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 Jon 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). 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.”
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.”
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.
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.”
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.
This post is an excerpt from my forthcoming book, Uncomfortable: The Awkward and Essential Challenge of Christian Community (Crossway, September 2017).