And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.
Public school, private school, or homeschool? Is it a sin for Christians to dance or consume alcohol? Perhaps you’ve found yourself in the midst of a heated debate on one of these topics before. At their root is this question:
“How should Christians interact with the culture around them?”
There are myriads of other questions stemming from this root and the answers get divisive and complicated quick. Should a Christian separate from culture? Or assimilate? One person brings his stack of Bible verses to support side A and another a different stack of verses to support side B. How should one think biblically about these divisions when both sides use the Bible to support their view? First let’s walk through the two options:
Take schooling for example. Chris Christian says, “sending your kids to public school is sending them to an enemy training ground. We are to be holy as He is holy, separate from the world and its systems.” To be sure there is a good amount of truth to this (hence they are able to find Bible verses to support this position). However, a cursory glance through the New Testament and one would see this attitude amongst the Pharisees. After all, their name means “the separate ones.” While separating from the culture around us is at times necessary, it is not the sole means of our identity as Christians. No one received more criticism than the Pharisees. This type of mentality tends to be prevalent in the more “fundamentalist” veins of Christendom, or those with right-leaning political ideologies. At times their separation is right and just, at other times it is excessive, at its worst it can be divisive and result in an arrogant superiority.
If those to the right tend to err on separating from culture, those on the left will tend to assimilate. Keeping with the example of schooling, Fred Follower says, “we should all send our kids to public school so they can be light and salt to the other students.” Again, the biblical support for this is there. However, just because the culture around us offers us options doesn’t mean we always have to accept them without question. It’s easy to see this in the New Testament if one reads carefully through Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. The Corinthian church so resembled the culture around it that one could hardly tell the difference between the two. In fact, Paul reports on a sexual relationship between a young man and his father’s wife and says that even the nonbelievers would find that offensive (1 Cor. 5:1)!
We need to take care that we don’t lose the peculiarity of following Christ, there should be something noticeably different about us that attracts nonbelievers. We should retain the salt and the light. There’s a better option than separating or assimilating:
Unfortunately for those of us living on this side of the Fall, we tend to by myopic and imbalanced at how we live out grace and truth. Perhaps you can relate to a time when you were so accepting and loving of someone that you showed them grace to the neglect of the presence of truth. This can lead to accepting sin, which is unloving and wrong. On the other hand, we can all relate to giving someone unfiltered truth that is offensive and lacks grace. Those moments never improve our relationships.
Despite our sinful shortcomings, Jesus embodied both of these attributes perfectly and simultaneously. He incarnates. He takes on flesh and enters the sinful world. He eats with sinners and prostitutes, the sinners in need of grace. He also eats with Pharisees and Scribes, the self-righteous. The harshest words He spoke were often to the Pharisees, yet He still extends grace to all. To be like Christ we must incarnate. We must not lock ourselves inside a Christian bubble with impenetrable walls, but we also must avoid looking too much like the culture. We should be in the world but not of the world. Salt only flavors the food when it mixes with it, but must remain salt or else it loses its flavor.
Which side do you lean to? Grace or truth? Assimilation or separation?
There is a discernment process involved in navigating these waters. As I’ve written elsewhere, we must learn what things we can accept, what we can adapt, and what we must avoid when it comes to interacting with the culture around us.