The bar was full of people, full of smoke, full of that loud, sustained decibel hum of alcohol-fueled chatter that makes shout-talking into someone’s ear necessary for a conversation. The music was bumping, full of profanity. At one point a few people were dancing on a table. Bursts of laughter and the occasional shattering of glass punctuated the noise. All manner of tobacco was being smoked: cigarettes, cigars, cigarillos, pipes. And almost everyone in the bar had just finished a day of sessions at a major Christian conference.
I was a part of that scene, one of the evangelical revelers whose behavior was such that no observer could have distinguished us as believers in any holy God, in any “set apart” sense. Of course in the moment it was fun, joyful even, and we relished blending in with the bar crowd. But in retrospect I wish I’d contributed a better witness, living at least part of the call to “not be conformed to this world” (Rom. 12:2). I wish I’d been more mindful of how, even in a bar, I was called to be different, to let my light shine before others (Matt. 5:16). I came home from that conference and penned thoughts about the problematic desire for faith to “fit in” with the cool kids of the world.1
Like many of my Christian peers who grew up in a rather moralistic, protective, separatist evangelicalism, I fell prey to the all-too-common pendulum problem in my twenties. I attended parties (and hosted some) with Christian college students and graduates where kegs, beer pong, sake bombs, and vomiting were among the evening’s amusements. I watched movies and TV shows with little filter for unsavory or explicit content. In my efforts to avoid legalism, I abused Christian liberty.2 Because who wants to be prudish or lumped in with the hypocritical, holier-than-thou evangelicals so despised by society? No one.
But as uncomfortable as it is to embrace holiness and be noticeably different in the way we live in the world, it is essential for our vocation as the people of God.
WHY WE HATE HOLINESS
In today’s world, holy is the most offensive of all four-letter words. It’s far more acceptable to say, “My life is so messed up,” than it is to say, “I am striving to be holy.” For many, Christianity’s seeming obsession with holiness is one of its most distasteful qualities.
Why is holiness so reviled? One reason is simply that the pursuit of holiness also involves the acknowledgment of sin and the necessity of repentance. These are two words that are incredibly unfashionable: sin and repentance. In addition to implying that we are not good people, the words sin, repentance, and holiness conjure images of nuns with paddles, deceptively sweet (but kind of creepy) church ladies, and hypocritical pastors who decry the deviant sexual ethics of liberal America while they ravenously consume pornography behind closed doors.
Hypocrisy is a huge reason why we hate holiness. We’ve witnessed the inconsistencies of a “moral majority” that often failed morally, and fundamentalists who railed against the evils of pop culture while they perpetuated the evils of racism and sexism. We’ve seen too many people use the word holy while simultaneously ignoring the poor, condemning the homosexual, turning away the refugee, and covering up various forms of abuse.
For some nonbelievers, the idea that Christians are called to “be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt. 5:48) is naive but innocuous, so long as believers keep their holiness and sin talk to themselves. What is abhorrent is when Christian morality is felt to be imposed on others or suggested as the preferred program for human flourishing. One man’s morality may be OK for him, but it’s not OK to suggest it is right for another. This implies a holier-than-thou superiority, and nothing is worse than being holier than thou.
OUR WARINESS OF “WORKS”
Even devout Christians can be uncomfortable with the word holiness. Many Protestants are skeptical of too much emphasis on sanctification, for example, lest it morph into works-merited righteousness. But the history of God’s covenant relationship with his people has always been one of both God’s sufficient grace and his desire for our response of obedient living. In his biblical theology of covenantal discipleship, Jonathan Lunde argues for a continuity between the old and new covenants in terms of the holy living that, though not understood to merit the covenantal blessings, is nevertheless expected of God’s people:
Though always established in grace, each biblical covenant also includes demands of righteousness from those who trust in [God’s] faithfulness to fulfill his covenantal promises. This means that covenantal grace never diminishes the covenantal demand of righteousness—righteousness that flows out of covenantal faith. As a result, faith and works of obedience will always be found in God’s true covenant partners.3
Jesus and Paul do not dispense with the importance of holiness for God’s people in the new covenant. In some cases Jesus actually calls his disciples to even higher standards than the Mosaic covenant, for example in the area of divorce (Mark 10:2–12), the expansion of the murder prohibition to also include anger (Matt. 5:21–26), or the elevation of the prohibition on adultery to also include lust (Matt. 5:27–30). But why? Jesus is not upping the expectation of righteousness to make it harder for people to enter his kingdom. No, salvation is by grace through faith, not of our own works (Eph. 2:8–9). Jesus is raising the bar because he wants his people to be noticeably different, a light in the dark world. It’s difference for the sake of mission.
THE DIFFERENCE OUR DIFFERENCE MAKES
Ever since Abraham was called by God to leave his homeland to found a new nation in an unknown land (Genesis 12), uncomfortable obedience and uncomfortable difference have been a part of what it means to be the people of God. Why? Because God is perfectly holy. “Be holy, for I am holy” (Lev. 11:45; 19:2; 20:7; 21:8). God’s holiness is no joke. It’s why the Israelites crossing the Jordan were instructed to stay a thousand yards or more away from the ark (Josh. 3:4); it’s why Uzzah died for touching the ark (2 Sam. 6:6–7). It’s why the entire book of Leviticus is devoted to holy worship (chapters 1–10) and holy living (chapters 11–27). The minutiae of holiness in the Old Testament may seem a bit bizarre to us today, but that was sort of the point. Holiness is difference.
