In this life the Christian finds him or herself in a challenging predicament. He or she has pledged loyalty to the Lord Jesus and to live according to what He has made known (Philippians 1:27, 3:20), and yet he or she lives in the world with its many conflicting loyalties and passions. How are Christians supposed to live in the world?
The Apostles strongly warn Christians about the strong influences of the world. Paul exhorts Christians to not be conformed to the world but to be transformed by the renewing of their minds (Romans 12:2): to be conformed is to take the same shape as a thing, and so we must take care lest we take the same shape as the world. John describes it in terms of not loving the world or the things within it (1 John 2:15-17). John’s concern is less about the creation which God made as good and more with the corrupted desires of the body: the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life. These influences come directly from culture and society in terms of its messages but is most effectively delivered through the influence of individuals (1 Corinthians 15:33). Unfortunately these sorts of influences are both numerous and ubiquitous; we do well at ascertaining and avoiding some of them but are always tempted to uncritically fall into others.
On account of concerns over these strong influences Christians prove easily tempted to try to find some means of escape and withdraw from participation in the world at large. Many imagine it is easier to serve the Lord Jesus without temptation if one is always surrounded by Christians and sheltered from encounters with people in the world. Strong association with fellow Christians does prove important to the growth and development in the faith and effective at encouraging a Christian to avoid worldliness (Hebrews 10:24-25); Jesus Himself withdrew from the crowds at times to pray (e.g. Matthew 14:13). Nevertheless, God does not commend or justify any attempt to withdraw from the world entirely. Paul took it for granted that Christians must remain in the world (1 Corinthians 5:10); after having withdrawn for a time Jesus would always return to minister among the people (e.g. Matthew 14:14ff). God expects Christians to serve as the light of the world and to proclaim the good news of the life, death, resurrection, and lordship of Jesus in word and deed to the lost and dying (Matthew 5:13-16, 28:18-20, 1 Peter 2:20-25, 4:19). While Christians blame “the world” for temptations to sin, and for good reason, they must never forget that the corruption of sin is internal, and that even among the people of God sin can arise, for no decree or act of self-denial or withdrawal is in and of itself sufficient to overcome the temptation to sin (cf. Colossians 2:20-23).
While “the world” and “those without” are most often portrayed in a negative light, the New Testament is not entirely negative about them. Christians are to give thought to what is honorable among all men (Romans 12:17); such means that those in the world have at least some standards of value. An overseer is to have a good reputation among those who are not part of the church (1 Timothy 3:7); such presumes a faithful Christian could have a good reputation among unbelievers. The Apostles manifested great concern about temptations to sin and accommodate to the ways of the world, but they never advocated either complete withdrawal from the world nor full disconnection from the ways of culture. Christians should commend what is commendable about society and culture; Christians must live and act modestly, and thus should not stand out and draw attention to themselves on account of their clothing and behavior (1 Timothy 2:8-9). Even while maintaining full and complete loyalty to Christ and His Kingdom Christians are to honor earthly rulers and submit to human institutions for the Lord’s sake (Romans 13:1-7, 1 Peter 2:11-17).
The Apostle Peter provided a helpful model by which Christians can understand how they are to relate to the world. Peter spoke to Christians as exiles or sojourners (1 Peter 1:1, 2:12). A sojourner is one like Abraham, a person who has voluntarily chosen to leave his homeland for good and has taken up residence in the land of another (cf. Hebrews 11:8-9, 13-16); an exile is one akin to the experience of Israel in the days of Babylon, a person who has been compelled to leave his homeland and dwells in a foreign place, at least for a time (cf. 2 Kings 25:11). Peter encourages Christians to see themselves in terms of exiles and sojourners even though they remain in the land of their previous heritage. Like sojourners, Christians are to consider themselves as having left their previous lives in sin so as to obtain the Kingdom of God (Philippians 3:20-21); like exiles, they dwell in the midst of people who live by a different code and ethic, and yet they must insist on continuing to live as Jesus would have them live (cf. 1 Peter 2:11-12, 4:1-6). In this way Christians can find a way forward to live whether those in the world around them are tolerant or persecuting, curious or hostile.
The world is passing away along with its lusts; nothing here lasts forever, and the great and mighty forces or institutions which assail Christians today will be gone tomorrow, and those who come after us will most likely endure different challenges than the ones we presently suffer (1 Peter 1:23-25). As long as we remain in this life we must live in this world, embody the characteristics of the Lord Jesus, and seek to save as many from the world as we can. We must never love this world, but love the people God loves and would have come to repentance (cf. 1 Timothy 2:4). We cannot permanently withdraw from yet must never conform to this world; whether those around us prove relatively amenable or highly intolerant, we must always live as strangers and aliens, exiles from the world, sojourners for the Kingdom. May we serve God in Christ in the world and be saved!
Ethan R. Longhenry