In But Not Of The World

There is a passage in the gospel of John has always troubled me and continues to do so. It’s part of Jesus’ final discourse to his disciples before he was betrayed and crucified. The passage reads thus:

John 15:18-19
18  “If the world hates you, understand that it hated Me before it hated you.
19  If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own. However, because you are not of the world, but I have chosen you out of it, the world hates you.

Jesus also speaks of it while praying to God in John 17:

John 17:14-18
14  I have given them Your word. The world hated them because they are not of the world, as I am not of the world.
15  I am not praying that You take them out of the world but that You protect them from the evil one.
16  They are not of the world, as I am not of the world.
17  Sanctify them by the truth; Your word is truth.
18  As You sent Me into the world, I also have sent them into the world.

What troubles me is this: we are “in” this world even while we are no longer “of” it, but how far do we have to be “in” it in order to be salt and light and deliver the message we’ve been given? Throughout history, this passage has been interpreted and applied in a number of different ways. Some wishing to remain ‘unstained by the world’ have more or less separated themselves from it. Others have interpreted Paul’s statement about ‘becoming all things to all men in order that I might win some’ so literally as to be indistinguishable from those they claim to be evangelizing.

We live in a world that to our limited vision looks to be growing more evil all the time. Open hostility to Christianity and the Gospel appears to be on the rise. If we take a long view of history I think we’d see it’s not the case, but for the sake of discussion let’s allow that it is.  The question remains: how are Christians to relate to the world as we fulfill our role as Christ’s ambassadors and members of his body, the church?

It seems the Preacher of the book of Ecclesiastes was right: there is nothing new under the sun. There are still two bodies of thought offered as a solution to this problem. The first: Christians can choose to withdraw from those institutions, businesses, and organizations that are openly hostile to the Christian faith. Homeschool your children, patronize ‘Christian’ businesses and boycott/protest those espouse antiChristian positions. The other: work through established channels to promote a more moral society and return us to the ‘Christian’ nation we once were. The same old answers wrapped up in new packaging.

If we pursue the first course of action, we may find it easier to keep the more corrupting influences at bay but we minimize our influence on the world. How are we to be salt and light if we never go to the people and places that need them? If we choose to live within our walled communities we may keep ourselves ‘unstained by the world’ but we deny the mission we’ve been given.

On the other hand, if we think we can bring the nation back to God through the pursuit of political power and election of the “right” people we deceive ourselves. The tools of government and politics were never designed to accomplish God’s purposes. Legislated force may bring about obedience but it’s incapable of changing hearts and minds, which is the purpose of evangelism. The saying from several years ago still is true: morality cannot be legislated. Christians run the risk of being corrupted by the worldly tools they attempt to use. If we deal with the world on their terms, using their means to accomplish our ends, we may very well end up being just like the world we wish to overcome.

I offer as evidence all the political posts on social media by my brothers and sisters in Christ. While the language may not be as vile, the venom and hatred (yes, hatred) directed at those in authority or of opposing political views is often indistinguishable from non-believers. Those posts imply the same feelings toward fellow Christians who may be in that group. I wish we would express at least as much ‘righteous indignation’ over what Satan is doing to the world, our families,  and the church as we do in the diatribes about political opinions.

Therein lies the crux of my dilemma. We speak of having ‘dual citizenship’, an earthly one and one in the kingdom of God. But do we? If we are in the world but not of it, what do we actually owe the governing powers of wherever it is that we live? The Bible tells us to pray for those in authority, but for a specific reason: “that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way” (I Timothy 2:2). We are instructed to pay our taxes and respect the law (at least those which do not violate God’s commands). Aside from the general (and often misused) phrase “submit to the authorities” in Romans 13 (which Paul defines through the preceding instructions), these are all the specifics I find referring to the responsibilities of our “earthly” citizenship.

While I continue to ponder this question, my allegiance is to my primary citizenship- the kingdom of God. My earthly citizenship is an accident of birth; my heavenly one was made by choice. My “earthly” citizenship is now defined by my heavenly one, and it is to demonstrate that heaven holds my first allegiance. My marching orders come from the One who is my true King, and they have authority no matter where I happen to live on this earth.