This is an excerpt from the first chapter of Passing Through: Pilgrim Life in the Wilderness by Jeremy Walker.
Flawed Relationships to the World
Christians must appreciate that they are called to relate to the world in a certain way in each of these different spheres in accordance with their different definitions. What happens if we fail to distinguish between them or to cultivate a properly nuanced understanding with an unwillingness to discern and direct our responses accordingly? We may be bewildered and betrayed, confused and compromised, indecisive and ineffective. The child of God might—for various reasons and perhaps because of a too absolute rigidity or a too careless fluidity—be betrayed into one of three flawed approaches.
The first flawed approach is isolation. We might describe this as the bunker mentality, when a church or a Christian seeks to back off or simply to cut themselves off from all contact with the world in any form. Some might adopt it as an offensive strategy, often sincerely seeking to promote a high degree of holiness. It can be a breeding ground for the kind of pride that—like the Pharisee in the temple—begins to thank God that we are not like other men (particularly those dreadful sinners outside) but are rather well endowed with the kinds of good works with which God is obliged to be pleased. Others adopt this approach as a defensive maneuver, attempting to shut out everything that is unholy, making the walls high, the ditches deep, the doors thick, and the bars strong. They persist in their notion that they can create some kind of spiritual hermetic seal around a church, a family, or a person and so keep everything spiritually contaminating at a distance. The assumption seems to be that if they can establish and maintain such a seal, eventually the world might just go away and they will not have to deal with it.
There may be some degree of truth and wisdom in elements of this approach. However, the problem with isolation is that no matter how many others I might be able to keep out, I am left inside. Anyone who invites and shuts me into that community or space has shut in a man who carries sin in him. Furthermore, even our Lord did not pray that we would be taken out of the world, but that we would be kept from the evil one (John 17:15), preserved in the world and maintained in godliness despite the environment into which He has sent us. This is not only unreasonable to attempt or expect, but it would also sever our contact with the very people for whose benefit the church has been entrusted with the gospel.
A second flawed attitude is inattention. This is the congregation or saint who maintains a kind of distant ignorance, perhaps with some- thing of a sneer. To such people the world is irrelevant, the object of casual neglect and carelessness. Perhaps there is pride here, or ignorance of how to handle the world, or fear that they are not equipped to do so. It may be that the language of holiness is used to put a veneer on what is actually a thoughtless disregard for the world and the things in it. This is cultivated not in the sense of esteeming and holding such things lightly for Christ’s sake, but is the absence of any genuine concern, legitimate interest, sincere compassion, and real care. Paul is able to say, “Men of Athens, I perceive that in all things you are very religious” (Acts 17:22). As he engages with them, he goes on to quote their own poets to prove the correctness of some of his fundamental assertions, truths which ought to be—and are, in measure—evident to clear-thinking men in the world. And if not Paul, what of Christ Himself, who clearly did not go through the world with his eyes half shut, but was able to ask His hearers to consider the birds of the air and the flowers of the field, the sower at his work and the children at their play?
The church and the world often drift along side by side in a strange relationship, neither one really acknowledging the other. The church can even become something of a parasite. It exists among the people of the world and feeds off the profits and processes of society and the culture at large, but makes no genuine and righteous investments and seeks no gospel influence. Again, there may be something of an appropriate and righteous disregard—the absence of any obsession—with the world, but there is also a grand mistake being made. In the beginning, before sin entered the world, the Lord gave a charge to our first parents: “Then God blessed them, and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it; have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over every living thing that moves on the earth’” (Gen. 1:28). What is called the “dominion mandate” remains as a binding obligation upon men and women made in God’s image.
The third flawed outlook might be described as emulation. This is the church or believer who ends up seeking to be (or, in some cases, deliberately sets out to be) like the world. Often this begins with the desire, legitimate in itself, of doing genuine good to those around her. However, it can result in a church immersed in the world’s culture, adopting its patterns, mimicking its behavior, imbibing its priorities, and mirroring its movements. These Christians ape what they see around them and simply meld into the environment, perfectly camouflaged. In some cases, the mantra “in it to win it” might be used to justify such a principle. Others will twist Paul’s statement that “I have become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some” (1 Cor. 9:22). In itself, it is an individual’s simple testimony to his readiness to accommodate himself to substantially neutral norms around him
Under such circumstances, the church ceases to be a thermostat that regulates the moral temperature of society and becomes a thermometer that merely registers and reflects that temperature. There is no doubt that the church must have points of contact—must make points of contact—with those around her if she is to have an impact upon the souls of men and women. However, the Scriptures are perfectly clear that “friendship with the world is enmity with God” (James 4:4).
Each one, as we have seen, abuses or neglects some element of biblical revelation considered as a whole. None of them answers the distinctive demands of the relationship that the church must sustain to the world considered in all its various manifestations and guises. None of them is an option for the church seeking to be faithful to God and fruitful among men. Indeed, to live like this—individually or corporately—would be to fail in our responsibilities, privileges, and duties. They have the virtue of relative simplicity, providing a sort of catch-all approach by means of which it is then possible to relieve one’s conscience, avoid combat, suspend thoughtfulness, make less effort, give in to temptation, or take some other apparently easy way out.
Part 3 will be available next Thursday