It is sometimes difficult for us to decide how far we should go in our involvement with the world without compromising our faith, our loyalty to Christ. It can be difficult to find a balance. On the one hand we could become exclusive and have little or nothing to do with our contemporaries and fall prey to self-righteousness and a ‘holier than thou’ attitude; whilst on the other hand we could become so integrated and involved that our beliefs and practices become blurred. It is not always clear where to draw the line. Our minds need to be continually exercised lest we fall, perhaps insensibly, into one of these extremes.

It is an interesting exercise to survey the teaching of Scripture in this regard. We are instructed many times that God is not a “respecter of persons” – and that we should not be either. It is clear from God’s first words to Abram that His plan envisaged the ultimate inclusion of all nations: “In thee shall all nations be blessed” (Gal 3:8; Gen 12:3). But these words were addressed to Abram in the context of God’s command to leave his country, kindred and father’s house (Gen 12:1). Had he remained where he was God’s plans with him would have failed or at least been compromised. It is notable too that Abraham, Isaac and Jacob had minimal contact with their neighbours and contemporaries, that Israel was sheltered from Egyptian influence in Goshen, and that the nation had singular exclusive privileges (Exod 19:5–6; Psa 147:19–20; 148:14; Amos 3:2).

Strangers in Israel

Those who were circumcised and espoused the hope of Israel were permitted to partake of the Passover (Exod 12:43–45). The peril of Israelites being influenced by Canaanitish religion, rites and practices was the ground for Yahweh’s instruction to Joshua to utterly destroy them and to make no marriages with them (Deut 7:1–6). The basis for the acceptance of the foreigner in Israel was belief of the hope of Israel, so wonderfully illustrated in the case of Ruth the Moabitess (Ruth 1:16–18).

In the world but not of it

Coming forward in time to the Lord’s day we find that he had much to say on this subject. He spoke of the need for his followers to go into all the world and preach the gospel (Mark 16:15–16), and that failure to confess his name before men would lead to their names not confessed before the angels at the judgment (Luke 12:8–9). As a city set on a hill cannot be hidden, neither should they conceal their faith; they were the light of the world. That light was to so shine before men that they would glorify God for their good works (Matt 5:14–16). But these words were not only for the disciples’ instruction then, they must be considered and applied by you and me today.

Consistent with these words are those found in Jesus’ prayer: “I pray not that thou shouldest take them out of the world, but that thou shouldest keep them from the evil. They are not of the world, even as I am not of the world” (John 17:15–16). Set against this is Jesus’ insistent request that his disciples, those whom his Father had given him, might be kept in His name, even as he, the good shepherd, had kept and lost none, save the son of perdition (v11–12). So while it was important for disciples to be in the world as a witness, it was important that they be kept from evil influences. Jesus was concerned about this then, just as he no doubt is for us today.

The example of the Lord

Jesus’ largesse, his outreach, often amazed both his disciples and his detractors, the scribes and Pharisees. As the Saviour of the world, he needed to make himself known to all classes of men and women, and strangely, those considered least likely candidates for the Kingdom were often the most responsive. Matthew, a despised publican, became one of the chosen twelve disciples. Indeed the Lord found a ready reception among tax gatherers and sinners, but among the religious elite, the priests, scribes and Pharisees, his reception was reserved and cool. Those who fancied themselves to be righteous, keepers of law, who despised the poor and the sinner, were singled out for Jesus’ strongest condemnation (Matt 23). Their sense of self-importance blinded them; they failed to understand the greatest question of the day: who Jesus of Nazareth really was.

It is interesting to consider the Lord’s response to the “woman of Canaan”. She enjoyed no privilege by descent or position, but she elicited the Lord’s commendation and compassion. Humbly she repeatedly implored him to have mercy on her, for her daughter was “grievously vexed with a devil” (Matt 15:22). She persisted despite the Lord’s apparent indifference and statement of principle, “I am not sent but unto the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (v24). She was tested to the limit and her persistence evidenced her great faith, until the Lord gave way and fulfilled her need: “O woman, great is thy faith: be it unto thee even as thou wilt”. So whilst he pointed out the exclusive privileges of Israel, he showed that others with the right attitude, who acknowledged who he was, the “son of David” (v22), were not excluded. They would receive his mercy but those who were proud, and unbelieving despite the miracles, would ultimately be excluded.

We know that the Lord dined with tax gatherers and in the sight of his enemies compromised his claims. The reality was otherwise. In all such circumstances he did what was right: he shed light, brought healing and conversion to those deemed to be lost (Matt 9:10–13; Luke 19:2–10).

The disciple today

Every disciple will be faced with choices and decisions relating to cooperation and involvement with the unbeliever, the world and its institutions. How far should a brother or sister associate with the world in the realms of socialising in clubs, associations in sport, in business and the work place, in quasi-worldly activities and even in worship? In the case of the last mentioned we know that we can have no fellowship with the Christian churches, with “the mother of harlots” and her daughters – Jesus’ description, not mine (Rev 17:5). The apostles foretold the falling away from the Truth and the need for watchfulness. Wonderfully the Truth was rediscovered in these last days and as its custodians it is our privilege and responsibility to uphold it. We undermine it at our peril. We need to be familiar with our Statement of Faith (the Birmingham Amended Statement of Faith) that we espoused and acceded to as an epitome of the true teachings of the Bible when we were baptised. We compromise our community and our Lord when we fail to uphold the things we have most assuredly believed.

This may sound exclusive, but whilst we are zealous for the Truth believed, we have to reach out to all who take the Bible seriously and are anxious to hear its life-giving message.

In the more general, personal areas, disciples will have to make decisions for themselves. Where there is the possibility, the danger of being influenced in ways detrimental to our “first love”, the likelihood of our principles, our loyalty to Christ being compromised, we should terminate the association. We may even be setting a bad example to our fellow disciples. Positive involvement in the activities of the ecclesia, service to brothers and sisters, the aged, those in need or otherwise, should occupy our time, for let it be remembered that all other ‘worldly’ activities are loss, that Paul counted them such that he might “win Christ” (Phil 3:8).

And note also the wise words of Jesus’ closest disciple, John: “Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world. If any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him” (1 John 2:15). So we cannot love the world and the Father at the same time. And James underlines this when he instructs us: “know ye not that the friendship of the world is enmity with God? whosoever therefore will be a friend of the world is the enemy of God” (4:4).

It is all a question of our attitudes and our objectives. If our purpose for ‘association’ with the world is the furtherance of the gospel, then we might proceed with caution and wisdom. We must always be aware of the deceitfulness of sin, of how easy it is for us to be drawn away by the things which the flesh finds attractive.

So whilst we are an exclusive community, we need to have outreach, and love for fellow man, and seek always to bring him into the ambit of God’s saving grace. In this sense, like God Himself and His Son, we must be inclusive.

The end in view

Finally, we consider God’s ultimate purpose. We know that He intends to bring all things into harmony with Himself through Jesus Christ. In that day everything that offends will be rooted out and Eden will be restored. Then “the earth shall be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea” (Hab 2:14). Saints will cast their crowns before the throne of God, saying, “Thou art worthy, O Lord, to receive glory and honour and power: for thou hast created all things, and for thy pleasure they are and were created (Rev 4:10–11).