The Bible calls the church to reject conformity and live in holy worldliness
John 14: 6; Acts 4: 12; Romans 12: 2; 1 Peter 1: 16
The church has a double calling: on the one hand to live in the world, and on the other not to conform to the world. The first is a call to worldliness, as opposed to otherworldliness—getting involved in the life of the world around us. The second is the call to holiness. We are not free to respond to one call without the other. We cannot keep our holiness by escaping from the world, nor may we sacrifice our holiness by conforming to the world. Escapism and conformism are forbidden to Christians. Instead we are to combine both callings to involvement and to separation. We're called to holy worldliness.
We are exposed on every side to cultural pressures. These pressures are often incompatible with the Lordship of Jesus Christ. If we capitulate to the pressures of society around us, then we compromise our integrity, we blunt our testimony and we suffocate our spiritual life.
One of the major themes of the Bible is that God is calling out a people for himself—for his possession and for his glory—and that he calls his people to be different from the world around them. He says, "Be holy because I am holy." This theme is found in each of the 4 major sections of the Bible: the law, the prophets, the gospels and the rest of the NT.
Begin with the law - - God says through Moses to his people, "You shall not do what they do in the land of Egypt where you used to live, and you shall not do as they do in the land of Canaan into which I'm bringing you. You shall not follow their practices. You must obey my laws and follow my decrees." There is a call to radical nonconformity. They were not to conform to the ways of either the Egyptians or the Canaanites but to be different from surrounding culture.
Prophets - God's complaint to the people - - very similar: "You have not followed my decrees. You have not kept my laws. But you have conformed to the standards of the nations around you." God complains that his people were conformists.
: "They imitated the nations around them, although the Lord had ordered them, 'Do not do as they do.'"
The teaching of Jesus in the Gospels - : "Do not be like them." In the epistles - well-known call of the apostle Paul – Romans 12: 2: "Do not conform any longer to the fashions of the world around you."
This is the radical biblical call to nonconformity to the surrounding culture. Now we need to ask ourselves, What are the pressures of our culture to which we are forbidden to conform? What are the contemporary trends which threaten to envelop and engulf the church and against which we need to be on guard? I have selected 3 - I'm sure there are many more we could discuss, but these 3 are very important.
First - challenge of pluralism: the church is called to be a community of truth. Second - challenge of materialism: the church is called to be a community of pilgrimage. Third - challenge of moral relativism: the church is called to be a community of righteousness. In each case we'll try to understand the contemporary trend, evaluate its challenge and consider how the church should respond to it.
1. The Challenge of Pluralism
Postmodernism says that there is no such thing as objective truth. The only truth is what seems to be true to me - may be different from what seems to be true to you. The name for this aspect of postmodernism is pluralism. Pluralism does not just affirm the obvious fact that there is a plurality of cultures, ideologies and religions in the world. It goes beyond that. It says that all these claims should be respected equally. Pluralism is an ideology that affirms the validity of every system or faith. We must therefore give up the naïve and arrogant notion that we should try to convert anybody, let alone try to convert everybody. To those who have embraced pluralism nothing is more obnoxious than the Christian claim to uniqueness and the concept of world mission.
How should Christians respond to today's pluralistic mood? With great humility and with no element of personal superiority or arrogance, we have to maintain that there is such a thing as objective truth. God has revealed himself to the world not only in the ordered loveliness of creation but supremely in Jesus Christ and in the biblical witness to Christ. Jesus Christ is God's Son, the Word, who became a historical human being. He is the rock on which the church is built, and the church has no liberty to tamper with its own foundations. Its calling is to defend and preserve the truth that has been entrusted to it and to proclaim it without fear or favour to the whole world. The existence of truth is fundamental to the life of the church. The church is a community of truth. The church is built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, and it is a community confessing, guarding and communicating and being committed to the truth.
We have to maintain the uniqueness and the finality of that historic person, the God-Man, Jesus of Nazareth. The uniqueness of Jesus is found supremely in 3 things:
Jesus of Nazareth was and is the one and only God-Man, perfect in godhead and perfect in manhood, fully divine and fully human. Christianity is an historical religion. If you could disprove that God became human in the person of Jesus, then Christianity is doomed. Almighty God took human nature to himself in the person of Jesus of Nazareth once and for all, and he has never laid aside the humanity that he assumed. The God-Man Christ Jesus is at the right hand of the Father today in glory.
The gospel claims that God took the initiative in Jesus Christ to identify himself completely with human beings. He not only took our human nature in his birth, but he took our sin, guilt and condemnation to himself in his death. So he lived our life and he died our death instead of us. On the cross God satisfied both his love and his justice, opening the way to welcome us home to himself without either condoning our sin or compromising his justice. There is nothing like this in any other religion. Others place the initiative in our hands. Every other religion is, in the end, a religion of human merit and human initiative.
By affirming that Jesus rose from the dead, we do not merely mean his personality survived death or that his influence continues in the world. We mean that his body was raised from death so that death was defeated. His resurrection body will never die. The resurrection is different from the resuscitations that Jesus did during his public ministry. Lazarus had to die again. But Jesus rose from the dead and was changed, never to die again.
