World Changers Or World Imitators?
The Christian’s relationship to the surrounding culture can take many different forms, but for simplicity’s sake I would like to argue that there are basically only two main options here: either the Christian will change and transform his world, or he will allow the world to change and transform him.
The Bible repeatedly warns about the latter, while encouraging the former. We are not to slavishly imitate the world’s beliefs, agendas, values, philosophies, habits, lifestyles, or tactics. Instead we are to be leading in all these areas, seeking to have a godly influence on the rest of society.
That is in part what Jesus meant when he said we are to be salt and light. We are to be influencing the surrounding culture instead of letting it influence us. Scripture over and over again informs us that the values and practices of the world will be polar opposites to the values and practices of the Kingdom.
One of the key New Testament texts on the need to get the influencer/influencee mix right (if I can put it that way) is Romans 12:2: “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is – his good, pleasing and perfect will.”
There is an ever present danger of allowing the world to squeeze us into its mould, as the J.B. Phillips’ version of this passage famously puts it. We are to actively, steadily and resolutely resist the temptation to buy into, or conform to, the world and its ungodly and anti-godly beliefs and values.
The Old Testament is unfortunately full of instances where God’s people did exactly what Romans 12:2 warns against. Time and time again Israel adapted to the surrounding pagan culture, allowing Canaanite values and practices to heavily influence them.
Indeed, much of the Old Testament storyline involves this ongoing conflict. The question keeps popping up: will Israel resist the charms and deceits of the surrounding Canaanite nations, or will the Canaanites prevail? As the old saying goes, Israel had a harder time of getting Canaan out of Israel than out of the land.
I was reminded of all this in my daily Scripture reading. In 1 Samuel we read of the importance of leadership, and see the marked contrast between godly leadership and ungodly leadership. Of course three important leaders are showcased here: Samuel, Saul and David.
Early on as Samuel is getting old, the Israelites again show their true colours, in demanding that they follow the surrounding culture instead of being a contrast to it. They in fact like what they see in the pagan nations and want exactly the same for themselves.
In this case they want to be ruled just like the other nations are. They want a king of their own. As we read in 1 Samuel 8:4-5: “So all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah. They said to him, ‘You are old, and your sons do not follow your ways; now appoint a king to lead us, such as all the other nations have’.”
And in verses 19-20 we find out exactly why they want this: “But the people refused to listen to Samuel. ‘No!’ they said. ‘We want a king over us. Then we will be like all the other nations, with a king to lead us and to go out before us and fight our battles’.”
There you have it: “Then we will be like all the other nations”. Instead of enjoying and celebrating their uniqueness as Yahweh’s covenant people, they instead wanted to be just like their pagan neighbours. To see what God thinks about this, all we have to do is read what took place after the initial demand:
“But when they said, ‘Give us a king to lead us,’ this displeased Samuel; so he prayed to the LORD. And the LORD told him: ‘Listen to all that the people are saying to you; it is not you they have rejected, but they have rejected me as their king. As they have done from the day I brought them up out of Egypt until this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so they are doing to you’” (vv. 6-8).
That is a very strong and sobering response: “they have rejected me as their king”. Even though this may have seemed to be a sensible and logical request, it really amounted to insubordination. They were in effect rejecting Yahweh, favouring instead the surrounding nations.
John Woodhouse highlights this point: “This was a remarkable rejection of Israel’s calling to be the Lord’s ‘treasured possession among all peoples,’ ‘a kingdom of priests and a holy nation,’ ‘separated . . . from the peoples,’ a ‘great nation,’ ‘in praise and in fame and in honor high above all nations,’ ‘a people for himself’ (Exodus 19:5,6; Leviticus 20:26; Deuteronomy 4:6; 26:19; 1 Samuel 12:22). It was, in other words, the political equivalent of pursuing foreign gods and Astaroth (1 Samuel 7:3)!”
The sad truth is, so much of the church today is exactly like Israel of old. We do not come out and say it in so many words, but our mindset is really like this: “Then we will be like all the other nations”. We want to be like everyone else.
We are in fact uncomfortable with being different, unique and set apart (which is what the term holiness means). We would much rather fit in with the surrounding culture. We would rather not rock the boat and appear to be contrary. We just want to get along and blend in.
And we are far too willing to borrow all the world’s techniques and programs and models and emphases. ‘If it is good enough for the world then it must be good enough for the church’ seems to be the way our thinking goes. Thus we are quite happy to borrow from secular business models, or utilise all the latest marketing and advertising techniques, to make our churches cool and hip and trendy.
And given that much of the reason for Israel wanting to have a king of its own was for security purposes, let’s ask ourselves how we seek to find safety and security. Is it by trusting fully in the Lord and allowing him to work on our behalf, or is it by us doing everything ourselves so that we need no faith and will have to take no risks?
