Faith Matters

The challenge of being 'in' the world - but not 'of' it

Believers in the truth of the Gospel are increasingly in the minority in the modern Western world, says Bishop Harold Miller. But how should they respond, believe and live in this 'new' world?

Bishop Harold Miller, the Church of Ireland Bishop of Down and Dromore

THE Creed of Saint Athanasius does not resonate easily with modern ears.

It was not actually written by St Athanasius, but undoubtedly contains some of the key teaching and 'mood music' of Athanasius who almost single-handedly rescued the Church from going down a road into error in the 4th century.

I am told that the inscription on his gravestone reads 'Athanasius - Contra Mundum', or 'Athanasius against the world'.

That raises the question which is to be my starting point: What should the relationship be between the Church and the world?

Athanasius lived when the Roman Empire had, through Constantine, embraced the Christian faith as the faith of the state. Christendom had begun.

It was also in that 4th century that creeds were formulated. That was a very different scenario from the first three centuries when Christians had been largely persecuted for holding the faith.

However, in this new context, there were other battles to be fought, including around the true doctrine to be taught about God as Holy Trinity and the nature of Jesus Christ as the Son of God.

This was because a man called Arius had gained ground with false teaching denying the deity of Christ and about the Trinity.

This teaching was being widely received and accepted, not least by members of the Church.

Into this world stepped Athanasius, as 'wee Johnny who was out of step' with the others, but who in fact, proved to be the teacher and preserver of the truth.

In the end, his teaching became the teaching of the Church, so that we still find his blessed name in the creeds of the Church - and in our Church of Ireland Book of Common Prayer.

It is not always the majority which is right, indeed, it is not normally the majority which is right in terms of Christian faith.

Wee Johnny out of step, like Athanasius, can be a very important person when history is written in the future.

This means that in relation to the Church and the world, believers in the truth of the Gospel will be in the minority rather than the majority.

We are, in my view, increasingly in a Western world where orthodox Christian faith will be, like Athanasius, 'contra mundum'.

We now have to decide how to respond, believe and live in an entirely new kind of world and context.

The truth of this reality has become very apparent in the island of Ireland and even more clearly, as it relates to the Roman Catholic Church.

I don't think anyone would deny that we have moved, incredibly speedily, from an Ireland in which the Roman Catholic Church 'called the shots' to an Ireland where the Roman Catholic Church has been told in no uncertain terms in two referenda in the Republic, that it is no longer going to tell people how to live their lives.

If we take the recent referendum on the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution as an example; the Roman Catholic Church's position on abortion is quite clear and well known, but what is also clear is that the populous was no longer going to be told what to do by a Church which many considered to have been controlling and dominant, and even hypocritical.

The extent and speed of the change has been literally phenomenal. The influence of the Catholic Church on people's thinking has almost completely gone.

We in Northern Ireland are living in the wake of that and of more liberal thinking in Britain.

That was seen in the Assembly - when it was in place - where, even after a restatement by the Catholic bishops of a Catholic understanding of marriage, not one Catholic assembly member voted against same-sex marriage in the recent debates.

It is not surprising, therefore that Diarmuid Martin, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Dublin says that Pope Francis will visit a "very different Ireland" this summer, "as the Catholic Church in Ireland struggles to find a new place in Irish society and culture".

Lest you in any way perceive my comments as being anti-Catholic - which is certainly not my style or position - we need to recognise that what is happening is not just about one expression of Western institutional Christianity, but probably about all expressions.

In Northern Ireland, members of the Church of Ireland were used to our own implicit sense of being a Protestant province for a Protestant people, upheld by the unionist establishment, with the Church of Ireland being the hangover of the 'auld establishment', holding the historic Church sites and buildings, and being the default Church for State occasions.

Practically all of that is now gone, but we retain our natural Reformation default position, which is Erastianism, meaning that we generally go along with changes in the state - moral, political and cultural - even if we resist them at first.

The real meaning of not being ‘of the world’ is that we are people who have different priorities and different values, who are not moulded by the presuppositions of the world around us

The question is this: What are we called to do to be faithful to Jesus Christ in the world of this generation, in this particular place and at this particular time?

The New Testament has a great deal to say about the relationship of the believer to the world.

For example, St Paul in Romans 12:2 says: "Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect."

The high-priestly prayer of Jesus, as recorded in John 17:9 and prayed on the night before he died, lets us in to what is on the heart of Jesus for his followers, which resonates with the heart of the Father.

