There is an idea among many Christians that separation from the world is an intrinsically good thing. This stems from the idea of being “In the world, but not of it,” (John 17:14-15) and Paul’s command to “not be conformed to this world” (Romans 12:2) among other passages. Many have taught that these verses teach that being separate or different from the world is an intrinsic good. (“The World” in this case refers to people, views, and institutions that are simply non-Christian. Not things that are militant towards Christianity, but rather those that are non-Christian. It is similar to the concept of a distinct sacred v. secular divide.) The idea is furthered by the idea that holiness means being separate, so when we are being separate or distinct we are being even more holy.
This has lead for many to a disassociation with non-Christians by many Christians so that they have really no friends or serious interactions with non-Christians. Even more tragically, this focus on being distinct has lead Christians to disassociate from other Christians who don’t share their distinctions.
While discussing this issue, a friend pointed out a fascinating passage in I Corinthians 5.
It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that is not tolerated even among pagans, for a man has his father’s wife. And you are arrogant! Ought you not rather to mourn? Let him who has done this be removed from among you.
I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people— not at all meaning the sexually immoral of this world, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world. But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler—not even to eat with such a one. For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? God judges those outside. “Purge the evil person from among you. (I Corinthians 5:1-2,9-13)
You can hear Paul’s astonishment at the absurdity of being in the world and not associating with those who are of it. There is almost a little chuckle in his voice as he says it. To him it makes no sense. It doesn’t compute. How can one be in the world and not associate with those in it? Paul is explicitly refusing to tell people not to associate with those of the world. He doesn’t believe it is possible for people living in the world to do this.
Probably the reason this idea is so foreign to Paul is that it is contrary to the last command of Christ, The Great Commission.
And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
Funding missionaries is a good thing, but funding and sending missionaries isn’t everything that is meant. If the Great Commission means anything, it has to include reaching the people right where you are. This is impossible if you are separated from the people you are trying to reach. Building relationships, knowing people, and reaching them where they are is crucial to obeying The Great Commission.
However, our focus on distinctions makes many more focused on building their subgroup of Christianity than bringing new people into the Kingdom. While “there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance,” (Luke 15:7) many churches are more focused on the ninety-nine. Helping other Christians come to a “better” understanding of certain doctrines seems to be a greater focus for many.
Ironically this focus on becoming Christians who better understand various Christian teaching stems in part from the fact that most Christians only associate with other Christians, and so they are doing their best to help and teach those they associate with. You can’t influence people you don’t know, so maybe we should rethink the idea of disassociating ourselves from those we are supposedly meant to be reaching.
Putting this a different way… When Dale Carnegie wrote How To Win Friends and Influence People I’m pretty sure separating yourself from them didn’t make it on the list for a reason. If the church is supposed to be about influencing people to come to Christ, it’s illogical to value separating ourselves from those we are trying to influence.