Do we ignore the requests of missionaries overseas to send them a bit of money so they can help build a project which will provide clean running water for the devastatingly poor people they are ministering to, so that we can have that nest-egg just in case?
Do we trust God for our financial well-being, or put all of our trust in our local financial advisors? Do we seek first His Kingdom, and let him take care of our material needs, or do we have all sorts of fleshly schemes to be financially secure with all kinds of stocks and bonds and investment properties, etc?
That is, do we never ever allow ourselves to be put into a place where we really need to trust and depend upon the Lord alone? Do we seek to make all sorts of provision for any future contingencies, acting as if God does not even exist, and everything is totally up to us?
I suspect the main reason why most Western Christians have never seen God’s miraculous provision, or seen him come through in a real jam, is because we have made darn well sure that we will never get in a pinch or a predicament in the first place.
We have everything under control, so that we have no need – certainly not a need for God to prove himself on our behalf. We have everything sewn up, and all the bases covered. We have effectively ruled God out from ever appearing, showing himself strong on our behalf.
We are completely self-sufficient, with no real need for God to act in and through our lives. We are really living like Christian atheists in other words. We say we believe in Jehovah Jirah, our provider, but we never give him even the slightest opportunity of demonstrating this to us.
Now I am not saying of course that we should be reckless, careless and irresponsible. We need to work, earn, save and look after ourselves and our families in a responsible manner. I have tried to show how the biblical balance is to be maintained in this article: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2010/08/31/christian-atheism/
But it seems that far too many of us have decided that we will provide for all of our needs, security and safety, and God is almost absent from the picture. In this we just want to be like our non-Christian neighbours. This amounts to a rejection of God’s lordship, just as it did for the Israelites of old.
Of interest is the fact that just within hours the US Congress has to come to a resolution about its debt ceiling crisis, or financial chaos will ensue. I cannot help but think that the Lord may be allowing all this to take place, to get the attention of Americans and everyone else, to remind us all that God is the ultimate answer to all our problems, not various man-made schemes.
This and other crises may be happening so that we all – but especially God’s people – can get into our heads the truth proclaimed in Zechariah 4:6: “Not by might, nor by power, but by my spirit, says the LORD Almighty.”
13 Replies to “World Changers Or World Imitators?”
I am reminded of a sign I saw outside a church which said “God is at the end of your rope!”, intended I suppose as a message of hope for those in a desperate situation.
If we are not willing to meet God in other circumstances, then may He in His great mercy send us “to the end of our rope” where we have no options, no where to go, but to Him.
But how much better if we would give Him rightful honour and obedience before such discipline is necessary!
Yes quite right. Funny isn’t it, how many people become Christians in desperation, with no hope, and at the end of their ropes, but then they live the rest of their Christian lives as if they can get by quite nicely without God. That sense of desperation and need seems to get replaced by self-sufficiency and self-reliance.
Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch
I was having a conversation with a colleague who is a lovely person but not a Christian. I think one reason she is not a Christian is the behaviour of her in-laws. They are meant to be Christians, but it seems that they put their trust in money – a lot of it apparently – than in God, and treat my colleague and her family quite appallingly.
Hi Bill. Amazingly, this is exactly what I shared in a youth group I run just tonight…and I have struggled with delivering it. I’ve been drawn into the book of Joshua where the people of Israel were commanded to kill every last person in every town. It was a bloodbath! I prayed and asked God for understanding in what He was trying to say to me. Now clearly the weapons of our warfare are not carnal today and we don’t go out wiping out people with a sword (as Christians mistakenly did during the Crusades), but the thing that began to dawn on me has to do with tolerance and co-existence. When God poured out His Spirit in the Book of Acts, the church was not sitting by meekly ‘co-existing’ and affirming the beliefs of the world around them. They turned that world upside down. God is not about co-existence. He is about taking the land. He tells us to pray that His Kingdom comes. And as you say, we cannot do this whilst we desperately try to look like the world. We are here to impose God’s values on everyone we meet. That’s what we do when we witness to people. “I have to tell you that your beliefs are false. There is a better way. Will you accept Jesus to be absolute Lord of your life?” Not, “oh, I like your beliefs. They’re so similar to mine. Perhaps you’d like to try mine on for size, but if you’re not so inclined, of course I understand.” The thinking of real Christianity (which people get killed for) is uncomfortably different to the moral relativism and multiculturalist thinking that we are hammered with and there are people in my church who are having trouble even acknowledging that Jesus is the only truth. One disagreed (somewhat) with me just tonight. So I appreciate what you have to say here. Thanks Bill.
