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.– How can believers be in the world, but not of the world?, GotQuestions.org
The choice we face is not, as many imagine, between heaven and hell. Rather, the choice is between heaven and this world. Even a fool would exchange hell for heaven; but only the wise will exchange this world for heaven.– Dave Hunt
For most of us who spent our childhoods, or any significant period of time in Evangelicalism*, we have had well-ingrained in our minds the warning, “Be ye in the world, but not of it.” All of us knew that this meant conforming to a set of behaviours that were expected of us. These behaviours would, we were told, be evidence of the salvation that we found in Christ. We were supposed to be different. We were supposed to be shining examples of Christ.
It would be our differences that would set us apart from the secular world. By our differences, we would be witnesses of who Christ is and the Holy Spirit would draw the lost to us to hear more about Him.
But it is interesting to reflect on how the expectations foisted upon so many well-intentioned Christians look nothing like Christ did. The behaviour that was fully expected of us wasn’t behaviour that Christ participated in Himself. Where many of the Christian leaders of today see a need for rule-keeping, Christ broke all of the rules that He was expected to keep. He lived a scandalous life of freedom and yet maintained His righteousness.
But back to the topic at hand. How, exactly, are conservative evangelicals expected to behave? That depends, largely, on who you ask.
Some might say that strict adherence to purity cultures values, such as no emotional attachments or physical touch of any kind before marriage is required for righteous living. Other examples include: protecting one’s thought life from wandering into sexual spaces, repressing sexual desire, and (for girls and women in particular) taking responsibility for another’s thoughts and actions by taking care to wear clothing that wasn’t too shapely or showed too much skin.
Dating for the sake of dating is also considered by many to be a worldly endeavour. Dating is considered to be divorce in training, and we know that only sinners believe in divorce. Good and holy followers would never divorce because we know that God hates divorce (word to the wise, this is a false teaching based on a bad translation. See: Marg Mowczko).
Others feel limited in their choices of entertainment. Many believe that secular music is a sin to listen to (The truly devout would go so far as to reject even Christian music based on instruments or rhythm employed in the song).
Some will even go so far as to say that any sort of close relationship (friendship, dating, marriage, even family members) with an unbeliever is the same as being unequally yoked and is unwise (some may go so far as to call it a sin).
There are varying degrees of separation from the world within this particular corner of Christendom, and it all has one unifying theme: fear.
It is fear that motivates a father to prevent his daughter from learning how to date and how to form relationships apart from him. He fears that some uncouth young man will take advantage of her and steal her purity or encourage her to sin. He fears her ability to think for herself and hold firm boundaries. He may even fear that he has failed as a father to impart these skills to his daughter and so he overcompensates by inserting himself into parts of her life he really has no place being.
It is fear that motivates the eager Christian to throw away any music that is not explicitly Christian. It is fear that leads him to conclude that even some of his Christian music may not be safe because of the syncopated beat, or the instruments. The fear of accidentally allowing himself to fall into sin because of what his ears might hear.
It is fear that leads the mother to shun her child because he doesn’t believe the same things as her or perhaps he has revealed that he is not straight or cisgender. She doesn’t understand, but she fears for her child’s soul and so she believes that she is following God’s word when she cuts him out of her life, praying that he might come to see the light and repent.
It’s fear that prevents that one couple from befriending nonChristians unless that relationship comes with an agenda of converting them. Genuine relationship is too risky; they might be led into sin or they might give the appearance of approving of someone else’s sin.
Ultimately, it all comes down to one singular fear: the fear that they might, in fact, be no different than the unbelieving world around them and, as a result, will not be saved. In fear, they rigidly structure their world around what they believe to be righteous living.
This fear leads them, in misguided love, to pressure their loved ones (and complete strangers!) to conform to their standard of righteous living so that they, too, might escape the flames of Hell. The grace of the gospel is lost amidst the pressure to be the right kind of Christian and earn God’s blessing and salvation.
This fear drives the conservative evangelical into a very small corner of the world. In their desire to be in the world, but not of it, they begin to create a safe bubble for themselves so that they might avoid being tainted by the world.
Their social life is wrapped up in their churches and small groups. Their entertainment is Christian-centric (often white-centric too). The books they read are pre-approved by their communities, teachers, and pastors. Many will even opt to homeschool their children (or send them to private religious schools) to have more control over the influences allowed into their children’s lives.
The end result being that a Christian from this kind of subculture can live a long and full life without ever having to seriously engage with the larger community around them.
They can escape their fear and feel safe and sheltered. They won’t be part of the sinful world around them.
Of course, they will be friendly when they do cross paths with them. They may even strike up a casual friendship or acquaintance with them. They will always pray for sinners. They may even occasionally slip them some tracts or, if they’re feeling brave, they may invite them to church to hear the gospel. They are sincere and they will sincerely love the outside world in their own way.
But fear will keep them trapped. Until they hit some breaking point and realize that it’s time to step out into the big wide world and find out for themselves that there really isn’t anything to fear and that the narratives that have been guiding how they they think, what they believe, and what they do haven’t been entirely true.
Ask me how I know.
*As always, I am speaking in generalities. Much of what I discuss will not apply to all conservative Christians, but it will apply to enough as to warrant a conversation.