In recent articles, we’ve looked at political polarization and the causes of our societal fragmentation. Now it’s time to consider ways the church can stand out from the world by resisting the fragmentation and polarization that has become so prevalent.

How can church leaders help congregations resist some of the forces that would pull our society apart? Here are two suggestions.

1. Expand our understanding of “worldliness” to encompass words and actions that increase polarization and fragmentation.

Many Christians know “worldliness” is something bad we should avoid, but we hold to a reductionist understanding of what that term means. Fifty years ago, it was “don’t drink or dance.” Today, it may refer to certain entertainment choices, sexual behavior, or how we dress or talk. For the most part, we think of worldliness in terms of practices that Christians do or (primarily) don’t do.

But worldliness in the New Testament encompasses more than a few select actions that make us stand out in the world. We are “worldly” whenever we are “conformed to this age” instead of “transformed by the renewing of our mind” (Rom. 12:2). The New Testament warns against conformity to the world in multiple places.

  • Jesus describes worldliness in terms of worry and anxiety (Matt. 6:25-34).
  • Jesus contrasts divine love to earthly love when he commands us to forgive fully from the heart and not to retaliate. Worldliness is seen in a spirit of revenge or in the example of the pagan who loves only the neighbor easy to love (and who reciprocates). To paraphrase: If you love only the people in your tribe, what are you doing out of the ordinary?
  • James warns against the danger of the tongue that blesses God and curses others (James 3) and then paints a picture of “friendship with the world” that includes “wars and fights” that break out from passions within (James 4). Facebook and Twitter, anyone?
  • Peter urges the early Christians to “honor everyone” as a way of standing out from the world (1 Pet. 2:17), where love and good deeds “silence the ignorance of foolish people” (1 Pet. 2:15). He describes the “imperishable quality of a gentle and quiet spirit” as essential in a Christian woman winning over her husband by example (1 Pet. 3:4).

I could go on listing similar examples in Scripture, but my point is that a narrow view of worldliness leads to a narrow view of holiness.

Too many Christians today believe they are fighting for righteousness in their online interactions or their heated discussions with co-workers when in reality they are engaging the world the same way non-Christians do (except perhaps without the profanity). The church cannot stand out amid polarization and fragmentation as long as our members are actively contributing to it.

As church leaders, we must expand our understanding both of being worldly and of being “set apart.” The way we talk about and interact with our neighbors (created in the image of God, the people we are called to love) matters if we are to be truly transformed by the renewing of our mind. You can be “right” and still worldly if your rightness is loveless. You can speak truth and still be worldly if your speech is not “seasoned with salt.”

2. We must maintain prophetic distance in our political involvement. 

In an earlier column, I mentioned the social aspects of party affiliation and how easy it is for our political positions to be influenced by our parties instead of our principles. The problem with a faith that is beholden to down-the-line party politics is that it robs us of the ability to speak prophetically, to stand out to the side and offer a word of challenge that defies worldly categories. (Lest you think I am referring only to the religious right, please note the same phenomenon on the “religious left,” when Bible teachers or well-known pastors who have long decried the politicization of conservative Christianity advocate loudly and clearly for particular policies and candidates, without any sense of irony.)

Prophetic distance does not mean political passivity. It means that our fundamental allegiances are to principles that transcend the debate of the current moment so that we are able to invest ourselves in cultural work over the long haul and not fall prey to the tyranny of whatever is urgent in one particular moment or party. Maintaining some distance, disciplining oneself to not weigh in on every controversy, taking time to ponder and think about wider cultural movements—these are indispensable attributes in showing the world that, as the church, we have a transcendent reference point. Our message is not summed up in sound bites. Our news is greater than whatever makes the headlines of the day. Our conscience must not be seared, lest we lose our saltiness.

Let’s lift up examples of prophetic distance in our preaching, teaching, and storytelling. I realize that political engagement is fraught with peril, and each era has its ambiguities and ethical dilemmas (consider the quandary faced by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, for example). This is why we will also need to provide cautionary tales where good men and women were led astray in their assessment of what constitutes faithfulness in a political moment. (Billy Graham’s massive regret in how he was snookered by Richard Nixon comes to mind.) We will continue to make mistakes here, and Christian leaders may debate the right course of action (just how distant or involved one should be), but we must open up space for prophetic distance if we ever hope to disentangle ourselves from alliances that too often lead to compromise and a muted witness.

In the coming weeks, I hope to put together a few more suggestions on how we can resist the fragmentation of our era. These two would be a good start.