It is strange. But not for the sake of strangeness. For the sake of Yahweh.
The theme of holiness and separation is reiterated in the New Testament: “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Pet. 2:9). Jesus also uses the light imagery when he says his followers are to be “the salt of the earth” and “the light of the world” (Matt. 5:13–14). As Lunde notes, “Whatever Jesus intends by the images of ‘salt’ and ‘light,’ it is clear that his followers are to be different from those surrounding them in the world.” Salt was used in the ancient world for flavoring, for fertilizer, and as a preservative, in each case bringing something different and beneficial to the substance around it. Light also brings something different and beneficial to its surroundings (darkness).4 Like a lamp in a dark house, our light shines for a purpose: “So that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Matt. 5:16).
For Christians, there is a discomfort in being different, but it is for a missional purpose. It is for the sake of the world. As Rod Dreher notes in The Benedict Option, embracing a countercultural identity as Christians is not about our survival as much as our task to be a light to the world: “We cannot give the world what we do not have.”5
THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING COUNTER-CULTURAL (IN GOOD WAYS)
As historians of the early church have pointed out recently, the earliest Christians recognized the vital importance of habits and behavior that were starkly different from those of the surrounding culture. For them, more important than believing in Christian virtues was living them, “embodying the Christian good news, bearing it in their bodies and actions, living the message visibly and forcefully so that outsiders would see what the Christians were about and, ideally, would be attracted to join them.”6
But our pursuit of holiness is also an act of worship, a response to God’s grace. The opening of Romans 12 calls Christians to “present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship” (v. 1). And the next verse underscores the connection between holiness and difference: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind” (v. 2).
“Do not be conformed to this world” is one of the most grating verses of the Bible to many modern ears, yet it is not just a Pauline one-off. The nonconforming set-apartness of God’s people is a major theme of the whole Bible. But it’s an unpopular idea these days, both for Christians who wish they could blend in and for nonbelievers pressuring religious institutions to compromise on their different-ness (for example in the recent push for Christian colleges to abandon their policies on sexual conduct, or for Christian business owners to provide services or insurance policies that compromise their beliefs).
But the logic of groups necessitates difference. In order for any group—whether a Jewish seminary, an African-American college fraternity, or an LGBT advocacy organization—to have a meaningful identity and flourish in its function, it must have boundaries. If a Jewish seminary started enrolling radical, Jew-hating Muslims, or if an African-American fraternity allowed white women to join, or if GLAAD hired James Dobson as its new president, these groups would cease to have any meaningful differentiation. In the same way, a Christian college or church ceases to be relevant when it abandons its conviction-driven distinctions to fit the prevailing winds of politics and culture. Pluralism only makes sense if individual groups are allowed to be themselves. When boundaries are blurred and set-apartness is lost, everyone loses.
FROM MORAL MAJORITY TO PROPHETIC MINORITY
This is why Christian difference matters. When we blend in, when our boundaries are blurred or disappear altogether, our light in the darkness fades. Our salt loses its saltiness. This is why the shift Russell Moore describes in Onward, from an evangelical “moral majority” to a “prophetic minority,” is a good thing. It doesn’t mean we disengage from culture or build impenetrable, dialogue-averse walls around our institutions. What it means is engaged alienation: “a Christianity that preserves the distinctiveness of our gospel while not retreating from our callings as neighbors, and friends, and citizens.”7
The more Christians look, talk, act, and believe like the culture around us, the less interested others will be in what we have to offer. Why would anyone go to church and bother with Christianity if it is only a replica of the sorts of things they can find at the mall, movie theater, community center, or nightclub? It is the different-ness of the gospel, not its hipness, that changes lives and transforms the world.
- Those written thoughts eventually became my book Hipster Christianity: When Church and Cool Collide (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2010). ↩︎
- I explored the healthy balance between the two extremes in Brett McCracken, Gray Matters: Navigating the Space between Legalism and Liberty (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2013). ↩︎
- Jonathan Lunde, Following Jesus, the Servant King: A Biblical Theology of Covenantal Discipleship (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2010), 50. ↩︎
- Ibid., 172–73. ↩︎
- Rod Dreher, The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation (New York: Sentinel, 2017), 19. ↩︎
- Alan Kreider, The Patient Ferment of the Early Church: The Improbable Rise of Christianity in the Roman Empire (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2016), 13. Kreider illustrates this focus on behavior and habitus by quoting early church leaders like Cyprian: “We know virtues by their practice rather than through boasting of them; we do not speak great things but we live them” (p. 13). Or Lactantius on a non-coercive missional strategy that is focused on embodying truth: “We use no guile ourselves, though they complain we do; instead, we teach, we show, we demonstrate” (p. 34). ↩︎
- Russell Moore, Onward: Engaging the Culture without Losing the Gospel (Nashville: B&H, 2015), 8. ↩︎
Content taken from Uncomfortable: The Awkward and Essential Challenge of Christian Community by Brett McCracken, ©2017. Used by permission of Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers, Wheaton, Il 60187, www.crossway.org.
Brett McCracken is the managing editor of Biola Magazine at Biola University and the author of Hipster Christianity and Gray Matters. He writes regularly for the Gospel Coalition website, Christianity Today, Relevant, and his website, BrettMcCracken.com.