There is tension between the Church and “the World.” The reason for this is because God’s people, the Church, coexist with people who do not believe and do not know the living God. The presence of the Holy Spirit indwelling believers causes this tension and believers’ obedience exasperates the tension. For obedience makes God’s light of truth shine out with greater clarity through the weakness and brokenness of believers.
One primary expression of “the world” is the City. Here more than any other the Lord’s disciples must learn to coexist with unbelievers. The tension we and the unbelieving people feel is rooted in our different understanding of human identity and purpose. We who love the Lord Jesus live within different relational and cultural contexts which have been formed and are influenced by human traditions, religious history and the oppressive rule of demons.
The “world” is a complicated system of attitudes, perceptions, customs and legally binding rules for human conduct. The physical landscapes of the natural world certainly help to shape this but it is the humanly crafted and demonically influenced norms and assumptions that govern and enforce what is considered normal human life. The city uniquely demonstrates this fact as it is a collection of people gathered together in order to enhance their survival in this world. Much of the content of the laws and social norms of the world do not conform to God’s Law or God’s stated will for his human creatures. This is the social context in which believers’ coexist with unbelievers.
As I write this I am sitting at a coffee shop (the famous one from Seattle) waiting outside to meet with a friend. This place is intentionally designed. The presentation of the physical space gives one a sense of sophistication. Some people are studying while others are talking together. It looks clean, music is playing, there is a distinctively artsy flare to the décor and the employees have been both friendly and professional. Frankly, I like being in this place.
I mention this not to endorse this coffee shop chain but rather because this strikes me as an apt illustration of the similarity and dissimilarity between the Church and the city (as an expression of the “world”). I know in my mind that this physical space is simply composed of walls, paint, specially chosen furniture and fixtures, coffee and other things to eat. Yet I experience in that space much more: Upon each visit I have experienced a pleasant pattern of interaction with friendly and well trained professional people who serve the customers; colors and placement of objects give me the impression that I am in a kind of haven of retreat from the world. And though I am surrounded by people I am under no obligation to talk with any of them.
I suggest that what I have just described is analogous to the superficial nature of how “worldly” people perceive and experience life on earth (particularly in affluent Western countries). The focus of attention and aspiration is on the physical world, the use of things to get what one needs (and wants) and the source of guiding principles is rooted the experience of the physical world as interpreted by the dominate culture. Yet there is conviction and aspirations to excel and do some good in the world—to be some useful service to their fellow human beings.
I live in the United States and thus I chose this illustration as an example. If my background was different I would have given a very different illustration to describe “the world”—the currents of assumptions and norms held by unbelieving people as they live day to day side by side.
To affirm what I have asserted above does not negate that some of the aspirations and values worldly people hold parallel God’s truth. For human beings are made in the image of God and as such they still long for goodness, beauty and some kind of moral grounding for decision-making. These impulses are built into our natures and we seek for them individually and may well try to inculcate them into the particular society we live in. This is evidenced by those who critique and advocate for reforms in all segments and levels of human endeavor—business, education, religious groups, government and the laws of the land.
In the Western countries of the world (Europe, United States, etc.) the people are indebted, in large part, to the intellectual and religious heritage of Christianity. This includes the expectations for what is just in law, what is appropriate for conduct of government officers and what the moral requirements for good decision-making are based upon. There may be intense disagreement and even hatred of this historical Judeo-Christian heritage but it remains the intellectual and moral framework that has informed those Western societies.
We who claim to know and worship the living God through the Lord Jesus are caught in the dynamic and sometimes hostile interchange between the real expression of God’s Kingdom in the true Church and the dominance of the culture of the City which so often embodies and encourages rebellion against God. Scripture states that God takes notice of human rebellion and will eventually act against it—particularly because those in positions of power always end up oppressing the weak and vulnerable in society. God will act to silence human pride and exalt his own Name and to intervene against the demonic activity such circumstances invite.
The second Psalm testifies to this.
“He who is enthroned in the heavens laughs,
Yahweh makes a mockery of them,
then in his anger rebukes them,
in his rage he strikes them with terror.
‘I myself have anointed my king
on Zion my holy mountain.’
(Psalm 2:4-6, New Jerusalem Bible)
The anointed king is the Lord Jesus Christ! And while he is full of grace and mercy the Church knows that a time is coming when the time for coexistence between believers and unbelievers will end. God will bring it to an end when he bring all people to account for their deeds in life and when he establishes the Kingdom on earth. Then wicked persons will no longer rule on the earth and all hostility will cease because the physical world will have delivered from worldly people and God’s people will rule it with justice and mercy—exercising the authority of the Lord himself. Until then believers coexist with unbelievers.