Separation vs. Penetration vs. Both

There is no way to deny that we live in perilous times. Ethics are personally defined, absolutes are generally denied and any belief system goes as long as it does not impede upon another system, be it one of belief or unbelief. Tolerance is the buzzword of the day, and intolerance is the only thing intolerable. As Carl F. H. Henry put it, “These days are as hectic as Nero’s Rome, and they demand attention as immediate as Luke’s Macedonia.”

But who is a fault here? How much, if any, of the responsibility can Christians carry for the tragic demoralization that marks our culture? We have become so good at pointing our fingers of indictment. We blame the secularists with their declared independence from God. We blame the pagans with their disillusioned cults. We even blame our own liberal wing for having no backbone and the wherewithal to take a stand against the first two culprits.

We examine the pulse our culture and give a self-righteous diagnosis. We hone our skill of flaying those at fault, all the while, forgetting a most important question: “What about us?” What have we done or not done that has contributed to this slippery slide into decadence and abandonment of the truth?

First, I think we would do well to remember that truth can still be known. It is no hard thing for us to remember that we can know and do know truth. However, we often act as if the atheist next door cannot. He’s too smug, too settled and too hard. Nevertheless, if the truth of God’s Word and the power of the gospel can turn the world upside down during the peak of Imperial Rome’s depravity, it can and must change the world today.

We must ask the question then, how does a culture give up and refuse the truth? An obvious answer is through apostasy. This departure from the truth is grounded in unbelief. It is the systematic disowning, dethroning, and debunking of God and His Word. Apostasy has received new life in recent days through the New Atheist movement which is still gaining momentum.
Another way that culture refuses truth is not so apparent to us because it is uncomfortably personal. It is our own apathy. As Douglas MacLachlan wrote, “Truth falls into disuse because Christians have fallen into disinterest.” While apostasy is more apparent, Christian apathy is just as much at fault.

We must remember this when we ask why God judges a culture. If we do not, we collapse into the same pitfall of those who say that God sent hurricane Katrina to New Orleans because of Marti Gras. This is the same mistake the disciples made in asking whose sin it was that resulted in a man being blind from birth. We need to realize that God judges a culture not simply because of non-Christian apostasy but also, and perhaps supremely as we will see, because of Christian apathy.

Look at the Lord’s assessment of the church of Laodicea in Revelation 3:15-16. Christ shows us very vividly that in His mind Christian apathy far outweighs non-Christian apostasy. He gives three options: cold, hot, or lukewarm. And, as much as He may disapprove of His people being cold, lukewarmness makes Him sick!

Take Sodom and Gomorrah. We rail against their debauchery and warn of that same judgment coming upon contemporary evils. However, we find in Genesis 18:23-33 that the presence of no more than ten righteous people would have saved Sodom from judgment. It was the absence of God’s people that lead to the cities’ final destruction.

The fact is it only makes sense that the failure of Christianity to function as the salt and light of this world is what merits the blame for the condition of the world. John Stott says it best:

If the house is dark when nightfall comes, don’t blame the house (that’s what happens when the sun sets). The question to ask is: “Where is the light?” If the meat goes bad and becomes rancid and inedible, don’t blame the meat (that’s what happens when bacteria are left alone to breed). Just so, if society deteriorates and standards decline till it becomes like a dark night or stinking finish in Western culture, there is no sense in blaming society, for that is what happens when fallen men and women are left to themselves and human selfishness is unchecked. The question to ask is: “Where is the church? Where are God’s people? Why are the salt and light of Jesus Christ not permeating and changing the world around them?”

Fundamentalists enjoy this kind of talk in a peculiar way. We like the generalizations and broad brushes. It is true that much of evangelicalism has lost its potency because of cultural absorption, and we’re happy to point that out. What we may not enjoy discussing is that however guilty evangelicalism is of cultural absorption, fundamentalism is just as guilty for cultural isolation.

We like to criticize seeker sensitive guys like Osteen and Warren who can draw huge crowds but have no message to give them. Yet we, who say that we have the message, do precious little to get it out to the culture. Fundamentalism and evangelicalism may come from different sides of the issue, but either way there is the same result: the culture is not reached.
So what is the solution? Personally, I think it is high time we stop putting evangelism and separation against each other. The results of this are disastrous.

There are those in evangelicalism who fear offending anyone. They have a loving spirit but lack the boldness to preach the power of the gospel to a sinful world. The end result is a pragmatic attempt to get people to hear an amiable yet powerless gospel.

On the other hand, many in fundamentalism see empathy as a sign of weakness. They have a bold spirit but lack the compassion to preach the love of the gospel to a sinful world. The end result is an isolationist attitude that offends more people than it reaches.

On the one side, boldness is lacking. On the other, tact is lacking. It all goes back to the unnecessary competition of separation and evangelism. There is a balance to be found and maintained. We must avoid letting our passion for souls override our boldness for a pure gospel. We must also, however, strive to prevent our boldness destroy our compassion. May God help us to keep a balance of penetrating evangelism and bold separation.


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