“I wrote to you in my epistle not to keep company with sexually immoral people. Yet I certainly did not mean with the sexually immoral people of this world, or with the covetous, or extortioners, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world. But now I have written to you not to keep company with anyone named a brother, who is sexually immoral, or covetous, or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or an extortioner – not even to eat with such a person” (1 Corinthians 5:9-11 NKJV).
I spend a lot of time in what are often referred to as “third world countries.” This designation primarily reflects levels of economic development, with the third world lagging well behind other nations in terms of wealth, standard of living, technological development, education and other similar categories.
We use other terms which reflect our awareness of differences in circumstance between the way people in various areas or circumstances experience life. Such familiar terms as “welcome to the real world,” or “the best of both worlds” suggest that many of us may be exposed to widely divergent situations. This often leads us to wonder about which one is most typical, or even most valid. It also challenges us to determine if we are aware of and prepared to deal with the real world.
Many Christians over the centuries have attempted to withdraw to some degree from the world of secular temptation. Some have done so in monasteries or convents, others by lives of dedicated discipline. Parents send their children to Christian schools at least in part to shelter them from the pressures and temptations they would be exposed to elsewhere.
In 1 Corinthians 5 Paul acknowledges the conflict between Christian moral values and the reality of a material (sinful) world. Christians must be concerned about their companions (1 Corinthians 15:33). Yet it is not possible in this life to avoid all corrupting influences (1 Corinthians 5:10). Only by leaving the world completely could this be achieved.
The apostle deals with this same subject again in his second letter to the same church. “Do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers. For what fellowship has righteousness with lawlessness? And what communion has light with darkness? . . . Therefore come out from among them and be separate, says the Lord” (2 Corinthians 6:14, 17).
It is inaccurate and misleading to suggest that Christians do or should live in a different world, fundamentally separated from the real one. The truth is that there is only one world, but it is comprised of many differing circumstances. There are developed and undeveloped nations. There are environments where immorality is blatantly demonstrated, and others where virtue and discretion are honored. All of these are a part of the real world. All of them are places where the Gospel must be preached, and God is to be honored.
In the Corinthian letters Paul instructs Christians who live in a particularly sinful environment to be distinctive in their lives, even while remaining in their circumstance. One can work in a place where honesty is not practiced by others, yet continue to be honest himself. One can live in an increasingly agnostic and atheistic nation yet profess deep abiding faith in God (consider Noah for instance).
In the U.S. today there are many who maintain that Christians are out of touch and irrelevant. That we are somehow estranged from the real world, which they perceive to be characterized by immorality and sin. That is simply not true. The Church recognizes the realities of sin. We know this world is corrupt. That is precisely why we continue to preach the Gospel of salvation – because we are convinced that God can save us from such a life and preserve us for eternity in the real world of his creation.