I was shocked when news came that the Rev. Jerry Falwell had died. He professed and proclaimed Jesus Christ as Savior; he is surely enjoying the bliss of heaven. We should be thankful for the many positive ways that God used him during his life.
At the same time, he was a sinner like the rest of us, and we can learn from his mistakes. Cal Thomas once worked for Mr. Falwell in the Moral Majority. Mr. Thomas observes:
The Jerry Falwell I knew was torn between the two kingdoms he represented: one not of this world and the other very much of this world; one with tactics and tools that could change lives and the other with tactics and tools that changed little.... It makes one wonder why he put so much time, effort, and money into political organizing when with his other role as preacher he shared a message about a King and a Kingdom that was better able to change people for the better than either political party could ever hope to do. (Syndicated column, May 15, 2007)
We do well to wonder that very thing. In the 1980s, I was largely in favor of the Moral Majority agenda. But I remember hearing Os Guinness warn that conservative, fundamentalist Christians were pursuing a path that would lead to increasing worldliness. I remember hearing Charlie Dennison warn that evangelicals were following the very path that led to Protestant liberalism. At the time, I was incredulous. But now, I fear that both of them were correct.
In that light, let's consider 1 Corinthians 5:9–13:
I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people—not at all meaning the sexually immoral of this world, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world. But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler—not even to eat with such a one. For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? God judges those outside. "Purge the evil person from among you."
In this passage, God calls his people to simultaneously pursue contact with the world and purity in the church. Our Lord Jesus put it this way: we are to be in the world but not of the world (John 17:14–16).
It might be helpful to picture the church as a lifeboat and the world as the water. To do any good, the lifeboat needs to be in the water, but the water must not be in the lifeboat. (This analogy and some ideas in this article were stimulated by Roger Ellsworth, Strengthening Christ's Church, pp. 89–93.)
The apostle Paul calls us to be in the world (vss. 9–10):
I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people—not at all meaning the sexually immoral of this world, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world.
God calls us to pursue contact with the world, but we often do just the opposite. We tend to want to take the lifeboat clear out of the water and withdraw from the world. We isolate ourselves in a comfortable, self-imposed Christian ghetto—with lots of church meetings, church schools, church sports leagues, church-based exercise classes, or whatever. We never need to interact meaningfully with any non-Christians. In fact, we go one "better"—we retreat into a little Reformed ghetto inside the Christian ghetto. We even debate which method of apologetics is best, without the least intention of ever engaging a real-live unbeliever. May God have mercy on us!
When God calls us to be in the world, however, he at the same time calls us to be not of the world. He tells us to maintain contact with the world, but he also calls us to pursue purity in the church. Look at verse 11:
But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler—not even to eat with such a one.
Our Lord calls us to associate with non-Christian sinners, but at the same time not to associate with unrepentant, so-called Christian sinners. We tend to get these instructions backwards. We withdraw from the world, and at the same time we resist our Lord's command to pursue church discipline. Whenever we tolerate serious sin in the church, we fail to bail the water out of the lifeboat. What irony! We try to get the lifeboat away from the water, while letting it sink deeper and deeper into the water.
Our Lord commissions his church to go into all the world and make disciples. We need to be in a position to pull sinners out of the water and into the lifeboat. But if the lifeboat isn't even in the water, we can't do that. Nor can we do it if the lifeboat is full of water. Instead of pulling sinners out of the water, some churches jump in and try to swim with them. They want to be like the world in order to "attract" the world. Unless our Lord intervenes, such a church will eventually drown in worldliness. Other churches, instead of pulling sinners into the lifeboat, try to beat them away.
Don't verses 12–13 stand out sharply against the prevailing social and political agenda of the so-called Religious Right?
For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? God judges those outside. "Purge the evil person from among you."
And yet the church is continually pressured to join in campaigns to judge the world. And so the church has tried to Christianize society—to clean up Hollywood, to promote prayer in public schools, to elect politicians who most closely match ideologically correct political scorecards, to reconstruct the world by coercive political means. We've mistakenly sought to wage war according to the flesh (see 2 Cor. 10:3–5).
And what do we have to show for our efforts? The world is still wicked. Ironically, churches and believers have done this largely at the expense of devoting their energies to exhibiting vital Christian faith and life in their personal walk, homes, and callings. Unhappily, when we get things so backwards, we actually fail to present the living Christ to the dying world—and that's our real reason to be!
(Note that I am talking about the organized church and politics, not about Christians. We are citizens of the state, as well as citizens of heaven. As Christians, we have an obligation to participate in society, including politics. The church has a different calling, on which it must stay focused. But as citizens of the state, we should try to make this world better. We are to pray for and pursue the welfare of the society in which we sojourn, because in its welfare we'll find our own welfare [Jer. 29:7]. However, we need to remember that until Jesus returns in power and glory, the world will never be the kingdom of God—it will never even be like it.)
The whole book of Revelation depicts how the exalted Christ causes everything that happens to revolve around the condition of his church in relation to his unfolding plan. Do you want to transform society? Then first and foremost draw near to the Lord and build up his new society, the church! The book of Acts reminds us that a Christian community that gathers people who have little human reason to get together, much less to get along with each other, has tremendous evangelistic potential—completely apart from any political activism! A holy congregation—which faithfully cleans its own house, but which doesn't expect the unregenerate world to live up to the same standards—can make a profound impact.
The church is to be in the world, but not of the world. But isn't this just where the modern church is falling short? Is she not quick to try to correct the sins of the world, but slow to try to correct the sins of her own members? God says that this is completely backwards (1 Cor. 5:12–13).
And yet, the modern church is bent on transforming the world by political activism. But when she does so, she unwittingly gives the lie to the gospel. If unregenerate people actually can reform themselves and live by God's standards, then they don't really need the saving work of Jesus Christ. But they do need the saving work of Christ.
We can't expect people in the world to live like Christians, but we should expect professing Christians to do so. We must never condone the sin of unbelievers, but we should cultivate friendly relationships with them. And while we can't expect perfection in the church, we must support and encourage faithful discipline in the church.
Keep putting the lifeboat into the water, and at the same time keep bailing the water out of the lifeboat. Then pray and work to the end that God will use our congregations to keep pulling sinners out of the water and into the lifeboat.
The author is pastor of Christ Covenant OPC in Indianapolis, Ind. Reprinted from New Horizons, August 2007.