We’ve been looking at this idea of separation as it is a topic that often comes up in more conservative groups within Christianity, even to the extent of being presented as a “doctrinal” position on church websites. The general idea is that a Christian is to live a ‘separated life’ so that his/her life is distinguishable from the world’s way of living. This is the age-old concept of “being in the world but not of the world.” What I’ve been highlighting so far is that our usual way of defining ‘separation’ is rooted in our satisfying a tactical list of prohibitions (i.e. smoking, drinking, dancing, movies, music types, dress codes, etc.) While I wouldn’t suggest these topics are agnostic in their impact on any given person, I would suggest that these are not what the Scriptures have in mind when dealing with this ‘in the world/not of the world’ concept.
In part 1, we saw how God is holy because of how and who He is in relation to the other gods (Exodus 15:11). He is utterly distinct. Yet, we noted that God is not utterly distinct because He doesn’t have tattoos or doesn’t smoke, but the authors of Scripture see His distinctness as it relates to the aspects of His character translating into action. We saw that God is a God that loves mercy and hears the cry of those in need of redemption. God is full of graciousness, goodness and truth (Exodus 34:6-7). It is by the expressions of redemption, mercy and truth that we know He is God Most High and other gods are not. When Peter tells believers (1Peter 1:14-17) to be holy as the Lord is holy – this is the idea. Does redemption, grace, mercy and truth radiate in and from our lives? As Jesus told His disciples, “by this shall all men know that ye are my disciples if ye have love one to another.” Just as what God does is a testimony of who God is, so too does the disciple of Christ have the obligation in the same. The disciple’s testimony is his/her holiness – that which distinguishes him/her as a disciple of Christ.
In part 2, we looked at 2Corinthians 6:14-18 about the idea of being “unequally yoked with unbelievers.” Part of the ‘separation’ discussion usually involves setting boundaries about whom a believer should date/marry and whom a believer should engage with business partnerships with. Again, while there are God-honoring decisions that can and should be made in these areas, the context of 2Corinthians 6 isn’t marriage nor business relationships. We noted that a believer is likewise holy or separate in that they cling to the truth of the doctrines of Christ, recognizing that Christ has no fellowship with the works of darkness. Even though the message of Christ is inclusive to the world (that all the world is welcome in Him), there will be those who refuse that invitation and Paul warns the Corinthians to not let their zeal to be welcoming cause them to unify with those who are not of Christ. The ministry of Christ is distinct because it isn’t an amalgamation of detail activity (as was very common in the Roman Empire).
In this post, I’d like to focus on the idea of Conformity and Transformation as it relates to our separation. This will complement part 1 to some degree, but I think this will allow us to get more granular on how separation isn’t a status, but is testimony of the Lord’s work in us. Separation isn’t to keep us from the world, but is to equip us within the world.
When we think of conformity, our minds are drawn to the concept of something taking on the same of something else.
con = with
form = figure/shape/substance
When we pour water into a glass, the water takes on the (inner) shape of the glass – it conforms to the glass. We likewise think of yielding our minds and behaviors to a set of rules or guidelines. A model citizen of a country has conformed to the laws of their country – they’ve yielded to the laws dictating their behavior in society.
Likewise, when we think of transformation, our minds imagine something undergoing a change in form.
trans = over/across/beyond
form(ation) = figure/shape/substance.
Water taking on the shape of the glass is conformity; the water becoming the glass would be transformation.
In Romans 12:1-2, we see both conformity and transformation being used by the apostle Paul to describe a believer’s life in Christ.
Romans 12:1 I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service. 12:2 And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God.
Paul has written to these Romans, who were largely Gentile (as Claudius had expelled the Jews from Rome about 10 years earlier (Acts 18:1)), but now had Jews who were coming back and how this family of Jew and Gentile is to live together, as one in Christ, is very important. This shapes much of Paul’s writings, not just to the Romans. In what becomes chapters 12-15, Paul is writing how both groups are to live in harmony while respecting the conscious of those who come from different cultures, backgrounds, customs and heritages. The cultural undertones of the day were still very much Hellenistic from what Alexander the Great accomplished about 400 years earlier. Hellenism places man at the center of the universe and seeks to über-capitalize on satisfying self. It is a worldview where one achieves his own greatness by elevating self as the measure of all things. When we are engaged in Hellenistic thought, it isn’t to say that it is the root of selfishness, but it is to say that Hellenism exploits the natural selfishness we all have. Therefore, when writing to these Romans, Paul is taking great care to remind them that in Christ, their personal customs and preferences should never come between them and other believers. Paul tells them in Romans 12:1-2 to not be conformed to this world. “This world” doesn’t mean “this planet”, but is a metaphor for the olam hazeh – the present age/world system. This is certainly the Roman Empire, but the Roman Empire’s strength is very much rooted in Hellenism (they just Romanized it). Believers aren’t to be adorning the worldview preserves/elevates self at the expense of their fellow brother/sister. Don’t allow the selfishness of Hellenism to be a shape that you conform your worldview by, rather, Paul says, be transformed by the renewing of our minds. Notice Paul doesn’t say to conform your mind, but he says to be transformed BY the renewing of our minds. We are not the transforming agent here – we are allowing transformation to happen in us, through our mind’s renewal. How does our mind renew? Easy – Romans 12:1 – we become a LIVING SACRIFICE in our service to one another. Those engaged in Hellenism (conforming to “this world”) do not sacrifice. Selflessness is the antithesis to Hellenism. If you are conforming to this world, you are not being a sacrifice, you are not engaged in reasonable service and you are not in a position to allow yourself to be transformed by your minds renewal. Paul goes on in chapter 12:3-5 to show what a renewed mind understands and what a transformed believer celebrates – that though we be many, we are one body in Christ. And, as one body, we serve one another, not to offend their conscious – not to get them to conform to our image – but to edify one another that we BOTH conform to HIS IMAGE.
Separation from “this world” is absolutely at play here, but, it is separation from the world’s system. This, by the way, is the message of Revelation – the clash of the Lamb’s kingdom and theology with the Beast’s kingdom and theology. Those who take the mark of the beast are conforming to this world – they are aligning themselves, or, conforming themselves with the world’s systems. To be separate from the world is to be distinguishable from the world’s point of view. That’s where we adorn the transformation of God upon us as we live out being holy as God is holy. It is only in the way that we recognize our transformation of God is of Him and not found in this world’s systems that we enjoy the shape we have been conformed to. In Romans 8:29, Paul reminds us that we have been conformed to the IMAGE of His Son. The shape – the form we should be known by is Christ. The more that conformity resonates within us, the more transformation we will experience. We are God’s workmanship (Ephesians 2:10) – His project – and what He has started in us will be faithful to complete. Our distinction – our separation – our holiness in this regard is found in distancing ourselves from this world’s way of thinking and rather experiencing transformation by being a living sacrifice. And, by the way, distancing yourself from the world’s way of thinking doesn’t equate to distancing yourself from the world’s people. A living sacrifice has no value in solitude.