What does the emperor have to do with the church?
(This, and two others will be “re-posts” of entries from March of 2005. I’m reposting them just to refresh the direction of the blog, and to get rid of the post’s original URL, which wound up on some spammers mailing list. –sigh–)
Indeed, what does the emperor — what does government — have to do with the church? As far as that goes, what do economics and pop culture; religion and education? What do the systems of the world have to do with us? And how can we, as Christ- followers, better live outside them, next to them, and beyond them?
In the gospel of John, Jesus prayed for his disciples. He was praying them into a new way of being, changing them. Later, the disciple, Peter would borrow terms from the Old Testament to describe what they had become: A chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s own possession. (1 Peter 2:9). Certainly, some things about their circumstances were going to remain the same. Genetically, they would still be humans — birth, breath and death just like the rest of the human race. But something was going to be different. The followers of Jesus, by virtue of the presence of the Spirit of God in their spiritual persons, were being enabled to become a uniquely identifiable group of people with distinct qualities and conspicuous attributes. They were going to be empowered to cut the cords that bound them to the world. The Spirit was to be the blade to sever the ties.
It was clear that the metamorphosis from merely human to redeemed human was to have far-reaching implications. Jesus used the term “not of this world” to suggest the habitat for which this peculiar people were created. Yet Jesus did not pray for them to be taken out of the world, only that they be equipped to live in it while waiting for their eternal nature to come out clear. They were born into eternity, but confined temporarily to a cramped corner of time and space called the world. Christ-followers were to be hybrid beings who were in the world, but not of it. (John 17:11; 14)
For this distinctly identifiable people, being “in the world — described where they would live, but the other side of the statement, not being “of the world” spoke of how they would live, that they would live differently from others. Unfortunately, in modern evangelicalism “in the world but not of the world” suggests a distinction without a difference. Western Christianity, with few reassuring exceptions, seems to have fallen victim to the sickness that endangered the Colossian church, namely entanglement with the systems of the world. Paul addressed the issue this way: “If you have died with Christ to the elementary principles of the world, why, as if you were living in the world, do you submit yourself to decrees…” (Colossians 2:20). He goes on to correct the church because of their tendency to embrace religious systems that pressed them externally to behave in a proscribed manner. Paul wanted the Colossians to stay free of such constraints.
Furthermore, Paul’s concerns were not limited to religious systems. Later, when he describes the outcome of living with a kingdom focus, he envisions a community “in which there is no distinction between Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and freeman, but Christ is all, and in all.” (Colossians 3:11). Paul was concerned for the Colossians because they were being enticed by a religious system, but it was clear that he expected that Christ-followers who lived consistently with their destiny would also live beyond ethnicity and social class. Elsewhere, he tacks gender to the list of worldly issues that were not relevant to them as a community. Simply put, Paul wanted the Colossians to walk confidently in their new life in Christ, blithely indifferent to systems of human construction — in the world, not of it. Human systems always complicate the simple rhythms of Christian living. (to be continued)