In our last blog post we commented on a CNN Belief Blog by Rachel Held Evans in which she took Evangelicalism to task on a number of issues. Among other things she criticized evangelical Christianity for being “hostile to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.” She goes on to say that “the evangelical obsession with sex can make Christian living seem like little more that sticking to a set of rules.” In saying this she seems to be adopting the viewpoint of modern society at large, in which homosexuality is rapidly becoming accepted. (We realize that her own personal opinion may be more nuanced than that, but if so, it does not come out in her article.)
But Christianity is not supposed to conform to the standards of the world. It is supposed to be different from the society around it.
We get a clear picture of the position of the church in the world in Paul’s epistle to the Ephesians. Paul is writing to a group of Christian believers in the city of Ephesus, an important commercial, political and religious center in Asia Minor. The epistle may also have been intended for Christians in nearby cities as well. The region was sophisticated and wealthy – a center of Hellenistic civilization.
Paul makes it clear, however, that the Christians were not to conform to the standards of society around them. “This I say, therefore, and testify in the Lord, that you should no longer walk as the rest of the Gentiles walk, in the futility of their mind” (Eph. 4:17; NKJV). He then goes on to give a scathing critique of the surrounding culture. Their understanding is “darkened”; they are “alienated from the life of God”; their hearts are hard; they are “past feeling” (vv. 18,19). As a result, they “have given themselves over to lewdness, to work all uncleanness with greediness” (v. 19). The word translated “lewdness” (aselgeia) means licentiousness or sensuality (cf. NASV,NIV,ESV). It speaks of a decadent society devoted to pleasure.
The Christians in Ephesus used to live like that. But Paul tells them to “put off, concerning your former conduct, the old man which grows corrupt according to deceitful lusts” (v. 22). He goes on in verses 25-32 (and indeed the entire rest of the epistle) to list the behaviors that acceptable and unacceptable. They were to put away all lying, anger, stealing and foul language. “Let all put away bitterness, wrath, anger, clamor, and evil speaking be put away from you, with all malice. And be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God in Christ forgave you” (vv. 31,32). In other words, Christianity is everything about how we live, and how a Christian lives should stand in sharp contrast with how the rest of society lives. The Christian life is supposed to be a life of non-conformity.
Ms. Evans complains that “the evangelical obsession with sex can make Christian living seem like little more than sticking to a list of rules.” In some churches that may be the case, and she may have felt that way as a young adolescent chafing under parental control. But that is not the way it is supposed to be. True holiness begins in the heart and mind. “. . . and be renewed in the spirit of your mind,” Paul says (v. 23). Having denounced a whole list of sinful behaviors, Paul concludes by pointing to the inward attitude of the heart: “And be kind to one another, tenderhearted. . .” (v. 32). True righteousness flows from the heart, and sinful behavior is sinful precisely because it is contrary to the love of Christ that should fill the heart.
This, in turn, presupposes the actual experience of salvation and the real relationship with Christ that follows. Having described the moral corruption of Gentile society Paul says, “But you did not learn Christ in this way, if indeed you have heard Him and have been taught in Him, just as the truth is in Jesus” (vv. 20,21; NASV). To “hear Him” means to sense Christ Himself calling you to salvation. To be “taught in Him” means to learn as one is “in Him,” i.e., to know Him personally and to have His Holy Spirit dwelling in your heart. The Christian thus taught has a new perspective on life, a new value system, and new motives. He is no longer content merely to go through life living for himself, seeking pleasure wherever he can find it, and exploiting others to his own advantage. He has a higher calling and purpose in life, and the world with all its tawdry tinsel and toys has no attraction for him. He is a changed person, a “new man,” with a renewed heart, and he could never go back to his former manner of life.
The proper aim of Christianity is not to become more like the world, either in style or in substance. The church is not called to base its doctrine or its practice on public opinion polls. Rather, it is supposed to follow Christ in the path of discipleship. And this requires a life of non-conformity.