Becoming “all things to all people” does not mean fitting in with the fallen patterns of this world so that there is no distinguishable difference between Christians and non-Christians. While rightly living “in the world,” we must avoid the extreme of accommodation-being “of the world.” It happens when Christians, in their attempt to make proper contact with the world, go out of their way to adopt worldly styles, standards, and strategies.
When Christians try to eliminate the counter-cultural, unfashionable features of the biblical message because those features are unpopular in the wider culture-for example, when we reduce sin to a lack of self-esteem, deny the exclusivity of Christ, or downplay the reality of knowable absolute truth-we’ve moved from contextualization to compromise. When we accommodate our culture by jettisoning key themes of the gospel, such as suffering, humility, persecution, service, and self-sacrifice, we actually do our world more harm than good. For love’s sake, compromise is to be avoided at all costs.
As we have already seen, the Lordship of Christ has a sense of totality: Christ’s truth covers everything, not just “spiritual” or “religious” things. But it also has a sense of tension. As Lord, Jesus not only calls us to himself, he also calls us to break with everything which conflicts with his Lordship.
In an article titled “Calling Christian Rebels,” journalist Marcia Segelstein describes the cost of being a Christian in our current culture: “It means taking unpopular stands on highly charged issues such as abortion, homosexuality, and divorce. It means risking derision, humiliation, and scorn. It means looking at the way things are and-when they undermine the Word of God-challenging them.”
In this sense Christians will often be troublesome to our culture. Devotion to God’s authority will bring us into conflict with any authority that challenges his. Loyalty to God’s standards will inevitably cause us to clash with the standards of this world.
In seeking to “engage” and “connect,” Christians must remember that God hasn’t called his people to be popular. He has commanded us to be faithful, even in the face of mockery, criticism, and persecution. The truth is, many in this world will not take kindly to those who follow Jesus, as Jesus himself pointed out (Matthew 5:11). Since he told us the world would hate us, something’s dangerously wrong if we achieve popularity with the world. Contextualization without compromise must be our goal.
The greatest model for this is, of course, the incarnation of Christ. Here God “contextualized” himself by taking on human flesh. Jesus Christ became fully human-one of us. He entered our world, spoke our language, and met us where we are, making deep contact. Jesus completely “engaged” us. But because he was without sin, his contact resulted in collision. His refusal to “fit in” eventually led to his execution. He contextualized without compromise right to the bitter end.
As we come in contact with the world, we, too, must always resist its ways. The ideas, values, and passions of the kingdom of God will always collide with the ideas, values, and passions of the kingdom of this world. And where this collision happens, we need to stand our ground.
We could summarize it this way: instead of being culturally removed on the one hand or culturally relaxed on the other, we should seek to be culturally resistant. We’re making contact with the world while colliding with its ways. We’re culturally engaged without being culturally absorbed. We’re to maintain a dissonant relationship to the world without isolating ourselves from it.
Mike Metzger of the Clapham Institute outlines the tragic results when we fail to maintain the tension between purity and proximity:
Being salt and light demands two things: We practice purity in the midst of a fallen world and yet we live in proximity to this fallen world. If you don’t hold up both truths in tension, you invariably become useless and separated from the world God loves. For example, if you only practice purity apart from proximity to the culture, you inevitably become pietistic, separatist, and conceited. If you live in close proximity to the culture without also living in a holy manner, you become indistinguishable from fallen culture and useless in God’s kingdom.
We must not fear being different. If we do, we’ll never make a difference. It’s only as we faithfully refuse to “fit in” that we unleash God’s renewing power in this world. So, in our attempt to make contact, we must always beware of leaning over so far that we fall in.