How are Christians set apart or distinct from the unbelieving world? When push comes to shove, would any observer be able to pick today’s edgy/authentic/real/raw/not-your-grandmother’s Christian out of the proverbial crowd? In what ways are we embodying the call to be salt and light, a city on a hill (Matt. 5:13–16), and a “royal priesthood” called out of darkness and into light (1 Peter 2:9)?

These questions have nagged at me for a number of years, as I’ve witnessed younger evangelical Christians (myself included) more often blending in with the dark than advancing the light. When I go to parties with Christian friends, and then parties with non-Christian friends, I often lament that they are observably indistinguishable.

We are the same in how we talk: the petty subjects of conversation, the toxic cynicism lacing our speech, the obscene language, the general negativity … same.

We are the same in the way we dress, the way we drink, the way we smoke, the movies and TV we watch, the music we listen to, the pop culture we consume, and the way we cordon off “spirituality” in a manner that keeps it from interfering with our pursuits of pleasure.

We are the same (maybe worse) in the way we shred each other to pieces in the blogosphere, caddily gossip about each others’ social media posts, and jump to complaining before we think about complementing.

It’s all the same… And we wonder why so few bother with Christianity anymore. By the looks of many Christians, it offers nothing radically different or new.

Of course it’s easy to understand how it came to this. Many of my generation grew up in an evangelicalism that was perhaps too excited about its different-ness; it separated from “the world” and created its own media empires, with churches that tended to pull in and hunker down while the rest of the world went to hell in a handbasket. All of this left an understandably bad taste in many of our mouths for the concept of being “set apart” vis-a-vis the world. If all our difference amounts to is cheaper, sanitized versions of the same consumer culture pervading everything else, it just feels a bit phony.

But let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater. Just because previous generations have gone about Christian “difference” in perhaps less than ideal ways, it doesn’t change the fact that the call remains: to be set apart; to “be holy, for I am holy” (1 Peter 2:16). Swinging the pendulum in the opposite direction to the extent that holiness is altogether absent is not a helpful solution.

The thing about holiness, though, is that the point of it is not to steer clear of all that is unholy; it’s not about retreating from “the world” and existing in some perfect space untainted by temptations and immoral sights and sounds. This only leads to legalism and a neutered, irrelevant witness.

Rather, the point of holiness is positive: to live in the world, reflecting Christ and his holiness outward in the way that we live our lives. Holiness is more complicated than just abstaining from a checklist of vices. Does holiness require us to avoid certain activities? Certainly. But fleeing from potential hazards is only part of the story.

Should there be a noticeable difference between Christians and “the world”? Yes. Christians are called to be holy, set apart, sojourners and exiles in this world, bearing witness to the gospel through the way that they live. But the difference between the church and culture is not a “hard” difference, notes Miroslav Volf in his analysis of 1 Peter (a key text on the nature of Christian difference).

For Christians, the distance from society that comes from the new birth in Christ is not meant to isolate from society, notes Volf, but rather serves the mission: “Without distance, churches can only give speeches that others have written for them and only go places where others lead them. To make a difference, one must be different.”

Volf goes on to describe this “missionary distance” in 1 Peter as “soft difference,” which is not to say weak difference:

It is strong, but it is not hard. Fear for oneself and one’s identity creates hardness. … In the mission to the world, hard difference operates with open or hidden pressures, manipulation, and threats. A decision for soft difference, on the other hand, presupposes a fearlessness which 1 Peter repeatedly encourages his readers to assume (3:14; 3:6). People who are secure in themselves — more accurately, who are secure in their God — are able to live the soft difference without fear. They have no need either to subordinate or damn others, but can allow others space to be themselves. For people who live the soft difference, mission fundamentally takes the form of witness and invitation. They seek to win others without pressure or manipulation, sometimes even “without a word” (3:1).

Rather than an embattled, separatist, or hard-line “holiness vs. worldiness” approach to culture, I think Christians would do well to adopt Volf’s “soft difference” mindset. Again, this is not to say the church should deny any difference from the world, or that it should be tepid or weak in its different-ness; it’s just to say that we shouldn’t wield our difference as a weapon in a culture war, attacking the world for its worldliness and positioning ourselves arrogantly and with an oppositional attitude. Rather, our differentness should be positive, attractive, desirable. It should be conversational, relational. It’s about witness. We should keep our conduct “honorable” for a missional purpose: so the world would “glorify God” (1 Peter 2:12).

For the sake of Christ-like holiness, it may very well be the honorable thing for a Christian to abstain from some cultural activities or media choices that may be “permissible” but perhaps not beneficial. But those choices should be lived out as a positive affirmation of one’s convictions rather than a negative chastisement of others, as if anyone who does partake in such things is evil and dangerous.

