Any community (religious, political, or otherwise) faces an important question: how do we relate to others who are not just like us? How a group answers this question dictates how it will treat the world around it and, in turn, how the world will treat the community. As members of the church—God's people, chosen as His agent of redemption in this world—we must answer this question.
How are we going to relate to the world?
How are we going to operate? How are we going to treat others? What do we stand for? Who do we align with? These questions expose the tension that exists for a Christian living in an increasingly post-Christian world. In our current social climate, how do the people of God remain "above reproach" while not excusing ourselves from being anything less than we are meant to be—agents of redemption.
Historically, there have been two common approaches to navigating the tension between a group and those outside the group. The first approach is the fundamental approach: It's "us" versus "them," and "they" are part of the big bad world that we're not a part of. "We must protect ourselves from all those who don't see things our way." The other response is to swing the pendulum to the other extreme and use the all-inclusive approach: There are no distinctions, no truths. Anything goes, so to speak.
While these approaches are antithetical, they share a strong commonality. Both approaches are self-serving.
Group A withdraws from anything and anyone they don't see as "safe," effectively avoiding any conflict, discomfort, and suffering. Group B completely assimilates with anything and anyone, no questions asked, also effectively avoiding any conflict, discomfort, and suffering.
Each approach has the same goal, but different strategies—and the church is called to neither.
Jesus and His Apostles are abundantly clear in the Scriptures that the Christian life is not marked by escapism nor passivity. Following Jesus—being a part of His church—is not about avoiding those we disagree with, nor is it about simply agreeing with everyone.
Peter, in his letter to new Christians living in a decidedly non-Christian world, addresses this tension beautifully. He writes:
"You are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His wonderful light. Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy." (1 Peter 2:9-10)
As God's people—as those who have experienced His wonderful mercy—we have the privilege of displaying His goodness and grace to all people. And because of our identity as His people with that privilege, we have been trusted to engage the world around us in a unique way. He continues:
Dear friends, I urge you, as sojourners and exiles, to abstain from sinful desires, which wage war against your soul. Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us. (vv. 11-12)
Here’s what we know about the early Christians:
1) They didn’t go to the bloodthirsty entertainments—the gladiatorial festivities.
2) They did not serve in the military so as not to support Caesar’s wars of conquest.
3) They were against abortion and infanticide.
4) They empowered women.
5) They were against sex outside marriage and same-sex practices.
6) They were radically for the poor.
7) They mixed races and classes together in their gatherings in a way that was considered scandalous.
8) They believed that only Jesus was the way to salvation.
Before Jesus, nowhere in history was there a group who held all of these practices. The early Christians weren’t like the Greeks, they weren’t like the Romans, and they weren’t like the Jews—they were their own subculture.
2,000 years later, we still find ourselves as our own subculture. If there was a group of people that held to the practices and beliefs of rejecting bloodthirsty sports and military conquest, empowering women, combining race and classes, and radically serving the poor they would be considered liberal. Likewise, if a group of people held to the practices and beliefs of forbidding abortion and infanticide, forbidding sex outside of marriage and same-sex practices, and insisted that Jesus was the only way to salvation they would be considered conservative.
As Christians, we don't fit into Western, relativistic individualism. We don’t fit into traditional, hierarchical legalism. We don’t completely fit conservative; we don’t completely fit liberal. We’ve always been a subculture.
This is what sets us apart from the self-serving groups mentioned above: we don't attempt to escape the world, nor do we neglect our convictions entirely.
We confidently live as God's vehicle of redemption by passionately, actively, and graciously pursuing others as God, through Jesus, pursued us. The early church handled this tension well and were both God-honoring and world-loving. For them, being a Christian didn't mean undermining or avoiding the culture, but instead, setting their own. They lived to reflect the character of their God—a God that opposed evil yet actively pursued those who seek it. This meant they would suffer.
But how? How could Peter expect them to endure false accusations then turn around and sacrifice for their accusers? How could they lay down their rights for the sake of others? How could they possibly suffer for the sake of those who revile and reject them?
Because Someone had done the same for them.
Peter finishes his encouragement with this:
To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps...When they hurled their insults at Him, He did not retaliate; when He suffered, He made no threats. Instead, He entrusted Himself to Him who judges justly. (vv. 21-23)
Jesus never compromised on what was right, yet never dismissed someone for doing wrong. He always remained holy, yet always pursued those who were not. He lived a life pleasing to God, yet lived alongside those who were far from Him.
He didn't seek to make His life comfortable by avoiding people who were different than He was, nor did He simply condone everything. He stood for God's truth, but lovingly suffered—even died—for those who had rejected it.
Let us do the same.
Let us strive for holiness, not for our sake, but for the sake of others. Let us hold fast to truth, not for our own satisfaction, but so that others may know the God that loves them unconditionally.