I grew up in a profoundly conservative world. Though I bounced around from Free Methodist to Nazarene to Baptist churches as a kid, I was always raised with a healthy reverence for doing whatever it takes to “look different from the world” or “be in the world but not of it.” Regardless of denomination, I was always asked if in the case that I was put on trial for being a Christian, I would be found guilty. In an obsession with looking different from the world in order to be convicted of being Christians, I can’t help but think that the church has veered more towards a legalistic, superficial difference from the world rather than a true, substantial, yet difficult difference that actually allows us to reach the world.
Though I know countless Christians, including my parents, who are exempt from such charges, I thoroughly believe that Christian culture in 21st Century America is thoroughly unfocused. Or at the very least, the Church is focused on the wrong things.
I remember being told that if I ever said “crap,” got a tattoo, or watched the same entertainment as the world then the world would never be touched with my Christian witness through the “radical witness of my life.”
Rather than giving me a radical witness, I thoroughly believe that the result of such teaching in my case was a highly legalistic child and teenager who thought that any and all Christians who listened to secular radio, dressed a certain way, said anything remotely close to a cuss word, or consumed anything with nicotine or alcohol were effectively living as depraved heathens. In short, I was utterly obnoxious (I probably still am, but hopefully in other facets of my life). What’s more, I can only imagine how many people I have (and perhaps still do) alienated through a sense of self-righteousness and false moral superiority.
Now don’t take me the wrong way. Some movies are objectively wrong. Some songs are objectively wrong. Some means of presenting oneself through speech or dress are objectively wrong. And certainly, Christians working within the moral framework within which some things are objectively wrong have no excuse to do such things, and they should be called out for being inconsistent with their beliefs and harming the Christian witness when they are blatantly in violation of what is right and wrong within Christianity. And certainly there are times where discernment leads one Christian to abstain from a thing that another Christian may be perfectly fine with because it does not lead them to sin.
But the idea of looking different from the world seems to be taken to an extreme beyond doing what is right and wrong within the Christian worldview. It seems to be a dogma that draws legalistic lines in the sand that are intended to draw people to Christianity when they see how morally superior we are, yet the opposite effect tends to be the case. I fear we tend to alienate the world when we strictly forbid things that are not necessarily wrong just for the sake of having an exclusively rigorous moral code which makes us different from (read “superior to”) the rest of the world.
Here’s the thing. I have a tattoo. I say “crap” and anybody who spends significant amounts of time around me can probably tell you about a couple other words in my vocabulary. I watch popular movies and listen to secular music (so long as the media I consume does not lead me to do anything which is actually morally wrong). I’m a “frat boy” (term applied loosely as my fraternity is anything but stereotypical). I wear normal clothes and I like name brands. I have been known to enjoy a cigar or pipe. I do a lot of things “the world” does. One might even say that insofar as my everyday, run of the mill actions are concerned I tend to look a lot like any other person.
So am I any different from the world in my actions? Do I follow the mandate to be set apart even though I do not adhere to pharisaical, arbitrary guidelines to look different in all the wrong ways? Yes.
Though I’m anything but perfect, I sincerely believe that the example given to us through the life of Jesus Christ Himself and the message given to us through Holy Scriptures does anything but tell Christians to construct an artificial sense of moral superiority through arbitrarily constructed guidelines that have no real ethical bearing. How many times did Jesus set aside arbitrary pharisaical laws that were supposed to keep the Hebrews “different” and “closer to God” in order to do real moral good for those around him?
What we are supposed to do is stand firm when it counts. Sure, there are moral stands to be taken. Sometimes that means not doing something others find normal. I know people who think porn is harmless but I recognize it as an unquestionable evil within the Christian moral framework. That’s an example of something that counts. But I thoroughly believe that as far as the Christian witness is concerned, what Christians actively, consistently do speaks far more effectively than what we do not do.
...what Christians actively, consistently do speaks far more effectively than what we do not do. Click To Tweet
I believe that when I am up until 4 a.m. talking with a struggling friend that I am exhibiting the witness of Christ far more than not listening to secular radio or speaking against the evils of what kids are listening to these days. Reaching out to and including that one annoying person that nobody else can stand is far more powerful of a witness than not having tattoos (let alone castigating those who do). My wearing name brand clothing and enjoying it does not outweigh the witness of giving help (financial or otherwise) to somebody in need of it.
I believe that there are two areas of focus with which Christians should be concerned. There is that which our ethical system tells us not to do. And there is that which our ethical system tells us to do. When we pay attention to the former and not the latter, we become legalistic and prone to self-righteousness. If we focus exclusively on the latter, then we are bound for moral failure and insensitivity. Overall, I am calling for a balance in recognizing and living by the importance of both.
But insofar as the Christian witness is concerned, I am calling for a renewed emphasis on that which Christians should be fervently and eagerly doing which is serving and loving those around us even when they do not reciprocate our love. In conclusion, we should look different. But if we think it is as easy as refraining from a few arbitrary, self-imposed moral guidelines, we are completely missing the point in a way that greatly detracts from or ability to actually preach the truth of Christ.
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