Insofar as Christian identity is different from that of the surrounding culture (and it should be), it is a difference that is, according to theologian Darian Lockett, “constructed along the lines of its own internal vision of wholeness before God, and not through a negative process of rejecting outsiders.”

We are a people chosen by God, set apart for kingdom purposes, charged with a task of being light in the darkness. The salt of the earth. But is our light shining? Is our salt losing its saltiness? That question should haunt us. Because it’s not just about us. It’s about our credibility and effectiveness on mission for Christ.

We Christians need to stop overcompensating for the wrongheaded approaches to culture that our forebears might have had. Getting drunk proves nothing other than the fact that we can lift a glass of alcohol. Smoking and cussing doesn’t prove we are “more accessible” or “authentic” Christians; it proves we can suck in tobacco fumes and use our lips to utter four letter words. Oh, and it also might prove that we’d rather look like everyone else than be identifiably “set apart,” which probably also communicates that following Christ is in fact as superficial as some skeptics assert.

Friends: let’s stop deluding ourselves in thinking that by shirking holiness we’re advancing the cause of Christ by “breaking stereotypes” people might have of Christians. All we’re actually doing is demeaning the name of Christ by cheapening the cost of discipleship. We can do better than that.

This is the first in a series of posts on contemporary Christianity’s relationship to culture, based on ideas from my soon-to-be released book, Gray Matters: Navigating the Space Between Legalism and Liberty (Baker Books).

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Posted by Brett McCracken

Brett McCracken is a Los Angeles-based journalist. He is the author of Hipster Christianity (2010) and Gray Matters (2013), and has written for the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post,, the Princeton Theological Review, Mediascape, Books & Culture, Christianity Today, Relevant, IMAGE Journal, Q Ideas, and A graduate of Wheaton College and UCLA, Brett currently works as managing editor for Biola Magazine and teaches at Biola University. Follow him on Twitter @brettmccracken.


  1. …blessed by your words; well-spoken truth! Thank you, Brett…looking forward to your next book being released! “Living the “soft difference…” and, “Is our salt losing its saltiness?”–thoughts I leave with and ponder so that I strive to do my BEST to live a holy life as I look forward to the return of Jesus and the rewards and promises He gives us. Hugs to Kira!!!


  2. Tiffany Taylor Evins June 19, 2013 at 2:43 pm

    This is wonderfully thought-provoking and challenging. It makes me anticipate your book, Gray Matters, as I feel this is an incredibly prolific and dire topic within Christian culture today.


  3. I would like to begin by saying that you have some great thoughts, I believe you are well-intentioned, and I understand the place from which you are coming. That being said…

    I don’t think you would disagree with this, but I am inclined to call us to remember–lest we become pharisees ourselves–that how we look is a secondary matter. Often, the fact that we do not look very different is the result of the gospel not truly transforming our lives. I offer this admonition because our heart impulse is pride (the greatest followers of Christ included). If we become caught in seeking secondary matters, then we’re just repeating the original sin. It is good to acknowledge that a person is emaciated, but let us remember to ask how she became that way first.

    The “shirking” about which you speak is a serious concern, and it is a great indicator that we are not healthy, that we are lacking wisdom, that we are not abiding (Jn 8, 15; 2 Jn 1; Gal 2), or, perhaps, that we were not true converts in the first place. “The tree will be known by its fruit” (Matt 7).

    It is possible that our Christian brothers and sisters–even our evangelical brothers and sisters who seem to know how to talk the talk and walk the walk–are not true converts in the first place (e.g., Parable of the Sower…only the last seed represents a true convert).

    We do exercise our Christian liberty more than is wise, holy, and pleasing. “Everything is permissible but not everything is beneficial. Everything is permissible, but I will not be mastered by anything,” (1 Cor 10:23). We seem to forget this, and we cheapen the grace given us.

    Living in the tension between hedonism and moralism, between the prostitutes/tax collectors and the Pharisees/Scribes, is a wholly difficult one. Even when we try to do good, “evil is right there with us,” (Cf. Rom 7). We are so utterly curved in on ourselves that even our best efforts can become snares. According to the NT, there are two kinds of people: not righteous and unrighteous of our own work. Rather, the two types are those who repent and those who do not (Cf. Matt 7). In other words, the two types could be described as those who hear the message, repent, and are transformed and those who are not transformed by the gospel and continue on in their own ways (however religious they might look). In order to become transformed by the gospel, we must hear the word and believe again and again and again. True repentance and contrition only result when we are confronted with the gospel.

