In the long history of Christianity, there have been those who have felt it necessary to abandon their ties with the world around them. While many were not separated, some monks set up monasteries far from civilisation or the rural faming folk who took a different life. High in the mountains or secluded in wilderness, these Christians chose to practise a form of 'Christian Isolationism'.
This event is not confined to past ages. There are groups who claim the title of Christians who are still in the practice of separating themselves, whether it is from society at large or particular aspects such as technology.
Even here in Sydney I have met people who live in a sort of Christian commune. This group works as a team, running a viable business without relying on people from the outside of their community. Sharing their earnings, they meet the needs of each member and apparently spend their time reading the Bible and praying.
These Christians are attempting to live the way the early Church was recorded to have been immediately after Jesus' resurrection and the arrival of the Holy Spirit (recorded in the first two chapters of the book of Acts).
While I believe they have misinterpreted some of this scripture, they may also point to James' letter to the churches and Christians of the first century AD. James states in chapter four verse four:
'You adulterous people, don't you know that friendship with the world means enmity against God? Therefore, anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God'.
This statement comes in the context of quarrels and fighting in the churches. James points to worldly desires as the source of their squabbling, desires held by their society that did not belong in the Church.
Earlier in the same letter he states '...keep oneself from being polluted by the world' (James chapter 1, second half of verse 27).
While these arguments for Christian Isolationism are strong. I think they are inconsistent, within themselves, and with our greatest model of the Christian life—Jesus.
Modelled on Jesus
Christians hold that Jesus is God and through him God revealed how we should live.
Jesus' life was not, in general, one of isolation from the world around him. He taught in marketplaces, streets and to crowds. He also joined people in their homes, even of those considered most corrupted. This was the way his ministry impacted people and many chose to trust God because of this personal contact with God.
Because Christians believe God lives in us, it seems reasonable to expect that we have a similar ministry to Jesus Christ's (see Acts Chapters 1, 2 and 3). That is to say, people will see God through seeing us.
Even if this is not so, we can expect to point people to Jesus most effectively through personal interaction, because people are more likely to read about Jesus in the Bible if their friends are the ones encouraging them to do so.
Modelled on the early Church
We can also see this public side of life in the early Church. In the Acts passage mentioned earlier, just before the account of how the Christians were living after receiving the Holy Spirit, we have speeches given by the believers to the crowds.
Luke records, 'Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts' (Acts chapter 2, first half of verse 46). The temple courts here were a public place where many citizens and visitors went every day. In this way, the believers were not isolating themselves.
James' statements are harder to rebut. One way might be to examine their interpretation. The first section quoted before sets a clear distinction—that those who choose to be friends of the world are the enemies of God, or at least fail to live according to his standards.
The meaning of '...friendship with the world...' might be taken as our mere association with it, in which case we may take isolationism as being necessary. Or we may take it as our love for the world, in which case placing it above our love for God is the real problem.
While I am inclined to take James' phrase as the second meaning, our interpretation should not be alone in justifying a less isolationist view of Christianity.
A balanced model
A more robust and biblically sound answer may actually be a position between the isolationist picture and the need for a public display of faith.
Jesus himself had a certain balance between proclaiming God's love to the people and taking time out to pray. We see on several occasions that Jesus leaves to a quiet place, and certainly did so before his death—as he prayed in the garden of Gethsemane.
Perhaps with this balance we can achieve what James writes of '... keeping oneself from being polluted by the world', while engaging with society.
In my view, Christians in our society will most likely stand out as separate from the world simply by taking the Bible seriously and trusting in God. If this characterises their actions, I do not believe they are likely to stumble as being 'polluted' or by becoming 'friends of the world'.
Alexander Gillespie is an Arts Honours graduate of the University of Sydney. Particular fields of interest include Nineteenth-Century migration history, conceptual philosophy, social policy and ecclesiology. He currently lives in Sydney with his wife and enjoys researching and writing.