Martyn Lloyd-Jones once notably explained, “When the church is absolutely different from the world, she invariably attracts it. It is then that the world is made to listen to her message, though it may hate it at first.” Nothing is more important for Christian leaders to come to terms with in our day than this truth. History teaches us that when the church has sought to be most like the world, it, in fact, had the least impact on the world. As Sinclair Ferguson has observed, “If all the Christian church has to offer is a different version of what the world has to offer, then the Christian church––as it has done in the Western world in the last fifty years––falls into decrepitude.”1 Nevertheless, the question remains, “In what ways should the Christian church be different from the world?” Certainly no biblically faithful, gospel-focused church would ever insist on putting up unbiblical standards of separation in order to distinguish the church from the world.
What, then, distinguishes the Christian church from the world? Consider the following:
1. An abiding commitment to the Word of God.
The revelation of God in Scripture gives shape to everything that believers are to be and to do in the local church. God’s written word is our only rule of faith and practice. If we loosen our hold on the teaching of Scripture, anything and everything else will creep into our lives and assemblies. This means that the church is to be marked chiefly by a commitment to the sound teaching and preaching of Scripture. If there is anything that our churches are to be known for in the world it is this––that God’s people hold fast to the word of truth. After all, the church is “the pillar and ground of truth” (1 Tim. 3:15). Whenever Israel experienced reformation in the days of the kings, it was when God’s word was rediscovered and read among the people of God (2 Chronicles 29:1–31:21; 34:8–35:19). When the Apostle Paul wrote to the fledgling church in Thessalonica––in order to encourage them to continue to the faith–he took special note of the fact that God’s word was evident in their congregation. He said, “For…the word of the Lord sounded forth from you” (1 Thess. 1:8). When Jesus commended the church in Ephesus, He said, “you…have tested those who call themselves apostles and are not, and found them to be false” (Rev. 2:2). Nothing is more essential to church being distinct from the word than that the church holds fast to the whole counsel of God–in our personal lives, worship, and witness.
In his book We Become What We Worship, G.K. Beale explains how this ought to work itself out from the church into the life of believers. He writes,
“Paul says in 2 Corinthians 10:5, “Bring every thought captive to the obedience [thinking] of Jesus Christ.” What part of our lives is unrelated to Christ? A friendship or dating relationship? Our marriage? Our relationship to our children? As families, are there regular times that we gather together to hear God’s Word and to pray together? Do we meet together with fellow Christians at weekly worship and sincerely participate? Negative answers to these questions can be indicators of whether or not we have an idolatrous stance.”2
Of course, the church’s commitment to Scripture must be in proportion to the truth of the gospel. Many, under pretense of principled zeal, have embraced a pharisaic reading of God’s word. All of God’s word leads to the Lord Jesus Christ and the grace of God in the gospel of Christ (John 5:46-47; Luke 24:27, 32, 45–47).
2. An increasing conformity to the image of Christ.
The gospel produces conformity to the image of Christ. As the Apostle Paul puts it, “we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit” (2 Cor. 3:18). This means that the church is to reflect the holiness, character, and beauty of Christlikeness. Sadly, many who affirm this principle have truncated views of Christ. Some mistakenly reduce Jesus down to a soft, tolerant, community organizer. Others erroneously represent Jesus as a hard, intolerant law-enforcement officer. Biblical revelation teaches that Jesus is himself holy, harmless, undefiled, and separate from sinners. At the same time, the gospels reveal that Jesus is gentle and lowly, full of love and compassion for sinners–one who ate and drank with tax collectors and sinners. He never abandoned a zeal for holiness in the name of mission. Neither did he set aside His meek and gentle character under a pretense for holiness. In the same way the church is to be increasingly marked by holiness and compassion, not by compromise and harshness. If the church faithfully lives out the Christian life in the word, it’s leaders and members will pursue holiness and resist compromise while expressing compassion without exhibiting harshness.