How Are Christians Set Apart?

How are Christians set apart or distinct from the unbelieving world? When push comes to shove, would any observer be able to pick today’s edgy/authentic/real/raw/not-your-grandmother’s Christian out of the proverbial crowd? In what ways are we embodying the call to be salt and light, a city on a hill (Matt. 5:13–16), and a “royal priesthood” called out of darkness and into light (1 Peter 2:9)?

These questions have nagged at me for a number of years, as I’ve witnessed younger evangelical Christians (myself included) more often blending in with the dark than advancing the light. When I go to parties with Christian friends, and then parties with non-Christian friends, I often lament that they are observably indistinguishable.

We are the same in how we talk: the petty subjects of conversation, the toxic cynicism lacing our speech, the obscene language, the general negativity … same.

We are the same in the way we dress, the way we drink, the way we smoke, the movies and TV we watch, the music we listen to, the pop culture we consume, and the way we cordon off “spirituality” in a manner that keeps it from interfering with our pursuits of pleasure.

We are the same (maybe worse) in the way we shred each other to pieces in the blogosphere, caddily gossip about each others’ social media posts, and jump to complaining before we think about complementing.

It’s all the same… And we wonder why so few bother with Christianity anymore. By the looks of many Christians, it offers nothing radically different or new.

Of course it’s easy to understand how it came to this. Many of my generation grew up in an evangelicalism that was perhaps too excited about its different-ness; it separated from “the world” and created its own media empires, with churches that tended to pull in and hunker down while the rest of the world went to hell in a handbasket. All of this left an understandably bad taste in many of our mouths for the concept of being “set apart” vis-a-vis the world. If all our difference amounts to is cheaper, sanitized versions of the same consumer culture pervading everything else, it just feels a bit phony.

But let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater. Just because previous generations have gone about Christian “difference” in perhaps less than ideal ways, it doesn’t change the fact that the call remains: to be set apart; to “be holy, for I am holy” (1 Peter 2:16). Swinging the pendulum in the opposite direction to the extent that holiness is altogether absent is not a helpful solution.

The thing about holiness, though, is that the point of it is not to steer clear of all that is unholy; it’s not about retreating from “the world” and existing in some perfect space untainted by temptations and immoral sights and sounds. This only leads to legalism and a neutered, irrelevant witness.

Rather, the point of holiness is positive: to live in the world, reflecting Christ and his holiness outward in the way that we live our lives. Holiness is more complicated than just abstaining from a checklist of vices. Does holiness require us to avoid certain activities? Certainly. But fleeing from potential hazards is only part of the story.

Should there be a noticeable difference between Christians and “the world”? Yes. Christians are called to be holy, set apart, sojourners and exiles in this world, bearing witness to the gospel through the way that they live. But the difference between the church and culture is not a “hard” difference, notes Miroslav Volf in his analysis of 1 Peter (a key text on the nature of Christian difference).

For Christians, the distance from society that comes from the new birth in Christ is not meant to isolate from society, notes Volf, but rather serves the mission: “Without distance, churches can only give speeches that others have written for them and only go places where others lead them. To make a difference, one must be different.”

Volf goes on to describe this “missionary distance” in 1 Peter as “soft difference,” which is not to say weak difference:

It is strong, but it is not hard. Fear for oneself and one’s identity creates hardness. … In the mission to the world, hard difference operates with open or hidden pressures, manipulation, and threats. A decision for soft difference, on the other hand, presupposes a fearlessness which 1 Peter repeatedly encourages his readers to assume (3:14; 3:6). People who are secure in themselves — more accurately, who are secure in their God — are able to live the soft difference without fear. They have no need either to subordinate or damn others, but can allow others space to be themselves. For people who live the soft difference, mission fundamentally takes the form of witness and invitation. They seek to win others without pressure or manipulation, sometimes even “without a word” (3:1).

Rather than an embattled, separatist, or hard-line “holiness vs. worldiness” approach to culture, I think Christians would do well to adopt Volf’s “soft difference” mindset. Again, this is not to say the church should deny any difference from the world, or that it should be tepid or weak in its different-ness; it’s just to say that we shouldn’t wield our difference as a weapon in a culture war, attacking the world for its worldliness and positioning ourselves arrogantly and with an oppositional attitude. Rather, our differentness should be positive, attractive, desirable. It should be conversational, relational. It’s about witness. We should keep our conduct “honorable” for a missional purpose: so the world would “glorify God” (1 Peter 2:12).

