I was talking on the phone with a friend yesterday about balancing the desire to be in the world without being of it. Part of the discussion centered around a particular church and their habit of meeting in a night club for worship. In our conversation the text of 2 Cor. 6:14-18 was brought up as was the question, what exactly does this text forbid the church from doing?
Do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers. For what partnership has righteousness with lawlessness? Or what fellowship has light with darkness? 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. 6:14-18
The truth is the text does not get specific, but presents the principle that the church of God must not unite with the world in sinful and evil practices. It is a call to holiness as defined by Scripture. It is not a call to cultural retreat, nor conformity to extra-biblical religious expectations. It does not forbid working with the world in civil affairs. The point is for us to avoid the sinful practices of the world in light of our identity in Christ. in his commentary on 2 Corinthians the Baptist pastor/theologian John Gill wrote,
...if any particular thing is referred to, it is to joining with unbelievers in acts of idolatry; since one of the apostle's arguments to dissuade from being unequally yoked with unbelievers is, "what agreement hath the temple of God with idols?" and from the foregoing epistle it looks as if some in this church had joined with them in such practices; see 1 Corinthians 10:14. But I rather think that these words are a dissuasive in general, from having any fellowship with unbelievers in anything sinful and criminal, whether in worship or in conversation
What my friend and I were really talking about was how the church reaches out to its community and identifies with its community while remaining faithful to Jesus and governed by the Bible.
Reaching out with the Gospel in word and deed is the work God calls us to, but identifying with the community in love and compassion is the posture such work must be carried out in. Jesus not only preached, fed the masses, cast out demons, and healed the sick - he did so with real love and a true sense of compassion. He identified with the people he was sent to by living among them as common and poor. By eating with them, visiting with them and sharing his life he was one of them, yet different. His living in the world caused the religious establishment to accuse him of sin, though he was righteous. But his close proximity was a necessity. It was not simply the holiness of Jesus that showed him to be glorious. It was the holiness of Jesus on display in the midst of his fallen community that truly set him apart as both loving and lovely. He could be holy (separate) and still identify with the people (be present).
Identifying with the world, as Jesus and the early church did, is not an easy or safe endeavor. Many of our churches are hesitant to attempt it. Why?
1. It is easier to be separate or present rather than both separate and present.
2. We have so secluded ourselves from the community at large by retreating into the Christian ghetto that we feel out of place even when we should find ourselves at home.
3. Western culture itself is now a fragmented community, encouraging retreat from the community as a whole among all sub-cultures including the church.
4. We see Jesus' words to the religious leadership of his day as normative for our conversation with the world at large and pay little attention to how he approached the sinful, broken, and hurting people who received the bulk of his ministry.
5. We are more afraid of what the church thinks of our behavior than God, or we confuse the two.
The reasons we are slow to identify and get close to the world are innumerable I suppose. And I get that it goes both ways. Some churches/Christians are working hard to identify with the world without maintaining a strong and healthy ecclesiology. But in my circles, where we tend to work hard on our doctrine, we have a weakness in its implementation as it relates to church and society. We can understand the nine marks of a healthy church (good stuff), we can develop a biblical view of the regulative principle, we can prize expository preaching, but we still must then do the harder work of translating it all to our unique cultural context.
I don't pretend to have the answers for how this can be done. In fact, I don't think there is a program to buy or a paradigm to follow beyond the example of Jesus and the early church. This only sets us up to begin the hard work. In the end it means biblical churches will look the same and different. It means that within the boundaries set by Scripture some churches will wind up doing things that might be inappropriate for other churches in different contexts.
So in the end how do we remain in the world while not being of it? The only answer I can come up with is three-fold. We have to believe the Scripture is enough to govern us in being the church while not expecting it to lay out all the details for translating what it prescribes to our community. We must also believe that the people God sends us to must be identified with and served with the Gospel. But my greatest hope is that the Father will answer the prayer of my Savior who prayed,
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. Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for their sake I consecrate myself, that they also may be sanctified in truth. John 17:15-19