I was waiting for my kids to get done with VBS last night and while I waited I read a little bit in a book about separation. It was a Mennonite book from the 50’s so it was quite dated but it contained a lot of the usual stuff. It got me thinking about this issue again and I keep coming back to it because it is pretty unsettled in my mind so far.
The problem with separation is that it makes it awfully hard to fulfill our calling. We have been appointed as ambassadors of the King of Kings to make known His holy name by which men may be saved, making disciples of all the nations. An ambassador who never leaves the embassy and never welcomes visitors is going to be a pretty poor representative of his sovereign. So we cannot read the New Testament and see separation as being our calling.
While the above is all true, by and large I don’t see excessive separation as being a problem for most of the church outside of a few small subgroups (and those groups are often as separate from other Christians as they are from the world). Far from it. The church is so similar to the world in terms of values, appearance and behavior as to be virtually indistinguishable from the world. This is a direct result of the combination of state-church coziness stemming from the Reformation and the civic spirituality that dominates the culture of American churches.
In response to the general worldliness of the church, the answer is not extreme separation. That is the easy way out and it is seductive. Running away from sinners is easier and neater than proclaiming the truth in love to them. We can bunker up and keep the world away. That might serve if our first and only goal is to keep ourselves unstained from the world but given our calling of disciple making, it is not feasible.
Rather I see the proper response as being distinctiveness. The church should be distinct from the world and you can only see a distinction when compared to something else which requires us to be among those we are trying to reach. There is a real difference between being separate from the world, i.e. withdrawal from the world as opposed to being a distinct people, i.e. a people noticeably different from the world around us. It is a hard balance. We are called out of the world in order to go to the world but if we are indistinguishable from the world, why would the world be interested in hearing what we have to say? When the church tries to be like the world to win the world, the world is not impressed and the church ends up losing its saltiness. In the days of the Anabaptists, they suffered extreme persecution and were quite different and distinct from the world but they were also zealous for evangelism.
When the world sees us, we should be distinctive. In other words we should be distinct from the world around us. Not just because we “go to church” or by the manner of our dress. Our lives should be lives that distinguish us from the world. The world accepts going to church. The world accepts vague spirituality and uttering religious platitudes. What the world doesn’t understand and cannot accept are people who embrace being bondservants to a King. It doesn’t understand those who see others as more important than themselves. The world doesn’t understand those who eschew violence, power, dominance and upward mobility and replaces them with lives of sacrifice, joy amidst persecution, the setting aside of rights, a willingness to die to self, humbly turning the other cheek and renouncing our right to retribution. Lives of humble service lived simply are far more counter-cultural and radical than driving a Prius or drinking fair trade coffee and those lives will be distinctive lives that will serve to draw His sheep.
We will not be distinctive in the world by observing culturally acceptable religious rituals. Nor will we be faithful to our calling by hiding away from the world. We must be intentionally distinct from the world.
You can probably tell from these muddled thoughts that I am still a long way away from finding solid ground here. I would welcome some thoughts if you can make any sense at all from what I have written.