is called to be a witness to the world, not a sub-category of the world like a Rotary club or a political party.
So how do we sort this out? I think it becomes easy to stray too far one way or the other. I am not talking about people who are in cults in Idaho or those who think that Christian liberty is a license to act like a fool, waving the flag of freedom while pushing boundaries just because they can. “Yeah, I had a beer with dinner and got a tattoo. Whatcha gonna do about it Pharisee!” I am talking about rational people who read the Scriptures and come to a conviction one way or the other that slips into excess. It is a well meaning excess perhaps but excess all the same.
On the one hand (the more common end) there is the worldly church. You see this all the time in churches with marketing strategies and corporate structures. In a lot of churches, the world’s way of doing things is the preferred method. I am not just talking about “seeker sensitive” churches. The majority report in evangelicalism is the flimsiest excuse for community, a minimalist faith that only requires the most cursory adherence (typically in the form of regular attendance and “tithing”). You can be an evangelical believer in the most conservative church and still live in a manner little different from the rest of the world 98% of the week. The vast majority of Christians (my family especially) are pretty worldly by almost any measure in how we live and how we interact with the world. I don’t know of many Christians who are “unspotted” from the world in any real sense and in general I would argue that when we mix the world in with the community of believers, the community suffers far more than the world benefits.
On the other extreme there are the purists. Some of these take the form of the traditional extreme separatists like the Amish. The Amish and other related groups are separate to the point of being insular. Others come in the form of the hard line fundamentalist movement or (at the risk of getting myself in trouble) there are those who are evangelists for their own distinctives. Isolationist tendencies are understandable. It is easiest to avoid worldliness by avoiding any contact with the world at all. If you don’t have a TV or computer (probably both good ideas), you are in far less danger of being inundated with messages of immorality, licentiousness, covetousness or any of the other myriad sins that flood the airwaves and the internet. Being completely removed from the world is the easiest. However in doing so, it becomes awfully hard to proclaim the Gospel and also it is pretty hard to be unified with the greater Body of Christ in any sort of meaningful way. Plus you can get rid of your TV and computer, eschews worldliness, have your wife cover your head and make your daughters wear dresses and still have heart issues.
So somewhere in the middle is probably the right answer. Like so many areas of doctrine, we need to tread a narrow path that is easy to fall off, either to the right or the left. We cannot ignore the perishing world to focus only on ourselves and our families or even our community. We also cannot become entangled with the world lest we find ourselves becoming “worldly”. I would say that for the majority of the church, the issue is more one of worldliness than it is isolationism.
This whole line of thinking is what has led me to investigate Christian communities. Is an intentional Christian community, living and worshiping and eating together daily, sharing with one another in an Acts 2 and Acts 4 way that also reaches out to the lost through preaching and acts of mercy the way to go? I think it might be a good start if you can avoid the pitfalls like isolationism, prideful separatism and megalomaniac leadership. It only works if you are intentionally reaching the lost. (In fairness to some of the more isolated groups, it is not like most "evangelical" churches do much in the way of evangelism). The community of the church should in and of itself be a witness to the world, something different from and distinct from the world. Our mission as the church is not to win elections or to defend our “rights” or to count pew sitters. It is to proclaim the Christ and to welcome those who have been saved into that distinct and unique fellowship with the church.
I am sure of this. The church is so entangled with the world that it has become in many ways virtually indistinguishable from the world, in the visible gathering of the church and in the lives of individual Christians. There must be a better way.