There is no other religion that makes a claim like that. Other religions look back to their founders and celebrate their teachings. But Christians see Jesus as more than a dead teacher of the past. He is our living, resurrected Lord, available and accessible to those who call on him. We know him. We desire to live in the power of his resurrection.
His incarnation, his atonement and his resurrection - 3 fundamental events in the saving career of Jesus - equally unique. Only in Jesus of Nazareth did God become human in his birth, bear our sin in his death and triumph over death in his resurrection. He has no rivals. He has no competitors. He has no successors. I beg you, brothers and sisters, lift up your voices without fear and proclaim the uniqueness of our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ. I beg you not to give in to the pressures of pluralism.
2. The Challenge of Materialism
The Western world is affluent in contrast to the developing world. Such wealth is taken for granted by us who live in the West, and it leads to materialism. Rejection of materialism is not a rejection of the material order. On the contrary, we believe in a God who created the material order. Materialism means a preoccupation with material things. In defiance of Jesus' teaching, the spirit of materialism has seeped into the church and has corrupted many professing Christian men and women. Jesus said, "Don't store up for yourselves treasures on earth" (). He also said, "Beware of covetousness. A human life does not consist in the abundance of our possessions" (). In other words, there is more to life than property and money.
Jesus warned us not only against greed and materialism but against a false ambition—preoccupation with what we eat and drink and wear. Our supreme preoccupation should be with the glory of God, the kingdom of God, the name of God. Materialism involves constant concern with my needs and my material comfort. That is a hopelessly inadequate ambition for the children of God. We are called to be ambitious for God and not ambitious for ourselves.
The apostle Paul also calls us to a lifestyle of simplicity and contentment - "I have learned in whatever state I am therewith to be content" (). "Godliness with contentment is great gain, for we brought nothing into this world and we shall take nothing out of it." () Job put it, "Naked I came from my mother's womb and naked I shall return." Have you ever considered, brothers and sisters, that human life is a pilgrimage between 2 moments of nakedness? We would be wise to travel light because there is no doubt that we shall leave everything behind. The church is a community of pilgrimage.
Paul says that if we have food and clothing and shelter and the necessities of life, let us be content. Covetous people fall into a trap: "The love of money is a root of all kinds of evil." We must be concerned about the material world because God has given us a material body and put us in a material universe. Yet we always need to remember that we're pilgrims travelling home to God. We're citizens of 2 kingdoms, but we very often forget the eternal kingdom in our preoccupation with the temporary one. May God deliver us from materialism.
3. The Challenge of Moral Relativism
All around us moral standards are slipping. It used to be assumed that absolute truth exists in opposition to error and absolute goodness exists in opposition to evil. But nobody seems sure of these things any longer. People are confused whether there are any absolutes left. Instead of truth, pluralism reigns; instead of righteousness, relativism reigns. The church is a community of righteousness. Moral relativism has permeated our culture and seeped into the church.
“It all depends on where you are and it all depends on who you are.
It all depends on what you feel, and it all depends on how you feel.
It all depends on how you're raised, and it all depends on what is praised.
What's right today is wrong tomorrow. Joy in France and England's sorrow.
It all depends on point of view, Australia or Timbuktu. In Rome do as the Romans do.
If tastes just happen to agree, then you have morality.
But where there are conflicting trends it all depends; it all depends.”
The most obvious example of moral relativism is in sexual ethics. It used to be almost universally accepted, at least in countries influenced by the Judeo-Christian ethic, that marriage is a monogamous, heterosexual, lifelong union, and it is the only God-given context for sexual intimacy or intercourse. But nowadays, even in the church, living together before marriage is widely accepted. Homosexual partnerships are being proposed as a legitimate alternative to heterosexual marriage. 1 in 2 marriages ends in divorce in this country.
But over against these trends, Jesus Christ calls his disciples to obedience. Any concept of obedience is impossible if there are no moral standards we are called to obey. Obedience presupposes such absolutes. Jesus said, "Whoever has my commands and keeps them is the one who loves me. The one who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I too will love them and show myself to them" (). There we learn that the only way to prove we love Christ is by our obedience. We don't prove we love him by making promises of loyalty. Simon Peter did this and went straight off to betray him. We don't persuade anybody of our love for Jesus by singing sentimental songs in church: "Jesus, I love you." That doesn't prove we love him at all. The only way to prove we love Christ is by our obedience.
He rewards our obedience. If we love him, he will love us and will show himself to us. So many of us long to know Christ better - so that he is real in our human experience. How can we come to know Christ? He will make himself known to his lovers, those who obey him.
Christians have no freedom either to disagree with Jesus or to disobey him. "You call me Teacher and Lord. You are right, that is what I am." In other words, to call him teacher and master is not just a courtesy title. He is what we say he is, and we have no freedom to disagree with our teacher and no liberty to disobey our master. In submitting to the authority of Jesus as Lord, we find our freedom.