“I’m not asking You to take them out of the world, but to keep them safe from the evil one” (John 17:15, NLT).
"Therefore, COME OUT FROM THEIR MIDST AND BE SEPARATE," says the Lord. "AND DO NOT TOUCH WHAT IS UNCLEAN" (2 Corinthians 6:17, NASB).
How does a disciple of Christ live “in” the world but not be “of” the world . . . associate but not assimilate . . . separate but not isolate? Are we a counter-culture or a multi-culture? Believers have wrestled with these questions over millennia and should be wrestling with them today.
Before Jesus appeared, Jews in Palestine and throughout the Roman world wrestled with the tension of relevance and righteousness, distinctiveness and assimilation. Jews dispersed throughout the predominately Greco-Roman culture spoke Greek, read their Torah in Greek at their synagogue, and read Homer. They followed the teaching of the prophets to work for the peace of their host country. At the same time the Jews in Palestine spoke Aramaic (a dialect of Hebrew), read their Bible only in Hebrew, and resisted the Hellenistic culture.
At the time of Christ there were four main expressions (sects) of assimilation versus separation within Palestine. The historian Josephus describes them below. How do you see believers adopting these approaches today?
Descended from the Maccabees, the zealots were a militant sect that advocated loyalty to the Torah and Jewish control of the religious and political systems. Zealots would periodically break out in physical violence against Rome in attempt to gain both religious and political control.
Like the Qumran community around the Dead Sea, Essenes withdrew from culture altogether. Their expression was to live an isolated righteous life as far from cultural corruption as possible. They would not be contaminated by the world nor would they try to influence it.
The sect of the Sadducees was mostly made up of the aristocracy and ruling party of the Jews. They were connected to the Temple and the Sanhedrin (Jewish court) and their philosophy was, “to get along you need to go along.” Their expression was one of accommodation and cooperation with the Hellenistic culture.
The Pharisees were made up of the common people who held to both the written Law (Torah) and the oral law. They separated themselves from both the Roman/Hellenistic culture and any Jew who didn’t follow their specific practice of tradition.
Into that milieu of expressions came Jesus, the Christ. He didn’t fit into any of the above categories. He demonstrated a different expression He called the Kingdom, which He described in His Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7).
So today, how do we live a lifestyle that is both counter-cultural and relevant?
Growing up in America, I didn’t anticipate that there would be much difference between Kingdom values and my country’s values. For the most part the culture around me was similar to the Kingdom values I found in Scripture. To be sure, the culture didn’t always live by those values, but at least they respected them.
Today, much like the first-century Christians living under Roman rule, I am increasingly aware that to follow Christ is to live counter-culturally. As I wrestle with how to think and behave as a citizen of God’s Kingdom while living in the world’s kingdom, I have to start by asking which kingdom has priority. One is permanent and invisible while the other is temporal and tangible. It takes the lens of faith to hold to what is real yet unseen even though the tangible seems more “modern and scientific.”
Early Christ followers were often thought to undermine the glory of Rome. They were seen as disloyal citizens since they claimed allegiance to another God, refused to participate in pagan civic rituals, and talked of a life in another realm. As a tiny minority they were often marginalized and at times persecuted for living counter-culturally.
When they eventually became the majority, however, the new challenge was to live Christ’s Kingdom values from a platform of power and influence. Unfortunately, history tells us they did not do it well. There was hypocrisy, coercion, and persecution. Too often there was little difference between the culture of the dominant empire and the dominant church . . . except they dressed differently.
I’m afraid we do not do it well either. I am embarrassed by my failure and the failure of my fellow Christians to live out His Kingdom values. In addition, all too often we condemn others by a standard we ourselves fail to keep. Jesus warned us about removing the log from our own eyes before trying to remove the splinter from the eyes of others. Duplicity undermines credibility.
The challenge of discipleship today is to live a counter-cultural Kingdom lifestyle courageously, humbly, and persistently without having a position of authority, majority rule, or even appreciation and affirmation.
Questions for Reflection
With which of the four Jewish expressions above do you most closely align?
How do you see Jesus demonstrating aspects of each one?
Which biblical values do you see as most in conflict with our culture’s values today?
How can you hold fast to scriptural truths in these areas against the pull of the culture?
Ron Bennett, senior staff with The Navigators, has led discipleship ministries in many settings in the United States. He and his wife, Mary, are currently serving with Navigators Encore in Raymore, Missouri. While on the national leadership team of Navigator Church Ministries he wrote Intentional Disciplemaking and coauthored The Adventure of Discipling Others and Beginning the Walk (NavPress). This article is adapted from “Counter-Cultural Living" in Ron Bennett’s blog The Adventure of Discipleship, May 20, 2019.