“You are the light of the world” Matthew 5:14
“Do not love the world” 1 John 2:15
What is the relationship between faithful believers, and the world in which we live? The bible presents this as a complex, nuanced picture, where there is movement between two poles, of positive engagement with the world, and cautious differentiation from it.
On one hand, God’s people are encouraged to play an active role in making the world a better place now, as well as pointing to eternity. Jeremiah urges the Jews in Babylon, hankering after their lost home, to “seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile (29:7). Jesus said to his disciples “you are the salt of the earth…light of the world”; the good deeds of Christians will have a positive influence among unbelievers (Matt 5:13-16). Zacchaeus demonstrated generosity and just restitution to those he had wronged (Luke 19:8); Paul calmed panic with godly wisdom (Acts 27:33-39); Luke was a doctor.
At creation, human beings were given authority to ‘subdue’ the earth. This does not mean to exploit and damage the environment and other people for selfish purposes (this has become a result of sin). Rather it means that as image-bearers of God, we have agency, some measure of control of ourselves, some power to affect the world and the lives of others around us.
Sin disastrously corrupted this human agency, and the principle of decay and death took over, limiting what humans can achieve without God. But those with faith in Christ can take up the creation mandate to do good with confidence. We don’t have to hide away in fear with heads down, believing that we can’t help make improvements to what we see around us through our choices. We are not passive observers, mere victims of what others decide for us, because “those who receive God’s abundant provision of grace and the gift of righteousness will reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ” (Romans 5:17).
So Christians should be actively involved in the business of the world, as a means of exercising our God- given ministries, in education, health, parenting, building, law, media, food provision and so on, as well as being part of the church, offering acceptable worship to God and conveying the good news of the gospel.
And yet, at the same time, the bible sees the world as full of the idolatry, greed, lust and pride of human hearts, and underlying these human sins, spiritual chaos which originates in an evil intelligence. Jesus’ analysis, revealed in his great prayer in Gethsemane, is striking: the world hates those who belong to Christ, and so he prays for our protection from evil (John 17:15). There are times when believers are called to flee a spiritually destructive environment (Gen 19:15-17; Rev 18:4-5); or like Daniel, to remain in the world while adopting a posture of resistance to its values and ideologies - what Paul calls the “elemental spiritual forces” (Col 2:8; 20).
So the bible portrays “the world” as a place of hostility to God and his people, through which satan looks to derail our faith through persecution and temptation. We should not love the world (1 John 2:15), and yet God loves the world. This paradox calls for discernment on the part of the church: aversion to sin and evil, while retaining respect for what God has made and love for sheep without a shepherd. So often in the church’s history there has been a failure on both counts: following the world, being indistinguishable from it, taking on its values, while not expending enough energy and prayer in reaching the lost and caring for the casualties of lies, hubris, immorality, idolatry, injustice, greed.
In the light of this, the church’s calling becomes more clear. To equip disciples to do two things. Firstly, to identify the sinful ways of the world in contrast to God’s ways, so that we can develop an inward psychological and spiritual (and sometimes physical and structural) detachment from the world’s wrong thinking and practice and a closer relationship with Christ. Secondly, to engage positively and confidently with the creation and great commission mandates, to build, plant, care and be creative, and to witness to the good news of salvation, whether these activities bring approval, indifference or persecution from the world.
In any one culture there are always pressures to conform to the world; we don’t always see the issues clearly, and can really benefit from the insights of other wise fellow travellers from outside our situation. We also need models of churches in other contexts where, without being perfect, they have managed to balance witness to and care for the world (shown in church growth and community social action), with critical distance from ungodly cultural trends, even to the point of being persecuted. This is why being part of the Gafcon movement is so helpful. Gafcon GBE exists to bring together and be a voice for Anglicans in our region committed to working out what it means to combine holiness with missional engagement, as part of the global church.