This is a common phrase in church circles, but what does it mean? How far ‘In the world’ can a person be and not be ‘of the world’? This issue also touches on cultural relevance, how ‘relevant’ does a church have to be to strike the balance of being ‘in the world but not of it’? Many churches try to blend in with the culture in order to try and reach it, or they try to compete with the world for attention. Why all the confusion? Does the Bible have an answer? I would say that it does, and the answer comes from an unlikely source; the geographic placement of the land of Israel.
By God’s providence He works out His plan to reach the world with His message. No detail is overlooked. Below is a map of the mideast with some of the ancient civilizations listed on it.
The ancient world had two major civilizations that needed to communicate and trade with each other. One was ancient Egypt and the other was ancient Mesopotamia which was home to civilizations like Sumer, Babylon, and Persia. In order to travel between these civilizations one could not just plot out a straight line course between the two as there was a large wilderness located on the northern part of the Arabian peninsula. All travel, commerce, and trade used Canaan as a land bridge and travel route. Later it continued to be an imprtant travel route in the times of ancient Rome. It is known as the crossroads of the ancient world.
The truth is that God placed His people at the crossroads of the world. Whoever controlled this area would have the opportunity to influence the world and to become very prosperous. God placed His culture, and His people, who kept His Word at the very heart of everything that was going on in the ancient world. As interesting as this is one may wonder what that has to do with anything regarding God’s people today.
When God placed His people at the crossroads of history He had a very important instruction. He did not want them to become like the nations around them.
You shall not do as they do in the land of Egypt, where you lived, and you shall not do as they do in the land of Canaan, to which I am bringing you. You shall not walk in their statutes. -Leviticus 18:3 (ESV)
God also wanted them to displace all of the evil customs and religious ways of the people around them. God wanted his people in the heart of the world, but he did not want them to be corrupted by it. But they did not listen to God:
They despised his statutes and his covenant that he made with their fathers and the warnings that he gave them. They went after false idols and became false, and they followed the nations that were around them, concerning whom the LORD had commanded them that they should not do like them. -2nd Kings 17:15 (ESV)
So God’s people are not put in the world to copy the world or to compete with the world. God’s people are called to live holy set apart lives in the midst of the world. To live at peace with all but to stick to the Word of God and be pure. Jesus said it this way while He prayed for His disciples and all who would follow after them:
I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one. -John 17:15
So according to God there is no balance to be struck between church and culture. The people of the church are supposed to follow His commandments and love Him with all of their heart, soul, and might. The are saved to to good works and be the light and salt of the earth. They remain seperate from sin and call others to repentance. This has always been God’s plan from Abraham to ancient Israel up until today. One last verse really hits home with this idea and it was written by Paul:
Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. -Romans 12:2