For the sake of Christ-like holiness, it may very well be the honorable thing for a Christian to abstain from some cultural activities or media choices that may be “permissible” but perhaps not beneficial. But those choices should be lived out as a positive affirmation of one’s convictions rather than a negative chastisement of others, as if anyone who does partake in such things is evil and dangerous.

Insofar as Christian identity is different from that of the surrounding culture (and it should be), it is a difference that is, according to theologian Darian Lockett, “constructed along the lines of its own internal vision of wholeness before God, and not through a negative process of rejecting outsiders.”

We are a people chosen by God, set apart for kingdom purposes, charged with a task of being light in the darkness. The salt of the earth. But is our light shining? Is our salt losing its saltiness? That question should haunt us. Because it’s not just about us. It’s about our credibility and effectiveness on mission for Christ.

We Christians need to stop overcompensating for the wrongheaded approaches to culture that our forebears might have had. Getting drunk proves nothing other than the fact that we can lift a glass of alcohol. Smoking and cussing doesn’t prove we are “more accessible” or “authentic” Christians; it proves we can suck in tobacco fumes and use our lips to utter four letter words. Oh, and it also might prove that we’d rather look like everyone else than be identifiably “set apart,” which probably also communicates that following Christ is in fact as superficial as some skeptics assert.

Friends: let’s stop deluding ourselves in thinking that by shirking holiness we’re advancing the cause of Christ by “breaking stereotypes” people might have of Christians. All we’re actually doing is demeaning the name of Christ by cheapening the cost of discipleship. We can do better than that.

This is the first in a series of posts on contemporary Christianity’s relationship to culture, based on ideas from my soon-to-be released book, Gray Matters: Navigating the Space Between Legalism and Liberty (Baker Books).

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7 responses to “How Are Christians Set Apart?

  1. There is so much truth and wisdom in this message for people of all ages.

  2. terrence gooden

    I’m living this reality out right now. I recently started my first “retail” job(non0church job). This is the first time I’ve ever worked in a secular environment that has nothing to do with me being a musician. I didn’t go in the door hitting anyone over the head with my Bible! I just tried to do my job well and glorify God through my actions,manners,etc. A co-worker approached me one day during a task and asked me what my thoughts on religion/God were. I was a little suprised that he brought it up. But he went on to say that there had been a situation earlier in the month when he and his girlfriend observed my response to another co-worker during a conversation. After they left the job,his girlfriend told him that my response made sense because I was a Christian. He said that he hadn’t really thought of that,but he knew I was a musician at a church. All of that prompted him to ask me about my beliefs. My response to the other co-worker must have reflected something good! My co-worker said that he didn’t know I was a Christian but my response at that moment stood out to him as something different than normal. I was so happy to be able to attach that difference to the fact that I’m a living a life following Jesus! It was that “soft difference” that he noticed. And after that moment, I think he continued to watch me and even measure how I did my job in light of the fact that I proclaimed to be a Christian. I can only pray that I will continue to be a light and point to Jesus.

    • Thanks for this comment Terrence! That is such a great story and example of the impact that our “soft difference” can make.

  3. Great read. I really appreciate your thoughts on this. One of the biggest topics that I’d be interested in knowing how to approach with a “soft difference” mentality is same-sex marriage. How do we as Christians show that we’re set apart without doing things the “hard difference” way?

    • Thanks Calvin. I think “soft difference” approach does become harder on issues in our culture that are so divisive and bifurcated, like same-sex marriage. The cultural rhetoric surrounding this issue seems to not allow for “soft” anything… so even if a Christian maintains a traditional view on same-sex marriage and does so “softly,” without bullhorns and hate mongering, they still might be labeled intolerant bigots and forced into a “hard” battle. Still, I think my advice here would be the same as in other cultural matters: Our difference should be real, and evident, but it should not be something that we trumpet or grandstand about. Our “difference” should in reality just be our continued commitment to following Christ and obeying his commandments. As the culture diverges further from this and towards secular pluralism, WE are the ones that look increasingly “different” for daring to submit ourselves to an Authority higher than the “sovereign self.”

  4. Thanks for the thoughtful reply Brett. Aliens we are. But kind ones at that, a.k.a. E.T.

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