When my husband and I were in our 20s, our friend Darren went to work in an outreach ministry to homeless youth in San Francisco. In preparation, he buzzed his hair and grew a goatee and dyed it blue. He said it made him fit in better with the teens he was trying to help. In this, I thought he was being like Paul, who said in 1 Corinthians 9:22, “I have become like all men to all people that I might save some.”
A Christian woman in our life, our parents’ age, was really bothered by both the blue beard and the desire to be more like these homeless kids. “But, we’re called to be different!” she exclaimed in distress. “Right? Doesn’t the Bible call us to be different?”
The “we” she was referring to was Christians, and presumably, she meant that we were called to be different from “the world.” “The world,” is a term used throughout the New Testament to connote the “sinful” world: principles, systems and principalities that are hostile to the loving, living God.
I remember thinking that being set apart as a follower of Christ probably didn’t mean that we dressed like clean-cut kids in khakis in order to spread the gospel. Darren’s goal wasn’t to keep these kids from corrupting him, but to enter their world to help them. Many of these kids were on the street not because they were sinful and rebellious, but had run away with their younger siblings in tow because the streets were safer than their abusive homes. Darren wasn’t called to be different. He was called to dive in.
This “called to be different” concept was prevalent in a lot of the Christian teaching and conversations that surrounded me from childhood into young adulthood in the church. The now-infamous book I Kissed Dating Goodbye, based its entire principle on this concept. If we want a different result from the world, author Joshua Harris wrote, then we need to have a different process. It was impossible for a truly Christian marriage to come from a courtship that looked anything like dating in a secular culture. (Harris has since asked his publisher to pull all copies out of the marketplace, and has renounced formal Christianity. The first part makes me feel gratified – that book’s premise always seemed like legalism to me – and the second part makes me really sad. It seems he threw the baby out with the bathwater. But I don’t know the whole story and won’t pass judgement.)
In another example, all teaching on marriage I was taught centered around the Complementarian view: that though “equal” men and women were placed in a hierarchy by God, man as the head of the household and the church, and woman is under him. This was perhaps unpalatable to me and other women in the church, our male pastors would say, because it was so counter-cultural. It was, specifically, in contrast to Feminism, which they said was a worldly view. The very argument for Complementarianism (which is essentially another word for Patriarchy) found its goodness in the fact that it was against culture. This and other teaching led my young, malleable mind to believe that the more counter-cultural the Biblical principle was, the better it was.
In the last year and a half, I have read more and studied more than any other time in my life. And among my reading was Kat Armstrong’s No More Holding Back and Beth Allison Barr’s The Making of Biblical Womanhood, which make a strong Biblical case against Complementarianism. But that’s not really the point I want to focus on.
In her book, Barr, a historian with a PhD, associate professor of history and associate dean of the Graduate school at Baylor University in Texas, showed how patriarchy – the hierarchy in which man holds more power than woman in family and society – existed far before any of Scripture was written. That perhaps God revealed himself to the patriarchy rather than ordaining it. And then she wrote something that stunned me.
…biblical womanhood, rather than looking like the freedom offered by Jesus and proclaimed by Paul, looks much more like the non-Christian systems of female oppression that I teach my students about when we discuss the ancient worlds of Mesopotamia and Greece. As Christians, we are called to be different from the world. Yet in our treatment of women, we often look just like everyone else.
I had been taught that the counter-cultural nature of patriarchy was the very thing that affirmed its truth. And yet the truth is, that patriarchy is only counter-cultural to the feminism that has been around for only 50 years. What was counter-cultural in Paul’s teaching on marriage was not that it affirmed the Roman patriarchy at the time, but that he called husbands to mutual submission, and addressed women, slaves and children directly, essentially upending the ancient Roman belief that any non-free male was vastly inferior in worth.
So, this not an argument against Complementarianism. (Maybe I’ll save that for another time, though I would call it a non-essential issue, though a fascinating one.)
Instead, this is the point I want to make: When our focus as Christians is that we are “called to be different” than the world, our theology will be corrupted, and our “why” for what we believe and how we act will be coming from the distorted place. Trying to be different is a defensive stance, looking at the changing waves of culture and attempting to go the opposite way. We will only find our way to wholeness and holiness when we “fix our eyes on Jesus, author and perfecter of our faith.” (Hebrews 12:2) Yes, Jesus was gloriously counter-cultural in many ways. But only when it was the truth-loving, people-loving thing to do; it was never his motivation.
The “Defensive and Different” theology that I’ve heard used out of context throughout my life as a Christian, has surfaced in big ways in the last year and half particularly. Some subcultures of Christianity seem to be setting themselves against anything secular, assuming anything not strictly religious is sinful, worldly.
But being anti-secular is not what it means to be unworldly in the Scripture. 1 John 2:16 says it this way: For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the boastful pride of life, is not from the Father, but is from the world.
But what if some movements of “secular” culture have nothing to do with lust, greed and pride, but are actually accomplishing something close to the heart of God? Political correctness (often spit out of mouths as something disdainful) was at its original core a movement of kindness, which brought to our national consciousness the idea that what we call people matters, that words matter. Though it became politically weaponized, it was initially a movement of equality and gentleness, aligned with the God of Creation who made us namers by nature, and the heart of Christ who told us never to call someone a condemning name.
Feminism is often condemned by Christians as having disastrous results for marriages (divorce rates went up when middle-class women began to work outside the home, for example, though many women in poorer groups always worked outside the home out of necessity). But it also had beautiful results. Elevating the status of women, giving them more equal rights under the law and the power to earn enough money to leave abusive relationships – which historians say accounts for part of rise in divorce. Jesus most certainly would approve of many aspects of feminism, as we see him elevate the status of women over and over in the gospels.
But, in the Defensive and Different stance, if a movement doesn’t have its literal origins in the gospel story of redemption, that it must be suspect. Critical Race Theory doesn’t talk about Jesus, so it must be a distorted theory. But what if understanding this secular theory brought about less oppression to our fellow Image-Bearers? (I'm not saying it would, but that it is certainly something to consider.) The Defensive and Different view says that social justice movements, which seek to change systems of inequality, won’t actually be of any use because the only way to change society is to save human souls one at a time. (If you want to understand the origins of this idea, message me. It’s a combination of theologies called freewill individualism, realationalism, and anti-structuralism, all of which have direct ties to the theology which emerged in the American south as a resistance movement to giving Equal rights to Blacks post-Civil War.)
So. What does the scripture actually say about our different-ness, our set-apartness? Because it certainly does teach this.
One of my favorite passages is 1 Peter 2:9: "But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy [set apart] nation, a people for his possession so that you may proclaim the praises of the one who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light." We aren't called to be different defensively or in judgement, but in order to proclaim God's goodness. A priest’s job was to bear the weight of the sins of the people; to make sacrifices on their behalf; to hear and minster to their sorrows, and to help make a bridge to God. So “set apart” is about being given a high function – not to withdraw from the people of the world – whom, incidentally God loves – but to move toward them in order to introduce them to the God who came near, who was full of grace and truth. So, we fix our eyes on Jesus, engage with people the way he did, and point people His way.
And then James 1:27 says, “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” Isn’t this a beautiful definition of the life of faith. To be incorruptible, and at the same time, to care for those in distress. That sounds like diving in, getting your hands but not your heart dirty, and maybe even dying your beard blue.