John 17:2 shows that all flesh has come under the authority of Jesus Christ and John 17:23 says that the world shall know who the Father is through the oneness of the disciples. Yet, in the same passage in John 17:9, Jesus says that He prays for His followers and not the world. We see a paradox developing where apparently we are to draw away from the world, but in doing so we grow closer to the world. Consider that earlier in the gospel of John, we’re told that God loves the world (John 3:16). But later in one of John’s epistles he tells us not to love the world or anything in the world (1 John 2:15-17). Paul takes the idea of separation further in 2 Corinthians 6:17, telling us to be separate. James 4:4 says that to be a friend of the world is to be an enemy of God. And yet, despite all these warnings, Jesus tells us to go into all of the world (Matthew 28:16-20), to take care of the poor (Matthew 19:21), and even the example of Jesus was one who was always around the “world” (Luke 7:34). What are we to make of this paradox? We see two seemingly contradictory aspects; be separate from the world and be within the world.
Some Christians desire to eradicate the paradox and argue for minimal involvement with the world, only when it becomes necessary. Their ethic becomes legalistic, they live in Christian bubbles, and they pursue holiness. One can think of the Amish who choose to live in seclusion to the rest of the world. Yet, many other Christians can become a type of Amish. They only have Christian friends. They only read Christian books. They only watch Christian television. They only deal with Christians. That they have made “Christian” an adjective for inanimate objects shows that they have bought into the idea that some objects are inherently evil and only sanctified objects are worthy of Christian notice.
Some of these Christians neglect the poor, walk past the suffering on the streets, and look down their noses at sinners. They do this because they recognize that such people are not holy. If only these people would come to Christ, then we could help them! They have become a type of Pharisee (haven’t we all?).
Other Christians will eradicate the paradox in a different way by arguing for unity with the world. They being to reinterpret the Christian message for modern times. They adopt the philosophy and ethics of the world. They view Christianity as something that must change within every culture. It’s not that people are sinners, it’s that “sin” is just an outdated way to look at the world; “sin” is a judgmental term, one that overpowers the idea of grace.
They will often tell us how it’s important to feed the poor and help the widows, but that matters of doctrine can wait or don’t matter (unless, of course, the doctrine is a conservative doctrine; then it matters and should be argued against). They may say that doctrine does matter, but that actions should come first.
Both views are wrong. Both views erase the paradox of the Christian life; one view tries to elevate believing above acting and the other tries to elevate acting above believing. In the process, the whole of the Christian life is fractured.
We believe, but if we believe we will act on that belief. We act within the world, but it is our beliefs that guide us and give us the reason that we should act. Neither is more important than the other. How can we say we believe if we do not act on our belief? How can we tell people how to live if we believe nothing? And so the idea of “faith vs works” or “doctrine vs action” is a false dichotomy as the two are not in tension with each other, but instead are in unison with one another.
This is the paradox of the Christian life, that we are saved by faith, by believing, but that actions must accompany the belief, or how can we say we believe? The Christian life is not just found in books, nor is it found in just serving the poor; it is found in both and needed in both.