    We do not mortify the old nature and become conformed to the new. We become tired of transformation. We become tired of spiritual discipline. All of riches of Christ’s grace are available, and I am becoming increasingly convinced that we become bereft, hungry, starved, ensnared, lost, etc., not because God’s gifts are unavailable, but because we do not choose to reach out and accept God’s means of grace. We do not feed ourselves.

    The primary issue is the gospel. The gospel must be preeminent, and as we are “transformed daily,” then we can “test and approve what God’s will is, his good, pleasing, and perfect will.” Someone who abides, someone whose life continues to draw nourishment from its Source, will bear good fruit. Someone who lives his life following Jesus, will be conformed to Jesus’ image.

    Yes: let us acknowledge the signs. Let us see that we are shirking. Let us acknowledge that light is not shining and salt is not preserving.

    But let us begin by being transformed daily. Let us begin by sharing the Word, even to our fellow believers, daily. Let us pray together and for one another. Let us seek wisdom wholeheartedly, and God promises He will give it without finding fault (James 1). Let us join together in consuming our daily bread. Let us share God’s means of grace liberally. Let us begin by feeding the hungry.

    If these “Christians” still seek to become conformed to the world, that is their prerogative. Even if they attempt to become more like light and salt, if their source does not originate from the transforming work of the Spirit through the message of the gospel, their plight is just as dire as it was before they attempted to change.

    We need to offer the gifts of God’s grace. We need to share the Gospel in Word and deed. God is the One who does the transforming work in our hearts and lives. Out of our transformed lives, we will become exemplary. But we must be very wary about becoming more worried about the smoke than the fire and more worried about the emaciation and less about the starvation.

    Our shirking is a very good sign that we are not in good health. Let us acknowledge our plight, grab hold of God’s means of grace, hear the gospel, repent, believe, and live transformed lives as followers of Christ–as salt and light–as the result.


    1. I couldn’t agree more, Meg. Well said.


    2. Very beautifully stated, and I couldn’t agree more. Thank you. It is imperative that we not let these “outward/secondary” matters conceal the fact that, as you say, the gospel is central and must be preeminent. I sincerely hope that my article does not obscure that. I was simply pointing out, as you eloquently summarize here, that our “shirking” is a problem and that the gospel must transform our lives. In this we have a role to play, in cooperation with the sanctifying power of the Holy Spirit: to submit to God’s will, resist sin, seek holiness, walk in the Spirit (Romans 8). If there is nothing in our lives that reflects the transformative, new-creation power of the gospel of grace working and molding us into Christ-likeness, it is a problem. As you say, we must begin by being transformed daily and grabbing hold of grace, and then living lives that manifest this grace as we carry out the call to be salt and light.


  4. Matthew Loftus June 19, 2013 at 6:21 pm

    Agree wholeheartedly! But I would argue (as I have argued here at Mere-O again & again) that while all of this talk about “cultural engagement” in terms of books/movies/blogs/TV shows/etc. is certainly meaningful, the simplest and most direct way to live distinctly and make a “cultural” impact is to intentionally choose to put yourself in situations where you are disadvantaged on behalf of the needy– whether that’s moving into the inner city, staying in the suburb that everyone else is fleeing ’cause all the inner city people are coming there, spending your weekends at the nursing home, spending your weeknights with the kids at church that no one likes, etc. Doing things for Jesus’ sake and through His power is bound to keep that saltiness going.


  5. Sarah R. Schulz June 20, 2013 at 8:59 am

    And now we come to the rest of the church’s enforced legalism: the assumption that the “soft difference” Christianity (which is, I believe, exactly what we are called and created to be) is something one can produce by working on it. After 20 years of trying to do so, I’ve come to the conclusion that only God can create the newness that leads to such a witness, and the dishonesty of the church in pretending that our witness is more important than our relationships with God and others makes me very sad. This article and others like it is *why* it took me 20 years to step back, start telling God how I really feel, how little I could trust Him based on how He was/was not operating in my life, and finally accept that He will work in me the differences that He wants to be there. It’s not my job. It’s Christ’s.


  6. Well, what you have written would have, at a time, been accepted as a biblical, sound reminder to holiness without a need to force “legalism” into the context. But, as you can see from the comments, we live in a generation that has general disregard for such matters. So in the end, I would say your initial concerns are both warranted and proved right.


  7. This article is confusing. You begin by stating the problem with “more often blending in with the dark than advancing the light” and mention that we are the same in our conversation at parties, and I agree with both points. Then you mention tobacco, drink, pop culture, etc…, follow it up with “Holiness is more complicated than just abstaining from a checklist of vices”, and revert again at the end to a challenge that authentic Christianity does not mean proving “we can suck in tobacco fumes and use our lips to utter four letter words”.

    If Christianity is not about abstaining from a checklist, then why bring up the checklist along with a photo of an “evil” cigarette? This is sending a mixed moralistic message; not one of holiness.

