Yet Jesus went on to say: “I do not ask that you [God] take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one.” (John 17:15)
The prayer of Jesus was not that we get removed from our context, but that we will be kept safe from spiritual destruction in the midst of a fallen world. The world may not have left much of a trace on the community in which I was raised – but we didn’t leave much of a trace either.
As Christians, we are to be in the world, but not of it. We are citizens of heaven, but we are also residents of earth. 2,000 years ago, Jesus showed God’s plan on how to change the world by moving into a neighborhood that needed cleaning up – a very Jewish Bethlehem, under the authority of a very pagan Rome. Jesus didn’t show his people how to circle the wagons; he showed them how to go into all the world and preach the Gospel.
Here we are, 2,000 years later, and the world still needs saving. Jesus is not here, but the Spirit of God is within those of us who have committed our lives to Christ. The world needs a city crowded with followers of Christ, filled with the Holy Spirit, who move in, build houses, settle in, and change the neighborhood. That can be hard. The line between “in” and “not of” can be difficult to discern.
Paul addressed this problem with the church in Corinth. When he first visited them, he had apparently warned them about associating with people who were sexually immoral. Unfortunately, they did not understand what he was trying to say.
In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul clarified his command (and I paraphrase): “I didn’t mean to stop associating with people who aren’t following Christ. You would have to leave the world.” In other words, of course you are going to have friends and relate to people who don’t agree with you or live like you.
You live in Corinth. You are in Corinth. That’s your neighborhood.
In his second letter, he gave them a little more clarity on how to be "in" but not “of” Corinth. In doing so, he borrowed from a common occurrence in their lives. Farmers used a yoke to hook two oxen together for plowing a (hopefully) straight line. If one ox was stronger or taller, it would overpower the other, and the line would curve. But if their strengths balanced each other out, and they moved steadily toward a common goal under the guidance of the farmer, all would be well. With that in mind, Paul wrote:
Principle #1: Everybody yokes.“Don’t be unequally yoked with unbelievers. What common interest can there be between goodness and evil? How can light and darkness share life together? How can there be harmony between Christ and the devil? What business can a believer have with an unbeliever? What common ground can idols hold with the temple of God? For we, remember, are ourselves living temples of the living God.”(2 Corinthians 6:14 - 7:1)
Everybody is "in" the world, and rightly so. All people attach themselves to a person, organization, or movement. The question is not if we will attach ourselves to others; the question is why? Are we yoked equally on unequally? For Christians, there are common community goals toward which we can legitimately "yoke" with those who do not share our allegiance to Christ.
The early church had a huge impact by simply being a Godly presence in their neighborhoods. They tended to plague victims; they rescued infants who were set out to die; they took care of the poor (so much so that the Romans complained the Christians took better care of Roman citizens than Rome did). They wrote; they created art; they played music; they did construction work, they…. lived well.
Throughout the centuries, Christians have "yoked" themselves with very diverse groups of people to build hospitals, start charity organization, and work for the public good. We all share God's image; we all can unite over causes that help to mend this broken world.
Paul is NOT telling us to withdraw from culture or from people who are not followers of Christ. Jesus himself did not pray that we would be removed from our cities. We cannot accomplish the mission that Jesus started if we don’t have a vital presence in our community.
Principle #2: When we "yoke" with others over issues that will impact our faith, we need to share a common cause and a common Christ.
In the examples I listed above, all parties shared a common community goal. Other times, however, this is not possible. There are some roads that will guide us away from the Kingdom of God and undermine our faith and our witness in the community.
When we are asked to join in a cause that compromises the moral commitment we make as Christian, we must say "no." In 1 Timothy, Paul wrote,"Do not be partakers of other people's sins." If our partnership damages our ability to live holy lives, it's a bad idea.
In all ways possible, live at peace in your community and settle into your neighborhood. You will have the privilege of making good friends - and the opportunity to introduce people to Christ. Be "in" your city. But as a citizen of Heaven, never forget your true allegiance.
Be careful who shares your spiritual yolk.