Ever since Abraham settled in Canaan, the people of God have wrestled with what it means to be in the world but not of it. As Jesus prayed for us: “I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world.” (Jn. 17:15-16 ESV) For much of Christian history, this has led the followers of Jesus to find ways that they may live distinctly from the world. Groups such as the Amish, active in the US today, and the Puritans of the 1600’s, adopted lifestyles which were visibly different from their neighbors.
Most of evangelical Christianity has taken a different approach today. We work at being so similar to culture that we cannot be distinguished from it, certainly visibly, but perhaps in far too many ways. Indeed, today much of the evangelical church is enrapt with a transformational view of culture. In this view one should be so affirming and engaged in culture that they may become influencers who can then transform culture. In the pursuit of a platform from which to transform culture, however, many Christians identify so very deeply with their dominant culture that they become consumed by it. Not only looking like their neighbors but more and more thinking and acting like them as well.
We may well ask again in 21st Century evangelicalism: In what way are we properly to be in the world but not of it? We find this as a clear biblical paradigm from the earliest pages of Scripture to the final ones. In the Pentateuch we find God saying: “You shall be holy to me, for I the LORD am holy and have separated you from the peoples, that you should be mine.” (Lev. 20:26 ESV) In fact, the very concept of holiness begins with this idea of being set apart from the world, for God. Anything that is holy, as are we his people to be, is to be set apart in some way. In Isaiah we hear our Lord calling to us to go out from the world to him: “The LORD has bared his holy arm before the eyes of all the nations, and all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God. Depart, depart, go out from there; touch no unclean thing; go out from the midst of her; purify yourselves, you who bear the vessels of the LORD.” (Isa. 52:10-11 ESV)
In the age of the New Testament the Apostle Paul helpfully integrated several OT passages to teach the same principle in his day.
What accord has Christ with Belial? Or what portion does a believer share with an unbeliever? What agreement has the temple of God with idols? For we are the temple of the living God; as God said, “I will make my dwelling among them and walk among them, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. Therefore go out from their midst, and be separate from them, says the Lord, and touch no unclean thing; then I will welcome you, and I will be a father to you, and you shall be sons and daughters to me, says the Lord Almighty.” (2 Cor. 6:15-18 ESV)
In the very last book of the Bible the same principle is commanded of us: “Then I heard another voice from heaven saying, “Come out of her, my people, lest you take part in her sins, lest you share in her plagues.” (Rev. 18:4 ESV)
What does it mean then “to come out of her”? Pretty clearly it does not mean that we must look differently in our entirety. While some contemporary cultural practices may not please God, on the whole, dressing in the styles of the day (with modesty), speaking the native language (without harsh words), working at common jobs (which are biblically justifiable), living in normal housing (without extravagance) are all within the pattern of being in but not of the world.
What are some of the ways in which we are to be separate from the world then if we are not required to look peculiar to our culture? How are we to be separate? One could easily make a longer list but allow me to suggest a few starting places:
- We do not worship her gods. The first and second commandments apply today as well as they did when they were given. Our culture worships idols such as money, sex, fame, and power. There is no place for such idolatry in the Christian heart. Coming out from our culture in this way means we humbly follow Jesus, seeking his glory and his kingdom and leaving behind the gods of this world. Are there ways in which the gods of this age have become yours? Come out from among them.
- We do not adopt the world’s immorality. God wants his people sexually pure. “For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality.” (1 Thess. 4:3 ESV) This means not only that we should avoid adultery, fornication, and any other biblically prohibited sexuality but that we must be careful to avoid temptation toward these. One can easily make the case that to be separate from the world implies avoiding much of today’s TV, film and music. Has the world’s immorality got such a hold of you that you do not even notice how vile it is anymore? Come out from among them.
- We do not adopt the world’s values, vision or mission. Much of the world is seeking its own glory and power, its own comfort, “Me first,” is the cry. Christ has called us to glorify him and to seek his kingdom, to seek the good of others, not just ourselves, to walk in humility. Are your life goals looking much like that of your non-Christian neighbor? Come out from among them.
- We do not adopt the world’s materialism. Money is the master of this world but it is not to be ours. “For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils.” (1 Tim. 6:10 ESV) We are called to use money as a servant rather than to serve it as our master. We are to be stewards of all that is given to us that we might use it to build, not our security or our kingdoms, but the Kingdom of God. Has the love of money crept into your heart? Come out from among them.
- We do not adopt the world’s hope. The world, along with its materialism and goals, sets as its highest hope a life of wealth, security, comfort, and longevity. As the farmer who built bigger barns in the parable declared: “And I will say to my soul, “Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.”‘ (Lk. 12:19 ESV) God called him a fool. We must be careful to keep our hope, not in this world but in the next. Not to find our reward in this life but the next. Is your hope primarily in what you may find in this life? Come out from among them.
To be in the world but not of it, in the end, is far less about what we wear and far more about what is in our hearts and on our minds. We may look and talk much like our neighbors, but as we follow Christ we are to be very different from them. So different in fact that God says to us: “go out from their midst, and be separate from them.”
However, in the church today it seems that we have decided to become so identified with the world that we are no longer distinguishable, not just in appearances, but in the totality of our lives. Sadly, survey after survey finds that Christians are morally, materially and motivationally far too like our culture to be truly set apart from it. Perhaps it is time we give less attention to fitting in with our world and a bit more time coming out of it and being separate? Christ’s desire for his Bride is that she be pure and spotless, unstained by sin, unstained by the world. We need to hear in our age, as God’s people have always needed to hear, his loving call to come away and be his, and his alone. “Therefore go out from their midst, and be separate from them, says the Lord, and touch no unclean thing; then I will welcome you.”
Author: Rev. Dr. Tom Hawkes