By Dr. Becky Towne, Academic Dean and Professor of Christian Spirituality, Houston Graduate School of Theology
I have been studying the Revelation with my Sunday school class. We just completed chapter 18. In verses 4 and 5, a voice from the throne spoke, saying, “Come out of her [Babylon the Great], my people, so that you do not take part in her sins, and so that you do not share in her plagues; for her sins are heaped high as heaven, and God has remembered her iniquities.” This is a direct allusion to Jeremiah 51:44-45, where Jeremiah announces judgment on Babylon, and to Isaiah 52:11, where Isaiah proclaims release from captivity to the children of Israel.
In our response to the passage, my class considered how to “come out from among them” in our culture. How do we live as people who are different from the world yet who participate with God in God’s work in the world, engaging the culture but not adversely distracted by the culture? Lawrence Richards notes, “In its most significant sense, our separation is to God. We are to be different from those around us, not withdrawn from them.”
Jesus, in his high priestly prayer (John 17:15-16), prayed, “I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one. They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world.” So, how is it possible to live in the world but not belong to it; to remain separate unto God while engaging culture?
The only answer we could come up with was that it was difficult! This life in Christ calls for a responsive relationship with the Father so that we will know what is of the world and what is of God. It may call us to avoid certain things that, though we might have freedom to engage, could likely draw us toward the things of the world instead of toward the things of God. Even more difficult is that there may not be a hard and fast line to determine the limits of that freedom for each disciple of Jesus.
That is precisely where the struggle exists in the journey of Christian spirituality—where each disciple learns to discern how best to participate with God in God’s mission in this world. I heard a story from a military chaplain who encountered a man who was covered with tattoos. The chaplain was put off by the man until he talked with him and learned that the tattoos were his “uniform.” The chaplain had a uniform to wear, but the tattooed man wore his uniform into tattoo parlors instead of military bases. His participation with God’s mission was in the tattoo parlors. The military chaplain was humbled by his initial reaction of condemnation.
I can imagine that the call to me regarding a ministry in tattoo parlors would be to “come out and be separate.” I am not equipped for that kind of ministry and all that probably goes with it. However, I can rejoice in that man’s freedom in Christ to engage the culture very specifically. I know that I must find my way, as well, to do both—to be separate unto God while engaging culture in response to God.