Tuesday, October 1, 2013

In the World and Not of the World

One of the great struggles of the Christian church has been to be in the world and not of the world. It is a complicated balance. There are those who are so afraid of being corrupted by the world that they withdraw and erect barriers of rules to protect themselves. Then there are those who feel comfortable in the world and are willing to be swept along wherever it leads. I do not have any pat answers, but I believe it is important to see the dangers in both directions.

The Christian church started in persecution and therefore understandably leaned toward withdrawal from the world. But even then there were some who objected that the church was too lax and forgave people too easily. Later, Christianity became acceptable, and ultimately the state religion, and ended conforming to society. The reaction to this was monasticism, an effort by the few to withdraw from society entirely. In these developments we see the desire to have a positive impact on society and influence it in a Christian direction. And in competition with that, the desire to pursue a deep piety that goes beyond the ordinary. Both of these can be fueled by ego. But they also can contain a legitimate desire to love God and help others. And sometimes even the people involved have a hard time distinguishing the two.

These two impulses were at war with each other throughout the Middle Ages. It resulted in a long fight between the government and the serious churchmen over who controlled the church organization. But the church organization, in acquiring political power to fight the state, became more corrupt than what it opposed. And those who pushed for purification of the church were either absorbed or expelled in the long run.

Then came the Protestant Reformation. While there were minority groups that advocated withdrawal from society, the majority attempted to maintain the state church. This resulted in the various church organizations  becoming embroiled in politics, and ended in a series of nasty wars. Many finally accepted some form of tolerance, and some advocated separation of church and state. This also resulted in furthering the secularization of society. Some churches tried to fit in with this secular tendency and others reacted against it.

The United States was an experiment in running a nation based on separation of church and state. On this, the jury is still out, because we are still struggling over what this should really look like. It was originally thought nominal Christianity would continue to be the predominant belief. It is dubious whether it can be expected to remain so. But we must beware of either pursuing political power till we become corrupted by that power. Or completely withdrawing in reaction against this situation. There are difficult questions here, but  we must beware of going to extremes due to not thinking the situation through. And it is only as we avoid both extremes that we can find the right path through the present struggles.

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