A couple of generations ago believers were recognised by certain marks of conduct, mostly negative. We didn’t drink (not even sherry in a trifle), smoke, gamble, wear make-up or go to the theatre, and we only went to the cinema when there was a Billy Graham film on.
We had our dress code (dowdy!) for Church and didn’t read Sunday Newspapers. Some of these things were cultural, some just from habit and some were already showing signs of fossilisation. But they did point to an important Biblical truth: God is holy and we are to be holy also. (Leviticus 19 : 2, repeated in 1 Peter 1 : 16)
Then from the 1970s on there were significant changes, inside and outside the believing community. There was the Charismatic Movement and even non-charismatics loosened up a bit. There was an influx of new believers who didn’t have some of our cultural baggage (for which God be praised).
Then there was the Permissive Society,and some of that rubbed off on believers. The media espoused a liberal agenda and we were lectured about daring to say that anybody was wrong. The Electronic Age brought prorammes and images into our homes that used only to exist in less frequented parts of cities. Sadly believers became tarnished victims of all this, relationships broke down, standards dropped, the old legalism . . . with its problems, changed to licence and there is at times little to differentiate believers from the world around them.
Another factor has come into play, we have seen an emphasis on a more outgoing pragmatic Christianity, and believers have taken up causes which they had previously neglected: Poverty, Racism, Exploitation and other societal issues. This is a good move, to be fully endorsed by all. But a danger lurks in its undergrowth: it can make us forget the ‘and’ in James 1 : 27 ‘Religion that is pure and undefiled before God . . . to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world’.
We do need to be in the world, but not of the world. As the old illustration goes, ‘a ship should be in the water, but the water should not be in the ship’. So what’s to do? We do not need to go back to an unattractive Victorian morality, but we do need to return to those Scriptures that call for holiness. We need to apply them to our world today. Maybe some people won’t like it, maybe we’ll come in for criticism . . . but that’s what it means to be the salt of the earth.
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