"I am not asking on behalf of the world, but on behalf of those whom you gave me, because they are yours," says Jesus.

"I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name...

"I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they do not belong to the world.

"I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one.

"They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world…"

What is absolutely clear here is that Christians are called to be 'in the world' - and indeed, a blessing to the world - but not 'of the world'.

In fact, if we become simply 'of the world', we will lose our very ministry and purpose, just as salt would be useless in flavouring food if it lost its distinctiveness.

And the way we avoid tipping over into being 'of the world' is by being made holy and different by the word of truth.

This doesn't only apply to a few 'hot-button issues' like euthanasia, abortion and sexuality, but it applies to the whole way in which we live our lives as disciples of Christ.

Let's reflect on what it means to be 'in the world'.

It means that we are not separatist or overly-pietistic. It means we happily live out our lives in the context of the everyday, carrying with us, and sharing with others, the presence and message of Christ.

The Church is 'in the world' when it prioritises those outside of itself and proclaims the Gospel of the grace of Jesus Christ 

It may be the world of our neighbourhood or our home, the world of work or business, school or college.

The basic place of witness for Christian believers is 'out there'. That means that we need to raise up disciples who will enter into the political and social life of our community, who will argue the faith in the marketplace, and who will enter into worlds like journalism, the media, schools, healthcare, ecology, industry, trade and business, and who will live palpably for Christ in all those contexts, witnessing with fellow-believers from other Churches as well.

We are 'in the world'. And all of this is lived out in the love of Christ for our fellow human beings as the driving force of Christian faith, without which we become, in St Paul's words from 1 Corinthians 13, a "noisy gong or a clanging cymbal".

It also means that, if we are 'in the world', we will engage with the world as we worship.

I have noticed an increasing trend in church congregations of all types and styles, to play down, and even largely forget about intercession for the things of God's world.

The truth is that we don't realise the importance of our intercession for God's world.

St Paul says in 1 Timothy 2: "First of all, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercession and thanksgivings be made for everyone, for kings and all who are in high positions, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity."

When was the last time you heard really intentional prayer for our political impasse here in Northern Ireland, about Brexit, for the Assembly to be up and running again, for the first and deputy first minister, for MPs, councillors...?

I observe that when churches discover the needs, issues, people and places of their parish, and find their centre of gravity outside themselves, they become energised, creative and even vibrant with growth.

But I also see at times a real resistance to change, and a settledness in some places with the idea that we are intended to be self-serving, here for our own needs and own good. No - we are to be 'in the world'.

The Church is in the world, because we all live in the world, it is in the world when it intentionally prioritises those outside of itself, and it is in the world to proclaim the Gospel of the grace of Jesus Christ, and to bring others into a living relationship with him, the very expression of God so loving the world.

But, the second angle is also important, though it may sometimes appear negative.

The follower of Jesus is not 'of the world'. The community of faith is not 'of the world'. Now, what exactly might that mean?

In the days when I first became a follower of Christ, there was an inclination in believers to create 'distinctives' which set Christians apart.

No smoking, no drinking, no pictures, no ice cream on Sundays, no make-up, no dancing - and the list might go on.

These things almost became a way of establishing the self-righteousness of those who were 'good living'.

Other sins, like selfishness, greed, sectarianism, gossip, lack of love, spiritual pride, and a whole load more, were relatively unnoticed in comparison.

But the real meaning of not being 'of the world' is that we are people who have different priorities and different values, who are not moulded by the presuppositions of the world around us.

We will think about money in a different way, knowing it to be a gift of God to be used for the good of all, not for our own good, and enjoying the gladness of tithing and generosity; we will see others as beloved creations of God, who are made in his own image with inestimable value and worth, no matter how broken or different they may be; we will seek out and serve the most lost of the lost and the most hopeless of the hopeless; we will exercise hospitality, knowing that in so doing we will sometimes entertain angels unawares; we will forgive the unforgivable and be prepared to lay down our own desires and preferences for the sake of the values of the Kingdom of God.

That is what people want to see in churches. The institution is only there to provide a framework for that to happen.

That kind of Gospel-living is hard. It is hard to find, and hard to do. But when we see it, it is liberating, joyful and energising.

So, to finish: we are in the world but not of it. In Latin, pro mundum and contra mundum, at one and the same time. That is the genius of the Christian faith.

To be distinct but involved, the same but different, and when we carry that role in the name of Christ, the blessings both to the world and us will be unimaginable.

  • The Right Reverend Harold Miller is the Church of Ireland Bishop of Down and Dromore.

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