Ever heard the expression, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do”? What about, “If you can’t beat them, join them”? Can these sayings be applied to our faith? Since the people of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own kind than are the people of the light, shouldn’t we just join the worldly people? But aren’t we called to be in the world, but not of the world? Aren’t we a people set apart? What partnership can righteousness have with wickedness? Or what fellowship does light have with darkness? So, what are we to do?
In his first letter to the Corinthians, the apostle Paul wrote of the false teachers who had come into the church at Corinth teaching that the resurrection of Jesus Christ wasn’t true. These people considered only their physical existence and denied life after death or the resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:32). As a result, their moral outlook on life influenced the rest of the Corinthian believers.
Paul is telling us that in associating with false teachers, we will be adversely influenced by them. The truth is that false teachings do not lead to holiness. As such, it is critical that we are careful whom we form relationships with, especially those outside the church because unbelievers can cause even the strongest Christians to waver in their faith and adversely affect their walk with Christ and their witness to the world. This is why Paul tells us, “Do not be misled.”
Actually, this was the second time Paul warned the Corinthians not to be deceived (1 Corinthians 6:9). He cautioned them not to take up the lifestyles of corrupt people—those who will not inherit the kingdom of God. Paul knew how easy it is for people to be influenced by such adverse teachings. If not checked at the very beginning, they could begin to adopt such perverted ideas and behaviors as normal. For this reason, Paul quotes a proverb by the Greek poet Menander: “Bad company corrupts good character” (1 Corinthians 15:33). No doubt this proverb was well known among Greeks of this time.
The point Paul makes here is pertinent to all people in all ages. When we associate with or take delight in the company of people with worldly morals, we run the risk of mimicking their behaviors, their language, and their habits. Before long we are no longer of Christ, but of the world with its denial of absolute authority, its rejection of the Bible as the Word of God, and its ideology of relative morality. This is especially pertinent to young people who are generally easily influenced by their peers. Young people are desperate for the approval of others. So motivated are they by the need for acceptance that godly wisdom in decision-making can go out the window in the face of peer pressure. Therefore, it is crucial for parents of young teens especially to be on guard against the influence of bad company.
However, we should not go to the extreme to avoid temptation by avoiding worldly people. By doing so we lose most of our opportunities to give of ourselves, for Christ’s sake. This process of withdrawing into our own watertight Christian circle of affairs results in people becoming insensitive and unsympathetic and eventually smug and complacent in their views toward others.
We can get all worked up over missionaries ten or twelve thousand miles away, but people can live right next door to us and be perishing in their spiritual agony, and we do nothing. That is worldliness. It results from this business of thinking we can live our own lives; that we can withdraw from the world and create our own Christian world and live within it.
So, what are we to do? How do we reach the world and still not be like it? The answer is, we must learn to live on a frontier between these two extremes. We must learn to be in the world, but not of it.
As believers in Jesus Christ we are simply in the world—physically present—but not of it, not part of its values (John 17:14-15). As believers, we should be set apart from the world. This is the meaning of being holy and living a holy, righteous life—to be set apart. We are not to engage in the sinful activities the world promotes, nor are we to retain the insipid, corrupt mind that the world creates. Rather, we are to conform ourselves, and our minds, to that of Jesus Christ (Romans 12:1-2). This is a daily activity and commitment.
We must also understand that being in the world, but not of it, is necessary if we are to be a light to those who are in spiritual darkness. We are to live in such a way that those outside the faith see our good deeds and our manner and know that there is something “different” about us. Christians who make every effort to live, think and act like those who do not know Christ do Him a great disservice. Even the heathen knows that “by their fruits you shall know them,” and as Christians, we should exhibit the fruit of the Spirit within us.
Being “in” the world also means we can enjoy the things of the world, such as the beautiful creation God has given us, but we are not to immerse ourselves in what the world values, nor are we to chase after worldly pleasures. Pleasure is no longer our calling in life, as it once was, but rather the worship of God.
Paul also gives us some good advice at the very end of chapter 15: “Therefore, my dear brothers, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain” (1 Corinthians 15:58). As parents, we stand firm against ungodly influences that may corrupt our children. As Christians, we stand firm against those who would corrupt our walk with Christ. As church members, we stand firm against false teaching and watered-down gospel presentations that lead others astray. In all things, we are “self-controlled and alert” because our “enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8).
To sum up, the Christian’s vocation is to be in the world, but not of it; to represent Christ in it and to intercede on its behalf because it is under judgment (this is the Christian’s priesthood), to identify himself with its sufferings but not with its attitudes, to bring his influence to bear upon the world’s life without being corrupted by the world’s ways; to stand on the frontier, holding forth the Word of Life, and so to love and obey that Word that he has been delivered from the evil one and sanctified in the truth. Such a calling involves a cross (c.f. John 15:18-20; 2 Tim 3:12; Acts 14:22). The man who separates himself from the world and seeks to escape it does not know the cross (e.g. the priest and Levite in the parable of the good Samaritan, and the rich young ruler in Mark 10:17-27). The man who submits to the world’s pressures and loses his distinctiveness as a Christian does not know that cross (e.g. Judas Iscariot, and the false teachers mentioned in 1 Cor; 2 Tim 3:1-9; Titus 1:10-16; 2 Peter). The man who seeks to be in the world, as our Lord was in it, but shows that he is not of it because he is a Christian and in Christ; that man will find his cross. It’s only the disciple who follows Christ in both these respects who has a cross to take up (c.f. Matt 16:24; Mark 8:34; Luke 9:23).
Let us praise God with the song “Christ Be Our Light”: