Early churches like the one established in Corinth faced many challenges, not the least of which was trying to live as believers in a community and culture of non-believers. Paul implored followers of Christ to separate themselves from non-believers for the sake of their faith lives. Paul is not asking followers to isolate themselves or to distance themselves from the community. On the contrary, Paul knows that followers must work, shop, play, and worship in the midst of the communities in which they live. Instead of isolation, Paul was warning about becoming too comfortable with the lifestyles of those whose values are in conflict with their own.
There’s a saying among those in recovery from addiction, “If you hang around the barbershop long enough, eventually you’ll get a haircut.” That is to say, if you hang around environments where people drink regularly, eventually you will drink too. We are hard-wired to adapt to our environment, to conform and behave as those around us do. Paul knew this to be true for early Christians as well. For new followers trying to live as Christ lived, it would be all too easy to slip back into old habits. Followers needed to be intentional about surrounding themselves with others of like mind so that new behaviors and values became habits.
Did Paul intend for followers to isolate themselves from non-believers, to treat them as less than, and to refuse conversation, interaction, and community? No, of course not! How else would the good news of Christ spread if not for interaction between followers and non-believers? How would followers survive in a non-believing culture if they were not allowed to trade, work, or communicate with others? Paul encouraged conversation, debate, and interaction, even as he encouraged followers to set themselves up properly for the greatest chance of success in following in Christ’s footsteps. Paul helped followers learn how to live in the world but not of the world. How can we set ourselves up for the greatest chance of succeeding at following in Christ’s footsteps, and at the same time engage in lively conversation and debate with those who differ from us?
2 Corinthians 6:14 – 7:1
Do not be mismatched with unbelievers. For what partnership is there between righteousness and lawlessness? Or what fellowship is there between light and darkness? What agreement does Christ have with Beliar? Or what does a believer share with an unbeliever? 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. Therefore come out from them, and be separate from them, says the Lord, and touch nothing unclean; then I will welcome you, and I will be your father, and you shall be my sons and daughters, says the Lord Almighty.”
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.