Members Only?

14 Do not be mismatched with unbelievers. For what partnership is there between righteousness and lawlessness? Or what fellowship is there between light and darkness? 15 What agreement does Christ have with Beliar? Or what does a believer share with an unbeliever? 16 What agreement has the temple of God with idols? For we are the temple of the living God; as God said, “I will live in them and walk among them, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. 17 Therefore come out from them, and be separate from them, says the Lord, and touch nothing unclean; then I will welcome you, 18 and I will be your father, and you shall be my sons and daughters, says the Lord Almighty.” 7:1 Since we have these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and of spirit, making holiness perfect in the fear of God.

2 Corinthians 6:14-7:1

What type of community we are called to be in Christ? Are we called to be exclusive or inclusive? Friendly towards outsiders, or a place open to members only? Open or closed? I think this is an important question for us to explore, especially as the church navigates how to be a body when relations are strained, and many of the ways we are accustomed to connecting have been disrupted. It is also important to consider this question in light of the ongoing anxiety about the future of the church in an increasingly secular context.

One typical approach often exercised in American evangelical circles is to call Christians to a form of cultural exclusivism. If you are going to listen to music, it needs to pulled from “Christian” airwaves. Films and TV? Be careful! Let’s put on another episode of Veggie Tales and call it a day (for the record, Veggie Tales is a fine Christian cartoon, and my intention isn’t to throw shade at them; instead, the problem here is supposing that Veggie Tales is the sole store of virtue in the market of virtue for young children). In America, these are broad contours of the ongoing culture war between Christian conservatives and the larger society.

However, COVID19 took this “battle” in new directions, pitting science and public health against (supposedly) fidelity to the Gospel. The list of Christian pastors and commentators “warning” the faithful against the coming godlessness the lockdowns and distancing measures presented is long and rather worn.1 In other words, in light of a crisis, and despite the name “evangelical,” the instincts of many was to batten down the hatches, and insist the Christians take medical and other advice from pulpits rather than see the opportunity that a cooperative approach between the church, public health officials, and elected leaders might present. From this perspective, the default was to pit the church against the world because our instincts tell us that the church is to be a closed society.

To back this position, many make reference to this passage from 2 Corinthians. At a cursory glance, the parallels are clear. We aren’t to be mismatched with the unbelieving. Our call is to “come out from them,” with the “them” being any and all who don’t share our allegiance to Christ (and most importantly) our assumptions about Christ and his teaching.

However, I hold that this passage of Scripture is often misused, and at best, poorly understood. The misuse and misunderstanding operates on two levels. First, there is verse 14 and the command that we not be mismatched with unbelievers, and the contrasts Paul draws in verses 15 and 16 between believers and unbelievers, etc.

There is a grave danger in reading a verse like this and concluding that Paul is commanding the church to have nothing to do with non-Christians. I have more than once run into well-meaning Christians citing this verse as justification for walling themselves and the church off from the rest of the world. From a certain vantage point, it is too easy to read this as a command to seal the church off from the grit and dirt of the world outside its doors. This can even extend to judgments about other people that we make about others outside our hermetically sealed buildings.

As a result, some claim, the church must focus with every ounce of seriousness, concentration, and piety we can muster. By these lights, the church cannot be a place to consider everyday concerns weighing upon the larger human community. On a practical level, and as we have seen, concerns like a global pandemic can’t be allowed across the threshold of the narthex. God forbid we listen to public health experts! In really extreme examples, there is no room for humor, laughter, drama, beauty, or art between members of the church and/or its culture with others outside the institution.

In other words, there can be no overlap of an individual’s faith, the church community, and the world. Any failure at containment is evidence that the church has been compromised, or so proponents of this position argue.

Unfortunately, readings like fail to understand the word Paul uses, as well as the larger context of the verse. First, the word that gets translated as “mismatched” is the Greek word heterozugountes, and it means unequally yoked, or better yet, wrongly committed. It’s quite literally a metaphor of a weak and a strong pair of animals yoked together suggesting that the commitment or effort of the one cannot be matched by the other. Any effort of this team to work in unison will end in disaster.

