Should Christians Withdraw from the World?
I’ve long been fascinated with those moments in Jesus’ life when the veil of His human flesh gave way to a vision of His refulgent glory as the Son of God. What must it have been like to be one of His disciples and to know Him as a man but then to see with clarity His deity in an encounter of dazzling light? The most spectacular of these encounters was His transfiguration, that moment when His transcendent radiance paralyzed Peter, James, and John with awe (Matt. 17:1-13). All they wanted at that moment was to bask in Jesus’ glory forever—and so that is what they asked for.
It has always struck me that Jesus said no to that request. Instead, Jesus came down from the Mount of Transfiguration with His disciples and went back into the world. Jesus’ going back into the world has served as a model for the church’s ministry until the present day. When Christ calls people into His kingdom, He doesn’t pull them out of the world forever. He sends them back out with the gospel.
Jesus did that with the Apostles just after His resurrection. He came to the upper room, where they were hiding in fear, and told them that they were to wait for the Spirit to be poured out. But at that point, there was to be no more waiting. Once the Spirit came, they were to go out into the world (Luke 24:36-49). And that is what they did. The Apostles entered the marketplace with the authority of Christ behind them, and they upset the world.
Paul is a model for engagement with the world. We are familiar with his confrontation with the philosophers at the Areopagus in Athens, but these philosophers knew where to find him because he was “in the marketplace every day,” reasoning with the people who were there (Acts 17:16-34). The marketplace in Athens was more than a mere shopping mall. It was the center of community life. It was the place where people gathered to play, shop, hear lawsuits, and attend events. It was a decidedly public location, the place where one could engage with the world. No one went to the marketplace to hide. Paul went there to find unbelievers and minister to them.
During the Protestant Reformation, Martin Luther preached that the church had to move out of the heavenly temple into the world. By this he meant that Christ has relevance not just for the community of believers but for the whole world as well. Jesus is not bound to the inner courts of the Christian community, and if we think that He is, then we are being disobedient or, perhaps, have no faith at all. His gospel is for all nations, and all of us are responsible to help fulfill the Great Commission to make disciples of all peoples (Matt. 28:18-20).
Throughout church history, many have taught the idea of what we might call “salvation by separation,” believing that we achieve holiness by avoiding contact with sinners. This doctrine predates Christianity, however, having been invented by the Pharisees, who were scandalized by Jesus’ ministry to tax collectors, prostitutes, and lepers. But if Christ’s holiness did not require withdrawing from the world, then neither does ours. He came to seek and to save the lost, and the lost are gathered in the world—in our Father’s world. To stay out of the public sphere, away from sinners, is never a permanent option for the Christian.
I say “permanent option” because generations of believers have seen wisdom in having new Christians withdraw from the world for a season—not into monastic isolation but for a time of concentrated growth with fellow believers. Upon reaching spiritual maturity, however, they must see the world as God’s theater of redemption, that place where He meets with sinners through the gospel witness of believers and calls His elect to faith. Martin Luther noted that it is the coward who flees from the real world permanently and hides his fear with piety.
The church is not a ghetto or a reservation. True, the world wants to put us there, to force us out of the world into the four walls of the church building, outside of which we are never to speak of sin or the salvation that comes only in Christ. However, we don’t have to let the world do that. I fear that all too often we blame the world for our failure to engage it when, in reality, we are more comfortable hiding from the world’s hostility. Our fallen culture will do whatever it can to hide our light under a bushel. We dare not invent our own bushels to help them in their goal. Christ has commissioned us to be light and salt in this world (Matt. 5:13-16). We have no option but to obey.
This post was originally published in Tabletalk magazine.