The question of how Christians are to relate to the unbelieving world (including unbelieving culture) is an ancient one. However, it’s always relevant. Every generation has to struggle with this question anew. I remember my own struggles with this question after becoming serious about the gospel and serving the Lord. As often happens, for a time I went to some extreme positions. I eventually came to realize that my views were more historically Anabaptist than Reformed. The historic Anabaptist stance with regard to the world is one of flight or complete separation. The Anabaptist view says that the world is evil, and therefore the church must have nothing to do with the world. The Reformed view, historically, has been one that recognizes the need for the church to be in the world and to engage the world. The idea of communities of faithful believers almost completely isolated from unbelievers is an aberration in Reformed thought and practice. It’s an idea that is typically Anabaptist, not Reformed.
The classic expression of the Anabaptist view can be found in the Schleitheim Confession of 1527. The Lutherans and Reformed were not the only ones to write confessions. Anabaptists did as well. You can find the full text of the Schleitheim Confession here, but I just want to quote the first paragraph from the fourth section. This gives the gist of the Anabaptist view:
A separation shall be made from the evil and from the wickedness which the devil planted in the world; in this manner, simply that we shall not have fellowship with them (the wicked) and not run with them in the multitude of their abominations. This is the way it is: Since all who do not walk in the obedience of faith, and have not united themselves with God so that they wish to do His will, are a great abomination before God, it is not possible for anything to grow or issue from them except abominable things. For truly all creatures are in but two classes, good and bad, believing and unbelieving, darkness and light, the world and those who (have come) out of the world, God’s temple and idols, Christ and Belial; and none can have part with the other.
Those who know their Bibles will recognize the language. The Schleitheim Confession is paraphrasing various Scripture passages here. The point is that there is an absolute antithesis between the believing and the unbelieving. Therefore, believers can have nothing to do with unbelievers. Christians must be separate in every way, withdrawn from the world. Moreover, the Confession states that Christians can also have nothing to do with whatever unbelievers produce in terms of culture. Unbelievers only produce abominations and Christians should flee from these wicked things.
The Anabaptist view, while sounding biblical, misses two key biblical distinctions and one key biblical principle.
Reformed theology maintains the biblical notion of the antithesis. There is belief and unbelief, good and bad, darkness and light, etc. The Bible is clear on that. However, and this is what the Anabaptist view misses, there is a distinction we make between what is true in principle and what is true in practice. In other words, in this world, there are inconsistencies that exist on both sides of the antithesis. Regenerated Christians still have the remnants of a sinful nature with which they have to wrestle (Galatians 5:16-17). Also what we do as Christians continues to be stained with sin. On the other side, however, unregenerated unbelievers also have their inconsistencies. Confessing total or pervasive depravity does not mean that we believe non-Christians are all as wicked as they possibly could be. In Romans 2:14, Paul writes of the Gentiles who outwardly “by nature do what the law requires.” Their law-keeping does not please God or earn anything before him, but yet they do what Reformed theology has termed “civic good.” The unbelieving nurses in the neo-natal ward taking care of premature babies are doing a good thing, and in so doing, they are inconsistent with who they are in principle. In principle, they are thorough-going rebels against God and everything good. In practice, they show love to tiny human beings.
A second key biblical distinction missed by the Anabaptist view is between being in the world and being of the world. “Being in the world” means that we inhabit the same space as everyone else. We are not to be separate from the world in the sense of cutting ourselves off from the world. But “being of the world” would mean that we are indistinct from the world. If we are of the world, then we belong to the world, and we are no different. A Christian living in the world must and will stand out. This is because we are like our Saviour. He said of his people, “They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world” (John 17:16). Yet Jesus lived in this world. He was sent into this world (John 17:18) and lived amongst us. He did not cut himself off from unbelievers, but went out and engaged them. He interacted with sinful human beings like the Samaritan woman in John 4. Christians are to be like the Saviour to whom they’re united. Not of the world, but definitely in the world.
The key biblical principle lost in the Anabaptist position is that even with unbelievers and what they produce, truth, beauty, and other virtues are sometimes in evidence. Christians do not have a monopoly on producing “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable” (Phil.4:8). In fact, sometimes what Christians produce in terms of cultural products falls far short. Some of the worst literature ever made has been created by Christians — a notorious example is the Left Behind series. Sometimes unbelievers produce music, literature, or film that leaves us in amazement at the skill and creativity involved. Yes, they can produce junk too. And certainly, they can and do bring out culture that accentuates and celebrates human depravity as well. Yet the Apostle Paul recognized that unbelievers can say things that are true and beautiful — he quoted from Aratus and likely Epimenides in Acts 17. Epimenides makes another appearance in Titus 1:12. Paul was obviously familiar with pagan poetry, and by quoting it, confirms that there are times when unbelievers get things right. This is not only borne out in Scripture, it’s common sense. Unbelievers can and do produce remarkable things in science, art, music, literature, and so on. Only a fool would deny it.
The Anabaptist view leaves one with at least two attitudes towards the world. The first is fear. We must fear the world and everyone and everything in it. We must always be afraid of being contaminated or compromised by the world. The second attitude is arrogance. We are the righteous and they are the unrighteous. We shoot prideful glances at them from our holy ghetto. As a result of both attitudes, the lost continue to be lost and the moniker “frozen chosen” becomes well-earned. By contrast, the Reformed position seeks to inculcate discernment, humility, and love. In our churches, families and schools, we aim to teach people how to discern the good, the true, and the beautiful. We teach believers how to appreciate these things no matter from whence they come and to build on them. We want to teach humility — so that we recognize our own inconsistencies and failures to live up to what we confess. Finally, when it comes to the people who make up the world, we want believers to love their neighbours. We shouldn’t be afraid of them, but love them and engage them. Don’t flee from them, but pursue them with a heart of compassion.
Although it’s the easy route, world-flight is not the Reformed way. The harder route is the one to which we’re called. It’s the route where we have to think hard about things. It’s the route where we have to love people. It’s the route by which God will be glorified, both in terms of our cultural mandate, and in terms of the Great Commission.