Tag Archives: Miroslav Volf

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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An Evangelical Manifesto

In an impressive display of solidarity, intelligence, and single-mindedness, a group of Evangelical leaders recently drafted “An Evangelical Manifesto” which attempts to “address the confusions and corruptions that have attended the term Evangelical” and “to clarify where we stand on issues that have caused consternation over Evangelicals in public life.” The document was officially announced and released in Washington D.C. on May 7.

It’s a breath of fresh air at a time when the term “Evangelical” is coming under assault both inside and outside the church. In contrast to many of the “emerging church” folks who are ready to abandon the much-maligned term, this group is holding fast to the E-word: “We boldly declare that, if we make clear what we mean by the term, we are unashamed to be Evangelical and Evangelicals” (notice the capitalization of Evangelical). On the other hand, the document strongly repudiates the hyper-politicized nature of contemporary Evangelicalism, hoping to expand the concept of “Evangelical” beyond the social issues (abortion, gay marriage) that have preoccupied it in recent years (at least in the perceptions of the media).

Among the 80+ signers of the document are Os Guiness, Richard Mouw, Kelly Monroe Kullberg, Mark Noll, Ron Sider, Miroslav Volf, and Duane Litfin (President of my alma mater, Wheaton College). Notably absent are several evangelical stalwarts like Gary Bauer, Tony Perkins, and James Dobson, who likely were not comfortable attaching their name to a document so critical of the evangelical right’s militant engagement in the culture wars.

I’m happy to sign my name to the document, and I did.

It’s a beautifully-written piece of prose, a comprehensive and timely articulation of how the Church can unite and thoughtfully proceed in this rapidly changing culture. It’s full of great ideas and great passages, so I urge you to read through the whole thing. Here are some of my favorite parts of the 19 page document:

  • “Contrary to widespread misunderstanding today, we Evangelicals should be defined theologically, and not politically, socially, or culturally.” (4)
  • “To be Evangelical, and to define our faith and our lives by the Good News of Jesus as taught in Scripture, is to submit our lives entirely to the lordship of Jesus and to the truths and the way of life that he requires of his followers, in order that they might become like him, live the way he taught, and believe as he believed.” (5)
  • “The Evangelical message, “good news” by definition, is overwhelmingly positive, and always positive before it is negative. There is an enormous theological and cultural importance to “the power of No,” especially in a day when “Everything is permitted” and “It is forbidden to forbid.” Just as Jesus did, Evangelicals sometimes have to make strong judgments about what is false, unjust, and evil. But first and foremost we Evangelicals are for Someone and for something rather than against anyone or anything.” (8)
  • “Evangelicalism should be distinguished from two opposite tendencies to which Protestantism has been prone: liberal revisionism and conservative fundamentalism.” (8)
  • “To be Evangelical is earlier and more enduring than to be Protestant.” (10)
  • “We confess that we Evangelicals have betrayed our beliefs by our behavior. All too often we have trumpeted the gospel of Jesus, but we have replaced biblical truths with therapeutic techniques, worship with entertainment, discipleship with growth in human potential, church growth with business entrepreneurialism, concern for the church and for the local congregation with expressions of the faith that are churchless and little better than a vapid spirituality, meeting real needs with pandering to felt needs, and mission principles with marketing precepts. In the process we have become known for commercial, diluted, and feel-good gospels of health, wealth, human potential, and religious happy talk, each of which is indistinguishable from the passing fashions of the surrounding world.” (11)
  • “All too often we have disobeyed the great command to love the Lord our God with our hearts, souls, strength, and minds, and have fallen into an unbecoming anti-intellectualism that is a dire cultural handicap as well as a sin. In particular, some among us have betrayed the strong Christian tradition of a high view of science, epitomized in the very matrix of ideas that gave birth to modern science, and made themselves vulnerable to caricatures of the false hostility between science and faith. By doing so, we have unwittingly given comfort to the unbridled scientism and naturalism that are so rampant in our culture today.” (12)
  • “We call for an expansion of our concern beyond single-issue politics, such as abortion and marriage, and a fuller recognition of the comprehensive causes and concerns of the Gospel, and of all the human issues that must be engaged in public life. Although we cannot back away from our biblically rooted commitment to the sanctity of every human life, including those unborn, nor can we deny the holiness of marriage as instituted by God between one man and one woman, we must follow the model of Jesus, the Prince of Peace, engaging the global giants of conflict, racism, corruption, poverty, pandemic diseases, illiteracy, ignorance, and spiritual emptiness, by promoting reconciliation, encouraging ethical servant leadership, assisting the poor, caring for the sick, and educating the next generation.” (13-14)
  • “Called to an allegiance higher than party, ideology, and nationality, we Evangelicals see it our duty to engage with politics, but our equal duty never to be completely equated with any party, partisan ideology, economic system, or nationality. In our scales, spiritual, moral, and social power are as important as political power, what is right outweighs what is popular, just as principle outweighs party, truth matters more than team-playing, and conscience more than power and survival. The politicization of faith is never a sign of strength but of weakness.” (15)
  • “Our commitment is to a civil public square — a vision of public life in which citizens of all faiths are free to enter and engage the public square on the basis of their faith, but within a framework of what is agreed to be just and free for other faiths too. Thus every right we assert for ourselves is at once a right we defend for others.” (17)
  • “We utterly deplore the dangerous alliance between church and state, and the oppression that was its dark fruit. We Evangelicals trace our heritage, not to Constantine, but to the very different stance of Jesus of Nazareth. While some of us are pacifists and others are advocates of just war, we all believe that Jesus’ Good News of justice for the whole world was promoted, not by a conqueror’s power and sword, but by a suffering servant emptied of power and ready to die for the ends he came to achieve.” (18)