Dear Church Family,
In the sermon this past Sunday from John 15:17-16:4, we saw how Jesus foretold of the inevitable conflict between Christians and the world. The world hated Jesus, therefore it will hate His followers; the world persecuted Jesus, therefore it will persecute those who belong to Him (John 15:18-20). But, believes are not simply to keep from stumbling in the midst of hatred and persecution (John 16:1). We are called to testify about Jesus; and, Jesus promised to send the Holy Spirit to testify with us, as well (John 15:26-27).
‘In the world, but not of the world’
From Jesus’ teaching in this passage, together with what Jesus prays for His Church in John 17:14-16, a common expression has arisen to describe the Church’s relationship to the world. We say that the Church is ‘in the world, but not of the world.’ This is a helpful descriptor and one that is worthwhile to explore. But first, it might help if we define the terms “Church” and “world.”
The Westminster Confession of Faith gives a good and helpful definition of the visible Church which can be summarized as “all those that profess the true religion (faith in Jesus Christ) and their children.”
The term “world” can be a little bit harder to define because it can have various meanings depending on the context. For instance, “world” can refer to the physical planet we live on (e.g., God made the world through His Son, Hebrews 1:2). Or, “world” can refer to the whole of the human race (e.g., God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, John 3:16). But, as Jesus uses the term in John 15 and 17, there is a moral quality to the word – a bent moral quality to refer to those who are not united to Christ and therefore opposed to Him and His people.
In his first epistle, the Apostle John gives a succinct and helpful definition of the “world” as it is used in this way (1 John 2:16):
For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the boastful pride of life, is not from the Father, but is from the world.
John describes that which is in the world and from the world as being characterized by three things: (1) “the lust of the flesh” (the inward desire of our fallen and sinful nature); (2) “the lust of the eyes” (the outward temptations and assaults that feed the lusts of the flesh); and (3) “the boastful pride of life” (the pretentiousness of materialism, boasting in what you do and what you have).
Alternative and Parallel
I have found that one of the best ways to think about what it means for the Church to be ‘in the world, but not of the world’ comes from Marva Dawn in her book, Is It A Lost Cause? Having the Heart of God for the Church’s Children. This is an excellent book – a must read, in my opinion – for anyone involved in children’s ministry in the Church. But, it’s much more than that. The book is an examination of what it means to be the Church in our postmodern context and how Christians can teach and train their children to believe and live differently from the world. So, it is an helpful book for all Christians, and especially Christian parents.
In the book, Dawn uses the terms ‘alternative’ and ‘parallel’ to describe the relationship of the Church to the world – what it means to be ‘in the world, but not of the world’:
Because we take our direction from the Trinity and the Revelation [from God and the Bible], because we are citizens first of heaven, God’s people are a society parallel to the world surrounding us. When we gather for worship and education, we tell the narratives of the faith, sing our hymns, and say our prayers until we know the truth so well that we and our children can go out to our neighbors and offer alternatives to the lies of the principalities and powers that dominate U.S. society. As royal priests, we offer to the world around us the gifts of the One who is the Truth, the Way, and the Life.
I like both words, alternative and parallel, for describing the Church. To be parallel keeps us from being so alternative that we don’t relate to our neighbors; to be alternative prevents our parallel line from moving closer and closer to modes of life alien to the kingdom of God. Rather than becoming enculturated and entrapped by the world’s values of materialistic consumerism, of narcissistic self-aggrandizement, of solitary superficiality, and of ephemeral satisfaction, members of Christ’s Body choose his simple lifestyle of sharing, his willingness to suffer for the sake of others, his communal vulnerability, and his eternal purposes. By continual hearing and study of God’s Word we and our children are equipped with new visions of God’s hear for our mission and ministry of communicating the Christian story, of enfolding our neighbors in God’s love, of deliberately choosing and living out the alternative values of the kingdom of God. (Marva Dawn, Is It a Lost Cause? Having the Heart of God for the Church’s Children, 49)
Finding the balance of being alternative and parallel in its relationship to the world is key for the Church’s health, growth, and obedience to her Lord. Christians can be so heavenly minded so as to be of no earthly good (alternative but not parallel to the world). But, it is equally true that Christians can be so earthly minded so as to be of no heavenly good (parallel but not alternative to the world).
Our identity as followers of Christ in being both alternative and parallel to the world is something that is especially important to remember when the Church is hated and persecuted by the world. On the one hand, we may be tempted to flee to our own Christian ghettos in an effort to inappropriately avoid persecution, but then we cease to be the salt of the earth and light of the world (Matthew 5:11-16). On the other hand, we may be tempted to conform to the ways of the world in an effort to inappropriately avoid persecution, but then we cease to appear as lights in the world, children of God above reproach in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation (Philippians 2:14-16).
But, Jesus forewarned that His Church would be hated and persecuted not so that we could hide or conform to the world in order to avoid persecution. He told us these things so that, as an alternative and parallel society, we might testify about Jesus and not stumble in our faith (John 15:26-16:1).
The Lord be with you!
- Pastor Peter M. Dietsch