Christians repeat the phrase “in the world, but not of the world” often enough that many will be surprised to find out that it’s not actually in the Bible. It’s a concept that transcends denominational splits and theological disagreements. You can hear it in churches across the world. But if it’s not lifted directly from the Bible, then where does it come from? What does it mean? Should we aim at it? And, perhaps most importantly, what does it look like?

Finding Our Place In The World Is Complicated

As I’ve noted, the exact phrase “in the world, but not of the world” isn’t found in scripture. However, it’s based on two ideas that are very explicit in it. These ideas are Christian believers are: (1) culturally and religiously distinct from the society around them; and (2) that rather than withdrawing from the world, believers make their home in it.

1. Christians Are To Be Holy, Set Apart

Firstly, scripture often references the idea that believers are, by nature, different to the world around them. We are to live as foreigners. We work temporarily in the midst of a society that is alien to us. Consider 1 Peter 1:14-16, “As obedient children, do not conform to the evil desires you had when you lived in ignorance. But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; for it is written: ‘Be holy, because I am holy.'”

Christians are, by nature, different to the world around them.

This idea can be traced throughout the Bible (John 13:35; 17:16,18; Philippians 3:18-20; 1 Peter 2:9, 11). The idea that God’s people are to be different from those around them is found even in the Pentateuch (Deuteronomy 4:5-8). The distinctive laws of Israel were meant to drive the surrounding nations to amazement.

2. Christians Shouldn’t Be Monastic

Second, the imperative for the church to go into the world and live among the lost is also a thread that can be traced all over the New Testament.

In the Great Commission, which unifies all believers in purpose, Jesus says: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:18-19). My emphasis here, is on the word “go.” There is an expectation that believers will be spreading throughout the nations, making disciples wherever they go. Thus Jesus has sent his people into the world. Because it’s in seeing and interacting with believers that the nations will see his light (Matthew 5:13-16; John 17:18).

Jesus has sent his people into the world.

The whole of the book of Acts follows the expansion of the church. First in Jerusalem and Judea, then into Samaria, and finally across the empire. From its earliest inception the church has followed the mandate to go out. Sometimes purposefully as missionaries (Acts 13:3), sometimes incidentally as persecuted refugees (Acts 8:4), but always going.

We Must Be Both Distinct From And Active In Our World

Scripture is clear, we must be a distinct, holy people. Yet it is also clear that we must be present and active in the world. It is reconciling these two themes of Scripture that presents a challenge.

Believers must remain distinct from the world. Simultaneously, we cannot shrink back from it.

Followers of Jesus walk a very thin tightrope. Historically, keeping from being “of the world” has led many to withdraw from it socially, if not physically. Likewise, in pursuit of being “in the world”, many have reasoned themselves into the sinful lifestyles of the people around them, and even shipwrecked their faith. Maintaining a balance isn’t easy, and sometimes it can feel like we’re trying to have our cake and eat it too. But it is what our Lord calls us to. We must follow where he leads. Believers must be careful to remain distinct from the world around us. At the same time, we cannot shrink back from it.

The World Won’t See Us If We Withdraw

Wherever we find ourselves, our faith needs to be evident in the way we live. It needs to be visible in the way we love one another (John 13:35); honour the government (Romans 13:1; 1 Peter 2:17); treat those who oppose us (Matthew 5:44-5); and in the purity of our speech. Importantly, this is more than merely “doing good things.” It calls for an entire shift in our value system, to view our communities through the lens of what God has called good and what he has said is sinful. 

Jesus tells us that in the same way that the city’s light betrays its location at night, our actions need to show evidence of God’s gracious work to those around us. This means that we need to be exemplary citizens of whichever land we find ourselves in. Where our cultural or societal values come into conflict with the things that God has said are sinful, or the principles that he has set down, we must choose to be distinct from those around us. This may be costly, earning us exclusion, derision, or even outright hostility (1 Peter 4:4; 3:13-16). Yet this should not be surprising. Jesus said that just as the world hated him, it would hate us (John 15:18-9).

Jesus didn’t avoid people caught up in sinful lifestyles.

As we saw above, the church has been commissioned to go out. This doesn’t just apply to those called to “full time ministry” or “mission.” The command to “go and make disciples” is one that applies to all of us. If we claim to live in Christ, we must live as he did (1 John 2:6). Jesus didn’t avoid people caught up in sinful lifestyles. On the contrary, he intentionally spent time with them. When he was questioned on it, he replied that it isn’t the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick (Mark 2:17). As his people, we can do no less.

We shouldn’t cut ourselves off from people of other faiths, or withdraw from our cultures and communities. Instead, we as the Church, need to be present, and to be visible. Our neighbours and co-workers need to be able to look over at us and see the loving, godly lives we are living.

We Pass Our Days On Earth, As Citizens Of Heaven

The 2nd century Epistle to Diognetus describes this lifestyle well.

He writes, “But, inhabiting Greek as well as barbarian cities, according as the lot of each of them has determined, and following the customs of the natives in respect to clothing, food, and the rest of their ordinary conduct, they display to us their wonderful and confessedly striking method of life. They dwell in their own countries, but simply as sojourners. As citizens, they share in all things with others, and yet endure all things as if foreigners. Every foreign land is to them as their native country, and every land of their birth as a land of strangers…They pass their days on earth, but they are citizens of heaven. They obey the prescribed laws, and at the same time surpass the laws by their lives.”

It is imperative that our lives show that we are both in the world, and not of this world.

If we are to please our Lord we must remain distinct from the ungodliness that surrounds us. If we are to obey him, we cannot withdraw from the world that so desperately needs to see his grace. Brothers and sisters, it is imperative that our lives show that we are both in the world, and not of this world. I pray wholeheartedly that we will be able to maintain this balance.