I have often wondered how and why it is that Christians so quickly forsake their “first love” and turn back to the ways of the world, and while I don’t pretend to know all the reasons for this, when I think of it, I always come back to the passage of scripture from 1 Corinthians 15 – “Do not be deceived: “Bad company corrupts good character.'”
I think it is very important for us as Christians to be out in the world, being the salt and light of society, but I think for that to be truly effective and “safe” we first need to prefer the company and companionship of each other. The scripture does not tell us that good company rubs off on bad. Of course, there is ample evidence of the good company of believers having positive impact on unbelievers, but the importance of supporting and encouraging each other in the faith first and foremost should not be underestimated. Paul encourages us to model ourselves on the pattern of other believers and we need to be more often in each others company, seeking the strength of unity in regular fellowship together.
It is the strength of this that protects us out there in the world. We follow the pattern of whoever we tend to spend most time with. If we are spending more time in the world with our non Christian friends than we do with other believers we are more likely to absorb their ways and patterns and think and act like them, desiring and wanting the same things. So let’s seek each other out more often and build each other up in love so that when we are out there in the midst of bad company in a corrupt world we know the strength and love of each other, the uniqueness of the kingdom we share and remember Whose we are – we have been bought at a price.
Dee you wrote:
“we don’t go out wiping out people with a sword (as Christians mistakenly did during the Crusades)”
Now isn’t that a complex example to throw into the argument… 🙂
One day people of the world are going to wake up and realise that they cannot sort out the problems on their own. Human beings are incapable of sorting out injustices
against humanity. It is only by the power of God that this is possible, eg the freedom of Israel from bondage in Egypt. God’s power in Christians enables world change, anything else just makes things worse.
Many who call themselves Christian have their feet planted in both camps, trying to please both Man and God, and usually end up pretty gloomy. Jesus in his Sermon on the Mount pretty much told us that this half and half existence is no existence at all. We cannot become a joyful people in this existence.
“What the world gives, it gives away and has no longer, but when Christ gives, he gives forever and never takes away.” ~Leslie Withell, “Along the Healing Way”
“Perfect obedience would be perfect happiness, if we had perfect confidence in the power we are obeying.” ~Hannah Whitall Smith, “A Christian’s Secret of a Happy Life”
Another great article along these lines, from May 2001, “Despatch Magazine” – mini-despatch:
The Crusades cannot be characterised as wiping out people with the sword. They were fundamentally about defending the Christian population of the Holy Land and Christian pilgrims from Muslim invasion and aggression. As in any war, not everything was done for the purest of motives or in the best possible way, but the overall effort was laudatory and something Christians should be proud of. If only we had more men of that calibre today to defend our persecuted brothers and sisters in Sudan, North Korea and elsewhere. Christians may then really qualify as world-changers rather than being satisfied to leave it to our secular governments and the United Nations to do nothing as usual.
Bill has written about this topic here in reviewing Stark’s excellent book. I recommend you read it to get a flavour of these brave men’s motivations and the huge personal sacrifices they made.
Agree 100% Bill. I’d go so far as to say that we are only pleasantly comfortable *because* we are pleasing ourselves and not God. In all of my reading and experience, being in comfort in this life means we are by-passing our responsibilities and obligations as Christians. “Yes, and all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution” (2 Tim. 3:12).
As to Crusaders: If we view the act of supporting Afghanistans in war, sending men over there to fight against the threat of the Taliban as a good thing, then how can people claim the Crusaders were doing the wrong thing when they defended Christian lands and peoples against the marauding Muslim invaders? Hmm… I guess in the not too distant future, when the west becomes the battleground for such bloody wars against Islam, the perspective may be different…
During my years on the board of a local church, I often wondered why we were so dependent on insuring ourselves against every possible misfortune. I figured that if we really were trusting God’s provision and protection like we said we were then why the need to insure the church building? Surely if we had God’s blessing He wouldn’t let the place burn down, and if we didn’t have His blessing and the place did burn down wouldn’t that be a message we needed to hear? So when it comes to insurance, I’m of two opinions – it’s the responsible thing to do to insure and we want to be seen as responsible citizens, but if we do insure then we’re not fully trusting God for His protection and provision!
Ewan McDonald, Victoria
While street preaching the other day, a 16 or 17 year old boy attempted to silence me by saying that he thought it was wrong to try and impose my beliefs upon him.
My response was as follows: “According to my beliefs, it’s right to impose by beliefs on others and ask questions. At least I’m being consistent. I believe it is right to try and share my faith, so I do. You believe it is wrong to impose your beliefs on others, yet you try to impose that exact belief upon me by telling me that it’s wrong to impose beliefs”
He didn’t really know how to respond to that 🙂
Mario Del Giudice
Thank you Bill for challenging me, again.