Thursday, December 31, 2009

Separation and evangelism

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 Pok├ęmon 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.

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Joe VonDoloski said...

I believe one solution to this problem is a good church.

Anonymous said...

Excellent post, Arthur. I think a good place to start is to figure out to which side we lean too far, and start making steps the other way. Hopefully we'll reach the middle, right?

Steve Martin said...

I don't see a call for seperation from the world.

On the contrary, we ought throw ourselves into the world with everything we've got.

When the disciples wanted to stay and build a chapel on the mount of transfiguration, Jesus said nothin' doing...were going back down there, we've got work to do. (close to that in essence)

Jesus hung out with sinners. Real sinners.

He didn't engage in their sin, but loved them and spoke into to their sin that which is life...Himself.

No, we ought not seperate from the world. Not at all.

Arthur Sido said...


We have a good church, His church. When it comes to the gathered church though I would say as charitably as I can that in the best local churches I have been involved, there was not much evangelism and there was a crushing amount of worldliness. We have been in pretty solid, conservative, "Bible believing churches" in all sorts of places from Kentucky to northenr Michigan and there wasn't much difference. The solution is not to find a "good church" but to rethink how we see the church as a whole.

Arthur Sido said...


We should, as the church, evangelize the lost, something by the way that I don't see happening in a meaningful way at all, but in doing so we are calling sinners to become disciples of Christ, not pew sitters in a local church. The church must be distinct as a witness to the world instead of trying to fit in with the world. We should take our cues from the Bible, where we see the disciples going from house to house and in the tempel and synagogues to preach Christ. They also lived in a way that was distinct from the world, praying and breaking bread together daily, bearing each others burdens, having all things in common. We don't reflect that sort of Christian community in a meaningful way in very much of the church at all.

Arthur Sido said...


That should be the goal. I think the reality is a lot different. Not only do we not have both in equal measure, we really don’t do either. Instead of one or the other, we have neither. We are not evangelizing in any meaningful sense and we are as worldly as the most pagan person in our neighborhood. I despair of reforming the institutional church at all. That leaves me and my family with some hard choices to make.

Anonymous said...

Like I said, just a place to start. I don't claim to have "the" solution, but I know I have to start somewhere. :o)

Unknown said...

(the following may stray slightly off topic)

In the right time, God will land you in the middle of the group of Believers that fit where you are being led.

I say its time for a Craigs list ad, listing what you want and are looking for.
Many of the home churches are invisible in the sense that they do not have a building and address that they are tagged with.
We only knew about our current meeting, because we were friends with someone who had tracked them down first.


Throwing ourselves "into the world" as Believers, must be undertaken carefully.
It should only be done in the realm of evangelisation.
Looking like, and living like the world, just so they can be won for Him, is not what we are to do.
Hence the reason I refuse to accept the modern churches stance on so called "modest" dress, if I may use that as an example.

If anyone thinks that the young people in their local church are such shining examples on Sunday, hence believing this to be true of the whole week, you better be knowing for sure what they are doing the rest of the week.
And do not take there version of the story at face value.
A quick peek at facebook and myspace will tell a very different story more times then not.

From what I can gather, at least 75% of the the ones I watched grow up after me in my "home church" (plymouth brethren) have next to nothing to do with "church" anymore.
I will preface the following by saying, that I have nothing aginst a little wine now and then.
But, what I am seeing is lots of drinking and smoking, plain old foolishness, and more time spent in the party scene, and making sure they look just right, girls and guys included.
Tight clothing for both sexes, very short skirts, low cut tops, etc.

TO the passerby, and even to the casual friend, you would never know that these are so called professing believers.
And certainly, some of them are not believers, and may never be.

One thing is for sure, this 30 and under crowd that I have known, is going to raise up a generation that will want nothing to do with Christ.
And why?
Because they have been allowed to behave and look like the world!

Oops, soapboxing away on Arthurs blog.....LOL!
I think you know what I am driving at though.

Unknown said...

Something I left out, was the fact that many fathers are not doing a good job evangalizing their own children today.
How can we expect them to go out and evangalize the world?
Especially when the world looks in on these kinds of fmailies, and does nto see much if any difference!

Joe VonDoloski said...

Jesus said he would build his church and the gates of hell would not prevail against it. So find a church, demonstrate faithful evangelism and reject worldliness.

Paul Woods said...

These are some good questions. Beth and I have been to both extremes, or at least I have been to the worldly extreme in my short life.

As far as isolation goes, we were so isolated at one time that we had only blog friends.

You mentioned the Amish, I think that the Amish have a very strong community. They are bound to this community by their religion. Yes,their religion is deeply flawed. Yet, in spite of this, I think we can learn from their example. They are deeply committed to what they believe their community should be.

Christians as a whole are not committed to what the Scriptures plainly teach about community. I believe that this is one of, if not the greatest of, our weaknesses.

We have to be committed to the reality that we by definition are a community, a gathered body that is literally knit together in Christ. You cannot escape this reality in the Scriptures. This reality is more real than the tangible things that we hold in our hands, they will pass away, we who are Christ's will not. This reality is more real than the keyboard I am typing upon. Yet, this reality is the most commonly dismissed in the body of Christ.

We are like a patch-work quilt tearing at every seem and scoffing at the One who has stitched us together. Until this tearing asunder is stopped, I see no solution.

The body of Christ, sadly, to borrow from the OP title, has become "the body of separated evangelists."

We must set about the task of repairing this breach. This can only be done by calling people to recognize their identity and committing themselves, by the grace of God, to living it out. Ephesians 4:3 states, that we are to "maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace." This is one of several solutions.

I do not know what this will look like. I do know the we cannot do this while setting ourselves against one another as our sad wake of denominational-ism has done.

Arthur Sido said...

Joe, when Christ said that, was He referring to local church organizations or "His Church"? I think the problem is that we tend to blur the two and assume that "church" in the Bible means "First Baptist Church" or "Grace Presbyterian Church". Christ's church will always prevail even though the visible manifestation of His church may fall on hard times, whether that is in the thousand year darkness of Roman Catholicism or in the present age of cheap grace and empty religiosity.

Arthur Sido said...


Sober and sound words. Thank you. Until we decide to stop seeking what we want and start committing ourselves to obeying what He has commanded, we will be in constant strife because we seek to gratify our own carnal desires instead of sacrificing ourselves for His glory. In spite of the faults of the Amish or the Hutterites, I am starting to think I wold rather be there than in the world focused "church".

Arthur Sido said...


Feel free to hop up onto your soap box here whenever you like! Your words have an important warning. By and large we send our kids unprepared into the world for the majority of their waking hours with a couple of hours of "church". Little wonder they reflect the world in their behavior, it is what they know and it is perfectly acceptable in the church.