As a metaphor, Paul is saying that if the believers in the Corinthian Christian community continue to give equal weight and consideration to the standards of the society – success, fame, slick presentation, power, strength – in its evaluation of Paul, his ministry, and the message of the Gospel, the community will continue to experience defeat. They are supposed to be a different kind of community, one grounded in its experience of the triune God who has shown His righteousness in the shamefully self-giving and weak love of the Son crucified who was unexpectedly and surprisingly raised by the power of the Spirit on the third day.

In connection with Paul’s earlier letter written to the Corinthians, they can’t compromise with the larger society on matters of idol worship and other matters that mar the Christian community’s witness, to be sure, nor can they evaluate Paul by how well or badly packaged they perceive him and his ministry. In other words, the church can’t compromise its witness for the sake of power, and it was in the ancient cults and their temples that social, political, and religious power were wed together, celebrated, and worshipped.

And so, Paul is telling them, it’s time the community unyoke itself from this burden of trying to live schizophrenic lives of being, acting, and thinking one way in the world, while being another type of person within the church community who is supposed to live with Christ as the center of devotion. No, Paul, as well as any other teacher in the community, must be evaluated by the standard of the cross. In fact, we must evaluate our own lives at the foot of the cross. It is by our bearing with others, lowering ourselves in order to serve and be of service (see Philippians 2:5-11) that our allegiance to Christ shines forth.

With that out of the way, we can see that this is no injunction for the church to cast out heretics and unbelievers. If anything, it is by our unwillingness to compromise our Christian witness for the sake of expediency or popular appeal that we bear witness with integrity, and in so doing, draw people to Christ. In fact, it is in weakness and surrender, as those things are popularly perceived, that the power of God through the foolishness of the cross is displayed for the world to see (1 Corinthians 1:18-25).

Therefore, this verse ought never be used to create a members only club called the church, or create a special class of outsider unworthy of our care and concern. It also cannot be abused by suggesting that Christians must needs lack a sense of humor, enjoy playing games with friends, or have hobbies. Yes, in fact, one can dance, play cards, enjoy a beverage, and any number of other human endeavors to the extent that they do not weaken the integrity of our centeredness in Christ. Moreover, by cooperating with authorities for the sake of the health and well-being of our neighbors, the world over, we show that we lay down our privileges for others just as Christ laid down his own for our sake.

All this said, there is in directional instinct that is right within these missteps and misunderstandings, though we often poorly execute God’s playbook. If we are a community called by God to be Christ-centered, and indwelt by the Holy Spirit, then we are a holy people. We are, as Paul puts it, temples of the living God.

Here, Paul brings together our identity in Christ with the deepest longings and promises of Hebrew Scripture. In verses 16-18, he quotes two Old Testament Scriptures, namely Isaiah 52:11 and Ezekiel 20:41. It is interesting that he chooses these verses as both function within those chapters as reminders of Israel’s identity and destiny. The quote from Isaiah 52 operates within a frame where God is reminding the people they were liberated from Egypt, and set apart to be a holy nation that bears witness to the world of the lordship of Yahweh. The quote from Ezekiel 20 does the same thing. In other words, Israel, and so now the church of Jesus Christ, exists as a witness to the nations that Yahweh is God, Jesus the Son is Lord, Caesar is not, and humanity is destined to become the habitation of the Most High God through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.

In this context, we are called to be holy, or separate, but not in the sense that some typically define it. Being holy, being separate means living in such a way that God and his lordship is placed at the center, and not the typical power games and idolatry of the human heart. This relates back to Paul’s constant talk in chapter 5 about being new creation. We are holy ground, a holy people, holy temples because we are being regenerated in Christ to be the staging point of new creation in the world. As such, we cannot live our lives by navigating life in the world by the broken compass of the old humanity, sick as it is with self-concern, and dedicated to its own destruction.

And so here, while the church has badly executed its being separate by insisting on being a members only club, and casting up barrier after barrier others have to traverse in order to “make it,” it is called to be peculiar, to be different, and might I dare say, even a little strange. Its strangeness is its willingness to surrender, its willingness to throw down its “arms” and declare the good news that in Jesus Christ, we have peace with God. The war is over! With the battle ended, we are to live as resurrection people, people of new life and hope, in a world of the walking dead. As we make our way, eyes and hearts fixed upon God’s grace in Christ Jesus, we slowly but surely cast off the old and put on the new.


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