By Aaron Morrow
Today’s post is being run in partnership with Gospel-Centered Discipleship (GCD), and is an excerpt from Aaron Morrow’s new book about living out and proclaiming the gospel in a small town context. In this post, the author looks back to four 1st century religious groups, and shows how their shortcomings serve to instruct us today.
Trap #1: Separating From Non-Christians Like a Pharisee
The Pharisees were a very conservative group that was extremely committed to being holy and uncorrupted by the world. They were also very critical and judgmental towards non-Christians because they didn’t think non-Christians were as committed to following God as they were. And they were convinced that one of the easiest ways to be polluted by the world was to be around non-Christians. The last thing the Pharisees wanted to do was be influenced by non-Christians so they avoided them like the plague in an effort to be holy.
We fall into this trap today when we stay away from non-Christians in an effort to be holy and when we organize our lives in such a way that we rarely have to spend time with non-Christians unless we’re forced to, like family gatherings or going to work. This kind of thinking is flawed because that’s not how we become holy and it lacks the heart of God for people who are far from him. Let’s briefly examine what the Bible says about this.
“My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one. They are not of the world, even as I am not of it. Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth. As you sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world.” (John 17:15-18)
In John 17:15, Jesus prays that we wouldn’t be taken out of the world but instead we would be protected from the evil of Satan. In other words, Jesus is praying against spiritual warfare and the allure of hunkering down and separating ourselves from non-Christians. Unfortunately, many Christians throughout history have separated themselves from non-Christians in an effort to become more holy. But do we actually become holy when we do this? Jesus would probably say we are missing the point because in 17:17 he says the truth in the word of God is what makes us holy. In other words, the way we become holy isn’t by avoiding non-Christians but staying in a close relationship to Jesus because the entire word of God points to him (John 5:37-40). Staying connected to Jesus transforms our heart to mirror his heart for others, and that’s why we actively pursue relationships with non-Christians in hopes of loving them and connecting them with him. And in doing so, this actually protects us from sin because the most healthy and sustainable way to avoid sin is not to avoid non-Christians but to stick close to Jesus. Sticking close to Jesus transforms everything about us, that’s why the natural expression of it is to be on mission (17:18).
However, not everyone in the world is a good influence. So in light of this, how can we be faithful to John 17:15-18? Space does not allow me to fully unpack this subject but here’s one thought worth considering. When the average Christian thinks about mission, they typically think about doing it as a lone ranger. This is a horrible mindset because Christians who do mission alone often become frustrated, discouraged, and are typically influenced negatively in some way. That’s why we should always be on mission with at least one other Christian for the purpose of encouragement and accountability. This can be a spouse, friend, neighbor, co-worker, or classmate. Are you alone on mission? If so, you should start praying that God would bring Christians to your work, school or neighborhood to be on mission with you because God is in the business of sending out missionaries who aren’t lone rangers (Luke 10:1-2).
Trap #2: Blending in With Non-Christians Like a Sadducee
The Sadducees wanted badly to be accepted by non-Christians. They successfully avoided the trap of shunning non-Christians like the Pharisees but they failed to avoid the trap of blending in with them in a sinful way. They even went so far as to deny the existence of angels and demons as well as any kind of future resurrection for worshippers of God (Mark 12:18-27; Acts 23:8). In the end, their mission to reach out and influence non-Christians was undermined by their mission to be loved and accepted.
We fall into this trap today when being loved and accepted by non-Christians becomes more important to us than Jesus and his mission. Granted, there’s nothing inherently wrong with being loved and accepted by non-Christians, but our mission of advancing the gospel will always be stuck in neutral if we also have a competing mission of being loved and accepted. In Luke 16:13, Jesus says, “No servant can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.” Jesus was talking about money in that verse, but the same principle can be applied to mission because we can never serve two masters or missions that are competing against each other. Jesus is our master and his mission deserves our full allegiance.
Trap #3: Ruling Over Non-Christians Like a Zealot
The Zealots misunderstood the difference between the kingdom of God and their own personal kingdom and, as a result, sought to usher it in through power and authority. This explains why they loved politics so much. The Zealots thought political systems were powerful tools in forcing non-Christians to be moral and obey the Bible. While in some ways this was well-intentioned, their fascination with power and politics only served to undermine their mission to influence non-Christians because the gospel’s way of improving a non-Christian’s morality is centered around giving them a new heart. When we become Christians, God puts a new heart in us (Jeremiah 24:7, 31:31-33, 32:39-40; Ezekiel 11:19-20, 36:26-27). With this new heart comes new thoughts, emotions, and desires that we didn’t have before we were Christians. And it’s out of the overflow of this new heart that we are changed from the inside out over the course of time. In other words, deep changes in our heart don’t ultimately come through gaining a political upper hand.
We fall into this trap today when we are more interested in sermons about politics than in sermons about Jesus, when we get more excited about candidates than the cross, and when we believe that if we simply elect more people who think like us then the world will be a terrific place. However, we need to also realize that political systems need people who love Jesus because policies and laws affect all of us. But even with that being the case, we also need to realize that we don’t need fair and just political systems in order to accomplish the mission Jesus gave us in John 20:21. If that were true, why has the church been exploding with conversions over the last fifty years in nations that are wildly corrupt and ungodly? The main point is that even though fair and just political systems are good for everyone, the hope of our mission is found in Jesus and not politics.
Trap #4: Ignoring Non-Christians Like an Essene
The Essenes were an intense religious group that happily kept to themselves. They lived together in what we would consider a hippy commune where they would withdraw from non-Christians and ignore them. They did this so that they could focus their time and energy on their own spiritual growth and their own personal encounters with God. This obviously hindered their mission because they weren’t interested in anyone’s pursuit of God except their own.
We fall into this trap today when we are so preoccupied with our own spiritual growth that we forget there are actually non-Christians in Platteville that need Jesus just as much as we do. This mindset is often accidentally reinforced when “growing spiritually” is not clearly connected with mission. This is a problem because if growing spiritually doesn’t eventually result in being sent on mission then something is enormously lacking in our spiritual growth! And it’s crazy how it doesn’t take long for a new Christian to learn how to make ignoring non-Christians sound spiritual and mature. How often have you heard these kinds of phrases below?
“This season of my life really needs to be focused on me and Jesus.”
“Evangelism is a good thing but what I really need to focus on is going deeper with God.”
“My husband and I need to build ourselves up spiritually before we start thinking about mission.”
At the very least, there is a half-truth to these statements because all of us should eagerly desire to grow in our walk with Christ. But in my experience, I often find that the people who say these types of phrases aren’t using spiritual growth as a springboard to anything except more spiritual growth. The half-truth in all this is that we need to be growing spiritually but ignoring non-Christians is not the fruit of someone who is growing spiritually.
Aaron Morrow (M.A. Moody Bible Institute) is one of the pastors of River City Church in Dubuque, Iowa, which was planted in 2016. He and his wife Becky have three daughters named Leah, Maggie, and Gracie.