As we continue to consider “What characterizes our movement?” from The Navigators Vision, we come to another characteristic: “They live as fruitful insiders among the lost.”
In seeking to live as Christ’s disciple, I memorized a dozen Bible passages that encouraged me to put Christ first, separate from the world, be steadfast, serve others, give generously, and develop world vision. These verses deeply affected my life; so has the phrase, “among the lost.”
To be honest, I’m struck by the seeming conflict between “separate” as in separate from the world and “among” as in among the lost. I’ve sought to answer the question, "How can I resolve the apparent conflict between the separation passages and the passages that teach that we are to be among unbelievers?” As I’ve grappled with this question, here are some observations that have proven helpful.
The writer of Hebrews describes Jesus as a high priest who is holy, innocent, undefiled, and separated from sinners (see Hebrews 7:26). Yet, for Jesus, holiness did not involve physical separation from sinful people. On the contrary, it seems that He looked for opportunities to socialize with such people. Much of the criticism leveled at Him had to do with the fact that He ate, touched, and generally hung out with some of the people considered most sinful in His society: the tax collectors, prostitutes, and non-practicing Jews.
Jesus’ holiness was a matter of "heart separation" and of behavior. He did not entrust Himself to people; He was not tied by heart in any way to the things of this world. He said, "I am not of this world.” He knew that His home was the Kingdom of heaven. Jesus lived a life not without temptation, but without sin. Though His reputation was smeared because of the company He kept, even His enemies were not able to find any genuine sin of which to condemn Him. He was among sinners and separated from them at the same time.
Believers are declared to be holy because of the finished work of Christ. They are called saints, and nowhere is their standing before God changed as a result of hanging around with the wrong kind of people. Believers are encouraged in multiple ways to be among unbelievers. In 1 Corinthians 7, Paul urges the believers to remain in situations in which they were connected to (even married to) unbelievers. The New Testament uses several words translated as "associate." In all uses it seems that there is clear teaching that it is expected, right, or good to have association with unbelievers.
Some of these subtle types of association are called "mixing it up with,” "having dealings with,” and "being joined with"; in each of these usages it seems okay or even encouraged for believers to associate with unbelievers.
There are several passages in which being "separate" is discussed in the context of being "among" unbelievers. A key instance is 1 Peter 2:9-12:
But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. Dear friends, I urge you, as aliens and strangers in the world, to abstain from sinful desires, which war against your soul. Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.
In this passage, the discussion begins with the fact that believers are "set apart" as aliens and strangers in the world. It ends with an exhortation to live such lives among the pagans that they would see the lives of the believers and glorify God. Like Jesus, believers are called to live out their "separation" or holiness among sinful people. Their lives are to stand in contrast, not because of their distance from sinners, but because of their closeness to them.
This word “among” is powerful. Jesus is described as having “dwelt among us” (John 1:14). Paul reminds the believers in Thessalonica that they know how he lived “among” them (see 1 Thessalonians 1:5, 2:7, and 2:10). James opens his epistle "to the twelve tribes who are dispersed abroad.” “Dispersed" is the word for planting seed. So we are working very hard these days to help people look at their neighborhood as that place in which God has planted them. The concept also applies to family, workplace, and any other natural, relational network. The gospel advances and flourishes along these relational lines.
Like seed, our laborers must learn to be planted in the soil of the lost and broken. That is where fruitfulness happens. God has planted His people in a specific set of relationships, and He wants to see them advance the gospel into and through that set of relationships.
In his excellent NavPress book Surprise the World!
Michael Frost says,
Evangelistic mission works effectively when we are living generous, hospitable, Spirit-led, Christlike lives as missionaries to our own neighborhoods—and when the gifted evangelists in our midst join us in sharing Christ with our neighbors. That’s not just good evangelism strategy. That’s the biblical model.
If God does not ask us to separate from sinful people, what should we separate from? There is an interesting word used in several epistles. The word is apotitheœmi,
which the English Standard Version usually translates as “put away.” According to Mounce’s Greek dictionary, this word means to lay off, lay down or aside, as garments.
Here is a short list of the types of things the followers of Christ are told to put away or separate from: Falsehood, bitterness, wrath, anger, clamor, slander, malice, obscene talk, wickedness, deceit, hypocrisy, and envy (see Ephesians 4:25, 31; Colossians 3:8; James 1:21; 1 Peter 2:1).
While we must separate from these things, ultimately it will be our good lives and deeds that point people to Jesus. The Bible calls this "bearing fruit," and our vision plays off of this, calling laborers to be “fruitful insiders.” Bearing fruit is directly related to our rootedness. First, we must be rooted in Christ and His love; and second, we must be rooted in a place and in a set of relationships. This is where and how the fruitful life described in our vision happens.
For Your Consideration:
One of the strongest passages on separating from people who do not know Jesus is 2 Corinthians 6:14-18. How would you reconcile this with the principles discussed here?
What do you find most difficult about being “among sinners and separated from them at the same time,” as Jesus was? Consider talking over this issue with a believer who seems to handle this tension well.
Are you building relationships among the lost around you? If not, ask God what first steps you might take to meet neighbors, or how to deepen your ties with people you already know.
Al Engler is the director of Nav Neighbors. To contact him or to learn more about his ministry, click here.
Editor's Note: This is one in a series of articles unpacking the Navigator vision. The series begins with Unpacking Our Vision: An Introduction.