How many of you are like Linus over there and totally hate someone? Okay, maybe not hate, but how many of you “severely dislike” someone in your life? It could be a co-worker, a classmate, your boss…a member of your family…
Chances are, there will be some people in your life that you won’t really like. It’s natural right? We’re all so different and sometimes those differences just get in the way….
Okay, another question: How many of you hate all people as a whole?
… Unless you’re a moody teenager or an endangered species, you probably answered “no” to this question. I mean, how can we make a generalization like that?
“All people? Well, I’m a person, so no way!”
People often times love humanity and are despicable towards individual human beings. It’s easy to love everyone as a whole because it’s a generalized notion of who people are as a species or a community. It’s a whole lot harder to love our neighbors as individuals, especially if we know them really well.
But the Bible tells us that we must hate the world and love our neighbor. We are supposed to have great contempt for humanity as a whole, but great love for the individuals who enter into our lives.
Some may object, saying “But God loved the world didn’t he? He sent it only son here!”.
Well, that’s true… which it why it’s difficult to understand why we are called to hate the world that God loves so dearly.
A look at two passages of the Apostle John reveals this intrinsic tension. On the one hand, as the former argument references, John writes, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son” (John 3:16). On the other hand, he tells us, “Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in Him” (1 John 2:15).
The issue is clear. We are in the world, a world that God loves, and a world in which we have a purpose. And yet we are not of this world (we were created by something divine, not the the mundane earth), and we should guard against falling in love with this world.
The New Testament often uses the word “world” (“kosmon” in Greek) to refer to culture, or the results of human activity and creativity. Obviously these different uses also have different connotations:
1.) The first is neutral or maybe even a positive one: World is seen as the created order, including the actual physical earth (Matthew 24:21), the people living on it (Matthew 4:8; John 12:19), human life (1 Timothy 6:7), and the target of the disciples’ mission (Matthew 5:14). Though sin entered into this world by the Fall, it and its inhabitants are seen as God’s beautiful creation.
2.) The second usage has a negative connotation. World consists of human things controlled by Satan, in open rebellion against God. The earth and its inhabitants are seen as involved in a cosmic struggle between spiritual forces due to sin (Ephesians 6:12). In this battle, the sinful world didn’t recognize Jesus as God when He came to this earth (John 1:10), so it, as a whole, is an evil place due to its imperfections.
Are things clearing up a little?
Now there are a few typical responses that occur when Christians read passages like those that I just referenced.
First response: opposition and separation.
The history of Christianity is filled with examples of this response. Early Christians rejected Greco-Roman culture, declaring it idolatrous and corrupt. The monastic movement of the Middle Ages pushed for complete withdrawal from the world. Many Protestant sectarian movements–the Brethren, Mennonites, Anabaptists, Quakers, and also the Millerites –also embraced this approach.
Those who choose this route, I am confident, do so with a sincere belief that they are living out the Word of God. Their sincerity should be respected.
However, the Bible does not mandate a complete withdrawal and isolation from the world. We are created to be social beings, and it is within a society or a culture that we live, work, worship, and witness. At most those who break away from the world simply develop a different culture or subculture. More importantly, this response implies that sin is caused by the world, whereas the Bible teaches that sin begins within the mind.
Second response: assimilation.
This position assumes that culture is basically good.
Stressing peace and love, cooperation and communication, this approach allows the gospel to be interpreted, understood, and embraced in a multitude of ways. In the process, the essence of the gospel becomes compromised and suddenly we get Christ as the “great moral teacher” rather than the Lord of life and sole Savior of the world. Thus, Christianity becomes an all-embracing humanitarianism; there is blurred distinction between the realms of God and Satan, propped by a moralistic humanism which poses a case for universal salvation…. and we all should know that is NOT what the Bible teaches.
But how do we understand culture, community, and our commitment of faith? Where do we draw the line between the demands of society and the kingdom of God?
In order to engage critically with our surrounding world, we must balance four biblical approaches to it:
1. Separation from anything openly contrary to God’s revealed will.
2. Affirmation of everything that is compatible with God’s revelation and original plan for humanity.
3. Transformation of individual human beings to become unified with God’s principles.
4. Contribution to the surrounding culture through elements that benefit humanity and enhance life.
And in order to see the world this way, we must seek our wisdom from the Holy Spirit and God’s Word so we may allow God to guide us in our choices rather than let our own selfishness lead our worldly conquests.
Doing God’s will where we are
In Mark 5:1-20, Jesus frees a man from an evil spirit. Afterwards, the man wanted to follow him, but Jesus told his new follower to return home–to his own culture–and share the good news with his family and friends.
Here is the key to a Christian understanding of culture: Be a follower of Jesus where you are. No matter the situation, no matter the people you are surrounded with (who you might dislike). We are called to love those individuals, even if we hate the torn-apart world that surrounds us and effects us.
As Reinhold Niebuhr, an American theologian and commentator on public affairs, noted: As Christians we “… are forever being challenged to abandon all things for the sake of God; and forever being sent back into the world to teach and practice all the things that have been commanded (us).”
How do you, as a follower of Christ, live in this world and survive in today’s sinful culture? Or am I way off? Is our culture not evil at all?