There is a paradox in the Bible that confronts us with the challenge of how Christians should relate to modern culture. It’s what we’ll call “The Worldly Paradox.” It goes something like this: stay away from the world, but don’t stay away from the world!
Scripture exhorts us to beware of the world’s influence:
”Pure and undefiled religion before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their trouble, and to keep oneself unspotted from the world” (James 1:27).
“Be not conformed to this world…” (Romans 12:2, KJV).
Yet, we are also exhorted to be intentional about influencing the world:
“You are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden” (Matthew 5:14).
How do we make sense out of this and avoid being a spiritual schizophrenic?
Jesus, the Revolutionary
In the life and teachings of Jesus we have the most compelling example of how to engage with the world in a meaningful way. WWJD—what would Jesus do?—is the question we should always be asking ourselves.
The Gospel of John tells us that Jesus was “in” the world (John 1:10), yet He was “not of” the world (John 8:23; 18:36). He managed to live up close and personal, rubbing shoulders with the real human experience while steering clear from the corrupting influences of the world. It’s important for every Christian to keep those opposite poles in a healthy tension. And the effectiveness of Jesus’ balanced approach is confirmed by, Michael Green [History of Western Civilization], in his preface to Hard Sayings of Jesus, by F.F. Bruce, and writes:
“Jesus of Nazareth remains the most important individual who has ever lived. Nobody else has had comparable influence over so many nations for so long. Nobody else has so affected art and literature, music and drama. Nobody else can remotely match his record in the liberation, the healing and the education of mankind. Nobody else has attracted such a multitude not only of followers but of worshippers.”
It would have been impossible to impact the world in such a real way had Jesus lived as a hermit by disconnecting Himself from the world or a chameleon by completely assimilating without restraint. Instead, He engaged with the culture of His day and left His fingerprints on it. And naturally, the generations of disciples that would emerge after Him eventually left their fingerprints as well. The principles of Christianity would shape many aspects of society, such as art, music, literature, science, religious liberty, women’s rights, education, etc.
Those are the effects of being “in” but “not of” the world.
Pharisees and Sadducees
When Jesus showed up on the scene, He stepped into a religious landscape characterized by two dominant expressions of Judaism. Both had different approaches on how to relate to culture. There was the far right and the far left.
The Pharisees determined to make it their mission statement to preserve Judaism from the corrupting influence of Greek culture. To accomplish this, they emphasized strict, rigid obedience to the Law of Moses and erected barrier after barrier of “protection” in the form of traditions to keep them clean and separate. A clear instance of this can be seen in Matthew 15:8-14.
The Sadducees took the opposite posture. They concluded that the way to relate to the world was to assimilate. They were willing to blur the lines of their distinctive identity in order to blend with their surroundings. Acts 17 reveals that one of the most objectionable doctrines of the Judeo-Christian belief, as far as the Greeks were concerned, was the resurrection (see Acts 17:3). Not surprisingly, the Sadducees jettisoned it (Acts 23:7-8; Mathew 22:23). Parting with this distinctive belief, they effectively avoided negative attention from Greco-Roman society.
The Pharisees clung to their identity at the expense of their relevancy. The Sadducees grasped for relevancy at the expense of their identity.
Christ’s Way, The Only Way
Gabe Lyons, in his book, The Next Christians, points out that these are the same dynamics we witness today. Most Christians relate to the world as either separatist or cultural Christians––the modern day version of the Pharisees and Sadducees. It didn’t work in Jesus’ day, and it sure doesn’t work today.
We need to rediscover the heart of Jesus for a lost world. It’s a messy affair. Whether our natural inclination is to emphasize identity over relevancy or relevancy over identity, the Jesus way is about stepping out of our safe comfort zones. Anything less is lazy, irresponsible, and anti-Christian in nature.
As Gabe Lyons put it, Christians who seek to responsibly emulate Jesus “don’t separate from the world or blend in; rather, they thoughtfully engage.” This attitude “combines the best of both expressions (both Separatist and Cultural Christians do have strengths) but adds an entirely new ingredient that makes their faith come alive: restoration” (The Next Christian,p.79).
That’s the vision Jesus was casting in the Sermon on the Mount:
“You are the salt of the earth; but if the salt loses its flavor, how shall it be seasoned? It is then good for nothing but to be thrown out and trampled underfoot by men. You are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden” (Matthew 5:13-14).
God help us to live like Jesus lived and bring to this world a taste of the kingdom of God!