Simpler times often sound desirable. It used to be easier to get on an airplane, to secure your identity, to make a business deal, to cover medical costs, to use the correct pronoun. Of course, in simpler times, when you had certain physical issues, you simply died. You also simply waited until you met up with someone or they received your letter, because you couldn’t reach them otherwise. In simpler times, you couldn’t get on an airplane, and the worry of international terrorism wasn’t as great because you’d never travel overseas anyway. In some ways, the Church was once “simpler” too. In many ways, it wasn’t.
At just the right time in history (Galatians 4:4), the Church was born in the middle of the Roman empire. It was an era of technological advancement, power, slavery, and immorality. People from a variety of backgrounds were turning to Jesus – government officials and nobodies, business owners and peasants, Greek and Jew, barbarian, Scythian, slave and freeman. The Body of Christ right away meshed together people who would previously have had nothing to do with each other. Suddenly, slaves and their owners were brothers and sisters; fellow-heirs; saints, together in the Church. Former Jews were now gathering around the table with former worshipers of the many pagan gods of Roman polytheism. Along with these new believers came their various cultures, traditions, and, yes, former lifestyles to be overcome. That’s what many of the New Testament letters are dealing with. They’re helping people learn how to live this new life in Jesus in places where they were very much a foreign presence.
Picture it: you’re a follower of Jesus Christ, living in a city where most people are not. You’re surrounded daily by ungodly attitudes, sights, and sounds. The temptation to slide back into your previous way of living is always right there. Oh, wait, that sounds like where we live in many ways! While our current situation may not be as extreme, it certainly points out the relevance of God’s word for the time and place we find ourselves. Aren’t you glad that we don’t have to try to sort through the current challenges of our day completely on our own?
Paul writes to the Church in Corinth a letter addressing some of the specific challenges they were facing. He gets to the middle (we call it chapter 5) and addresses a situation of immorality that couldn’t be ignored. There is a man who “has his father’s wife.” Rather than being grieved by incest and adultery, they were proud of their “accepting” attitude. God, through His Apostle, tells this local church family that they should remove this man as a member, turn him over to the painful consequences of his ungodly living, and look for him to repent and be restored. The happy news from this whole exchange is that apparently this man did have genuine remorse and was able to be restored to the Body. (II Corinthians 2:5-8) In the middle of all of it, we get direction from the Lord about how followers of Jesus are supposed to relate to our world. In words that may be very uncomfortable, here it is:
- Associate with immoral people, and with the covetous, swindlers, and idolaters. “Associate” translates a word that means “to be mixed up together with” someone. In the history of the Church, there have been efforts (the monastic movement) to completely avoid this by moving away from society. Paul says that to do this you would have to go out of the world. Don’t worry. That day is coming for all of us in one way or another! Until then, there simply is no biblical support for an attitude of total separation from unchurched people who are immoral. If they are ever going to be reached with the gospel, we must “associate” with them.
- Don’t associate with someone who claims to be your brother in Christ but is an immoral person, or covetous, or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or a swindler. Don’t even eat with such a person. This is an interesting contrast. If there are 2 immoral people, and you are considering how you are supposed to relate to them, the one you should avoid is the one who claims to be a Christian – the guy or gal who’s “in church” but not living like it. It’s on the members of the Bible to discern this about each other. Spiritual people are supposed to restore those who live in sin, and sometimes that gets done by disassociation.
What I have observed in the Church over the years is that our attitude and practice is more often exactly opposite of this instruction. We tend to be skilled at avoiding people, but it’s usually the people outside the church. It’s quite possible we do this in the name of keeping ourselves away from temptation, avoiding the appearance of evil, and making sure that the name of Jesus isn’t maligned by something we do. Those are biblically good motives, but the way to accomplish them shouldn’t include avoiding all contact with sinful people. “Fleeing immorality” is not the same thing as “fleeing immoral people.” Do we equate our concern for the name of Jesus with our concern for our own reputation? Do we figure that we’re right because we’re comfortable not being around people who have filthy mouths, materialistic attitudes, or destructive habits? Jesus associated with these people, engaged them with truth, and loved them in an effort to change them. In return, He was called “a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and “sinners.” He sat while a woman wept at His feet and was criticized that He would even allow a person like her to touch Him. These people are the very people whom the Lord has called us to reach and snatch from the flames. We’re letting them down if we run from them.
We also let people “in the church” down when we overlook blatantly sinful living in them. It’s a bit uncomfortable that there are people in the Church who persist in certain sins, but it’s even more uncomfortable to call them on it. Confrontation is uncomfortable. People who call themselves our brother or sister in Christ are much closer to us than others. But what if that so-called brother or sister is covetous, slanderous, a drunkard, a cheat, or sexually immoral? If we make it easy or comfortable for them to persist in that sin, not only are we enabling the name of Jesus to be dragged through the mud, we’re also allowing another person to careen down a path of destruction. Why are we so quick to separate from and throw down on people who aren’t claiming to be Christians while we turn a blind eye toward the ongoing rebellion of those who know better?
Let’s resolve to have the mind of Christ. The times demand it. Our society needs us to be a continuing interjection of truth into the foggy haze that the media are trying to create, not just report.
Philippians 2:15 (NIV)
…so that you may become blameless and pure, children of God without fault in a crooked and depraved generation, in which you shine like stars in the universe