The Line between the Church and the World IV

That this subset of my series has four parts is because I believe this aspect of separation is both important and complicated. It is important because marking the difference between the church and the world is a gospel issue that has eternal consequences for souls. The new birth is evidenced by new life, and life inside the church should be genuinely different from life outside of the church. Believers “are not of the world” (John 17:14, 16). Maintaining the line between the church and the world is very, very important.

But, it also can be complicated because believers have been sent “into the world” (John 17:18; 20:21). In fact, our Lord was clear that He wasn’t asking for them to be taken “out of the world” (John 17:15). As it is often said, believers must balance the tensions of being “in the world” while not being “of the world.” Or, to use Paul’s way of saying it, believers are “those who use the world, as though they did not make full use of it; for the form of this world is passing away” (1 Cor 7:31).

The fact that navigating how to live in a sin-cursed world and fallen culture is not simple is evidenced by the biblical commands which call us to practice discernment (e.g., Phil 1:9-10; Eph 5:10; Heb 5:14). Culture is never neutral, but rather is an expression of beliefs and values. Because of depravity, all cultures have been affected by the fall. The task of discernment often focuses on determining what parts of the culture around us express unbiblical beliefs and values. IOW, where is the line between simply being in the world and being of the world.

An aspect of this that is too often overlooked is the replacement of the Mosaic Law as the rule of life for believers. The NT does not set out to create a culture in the way that the Mosaic Law did for Israel, but it equips believers for life in diverse cultures by the application of biblical truth under the direction of God’s Spirit (cf. Gal 3, 5). Our Great Commission mandate demands cross-cultural ministry (“all nations”) and NT missions aims to spread the Gospel without unnecessary cultural baggage. Although there are sad exceptions, most recognize that the goal of missions, for example, is not to plant American churches around the world, but to plant indigenous gospel churches. Planting a church that is “in the world” but not “of the world” is loaded with challenges that call for discernment. The same is true for being the church in a culture that changes over time.

The challenge we face is applying timeless truths in specific times and places. The truths are timeless, but the applications must change as the context changes. We cannot lock down on a particular set of applications from a bygone era or we are guilty of elevating our applications above biblical truth itself. We run the risk, in such cases, of becoming traditionalists rather than being Biblicists. We must constantly be making fresh application of biblical truth to the world in which we currently live, not the one in which we used to live.

Inevitably, it seems, there will be disagreements about how the Scriptures should be applied in certain contexts. Disagreement about applications should never produce indifference about applying the Bible. The fact that people disagree about something doesn’t mean that it doesn’t matter. Each of us (and our congregations) must arrive at conclusions which we believe honor the Lord, whether others agree with us or not. We also need to allow room for other believers and congregations to develop different convictions about the application of biblical truth.

When it comes to the line between the church and the world, I believe this is the crucial thing to remember. We can agree with one another on the biblical truth regarding anti-worldliness, but still differ from one another in some details of application. Of course, I concede that some applications might be so absurd as to call into question commitment to the biblical truth at stake. Yet, I don’t think that is where most of the tension exists. The real question is how we should relate to those who disagree with us about the application of biblical truth. My contention is that agreement on the principles is necessary, not agreement on all points of application.

To try to pull this section all together, let me state it in bullet points:

  • The power of the gospel changes those who receive it.
  • The boundary line between the church and the world must be guarded by church discipline.
  • Not being conformed to the world means not allowing the beliefs and values of this present fallen world to shape our minds and hearts with the result that we would indulge in its sinful practices and live for the treasures it offers.
  • Some evidences of worldliness are easily identified because they are expressed in sinful practices, but other more subtle aspects of worldliness call for the discerning application of biblical truth.
  • Not all believers will agree with one another on all matters of application, so, if we are agreed on the biblical truth at stake, we must allow room for differing applications while accepting one another as God’s people.
  • Some disagreements on application may practically result in limited fellowship and cooperation out of concern for matters of conscience and discipleship, but those are voluntary choices, not the application of biblical texts regarding separation.

I am sure that my presentation of this leaves significant room for improvement, but I am not trying to write the perfect position paper. I am trying to express what I believe to be the controlling factors in a view of separation that is gospel-driven. The application of all this will never be like a mathematical equation. It will never be as simple as checking someone’s ID card. It will always require careful evaluation and discernment. May God grant us the discernment needed for our day!

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