    I agree that “We Christians need to stop overcompensating for the wrongheaded approaches to culture that our forebears might have had.”, and I have certainly been guilty of that. But in the past (and now as a recovering Pharisee), I have also been guilty of taking moralistic positions on certain things the modern and now post-modern church has demonized out of fear and a reluctance to embrace the grace and love of the Father. I agree whole-heartedly with Volf, but I found the examples you gave to be morally based and not inline with the “soft difference” (I haven’t read the entire piece from Volf so I don’t know if he mentions drinking, smoking and cussing… just going on what you cited). THIS, I believe, is why skeptics and young believers alike don’t see a difference between Christianity and any other worldview… we keep demonizing activities rather than point to the deep brokenness of sin in the heart of man.

    I am a Cuban-American. I smoke cigars and drink rum. I cuss occasionally. I eat pork, I watch “The Walking Dead”… with my 14 year-old daughter. I don’t exercise as much as I should. I don’t eat organic foods.

    But for the last 4 years, I’ve been meeting regularly with men who like me, are seeking after holiness. We meet on my back porch, we smoke cigars (some smoke cigarettes), we drink beer and spirits and eat grilled sausage and Manchego cheese. We read Chesterton, Lewis, Athanasius and Augustine… even the libertine Hemmingway… and search our way through to the metanarrative;God’s story. No one is smoking to “be like” anyone or anything. Cigars are part of our culture in Miami. The ‘soft difference’ with us is, we don’t allow shallow conversation (i.e. sports, business, weather and entertainment), desiring instead to move men to the deeper waters of reflection, honesty, and holiness.
    And yes, men who normally will not attend church walk into our meetings because they feel it is approachable. Some of those men have later decided maybe church and Christians aren’t so bad/weird after all. Some men never return because their moralism can’t take the fact we are drinking and smoking. Others don’t return because they can’t take the conversation (they’d rather talk about sports and politics).

    I think you make a valid point overall, but your examples confused me. It is our hearts that need to be searched, not our behaviors and activities. If we “shirk holiness” it is because of a wrong understanding of the gospel. Our ‘differentness’ should be defined by the overwhelming, unavoidable and relentless love of God, which will inevitably begin to change how we behave and how we live.


    1. Thanks for this excellent comment! I agree with most everything you say here and I regret that my article above could be construed in such a way that conflates a “checklist” of moralistic dos and don’ts with holiness. That is absolutely not my intention.

      I used the examples of smoking and drinking, yes, but I also mentioned negativity, gossip, cynicism, language, etc… and that is just the tip of the iceberg. The point was not to include an exhaustive list of anything but to hint at the fact that almost everything that we say, do, consume, or engage in communicates something about our identity, what we value and what we serve. It’s a reflection of our heart. Everything is an opportunity to be “salt and light.”

      Are we “being transformed” by the spirit of God? Having been saved by grace alone, through faith, we are a new creation. Is that manifesting itself in the way we live our lives? Are we pursuing Christ-likeness, walking in the Spirit and following in obediance?

      As I write in the article, “Holiness is more complicated than just abstaining from a checklist of vices.” I too enjoy good cigars, rum, Manchego, The Walking Dead, etc., especially in the context of good company. I believe such things, in moderation, can be completely in line with the pursuit of holiness. But we have to consider that in some contexts, certain behaviors–though maybe OK for you individually, as per your conscience (Rom. 14)–may lead others astray or perpetuate darkness rather than light. It’s not that this or that cultural behavior is innately wrong, it’s that in some contexts/cultures/situations, they may prove to be not-so beneficial (even as they are “permissible”… see 1 Cor. 10:23).

      You say, “we keep demonizing activities rather than point to the deep brokenness of sin in the heart of man.” I think that this can be a too-simple, either-or way of looking at things. The deep brokenness of sin in the heart of man is our core dilemma, to be sure. But the free grace that we receive to justify us in this plight does not render the “activities” of our subsequent life to be meaningless or neutral. Rather, grace should animate our lives in such a way that every activity we engage in is charged with the Spirit inside us and the light we contain.


      1. Thanks Brett…

        “I used the examples of smoking and drinking, yes, but I also mentioned negativity, gossip, cynicism, language, etc… and that is just the tip of the iceberg.” Yes, and I was tracking with you on the latter for sure. In fact, I think gossip and cynicism are the kind of evil that flow from the pride and envy that drives us. I just had the picture of the woman’s hand holding the cigarette glaring at me as a center point, and I maintain that’s not “sin”; our culture has classified it a sin. I don’t smoke cigarettes and there’s a difference between cigarette smoking and cigar smoking (not going into it here). I’ve known a few people who died from addictive cigarette smoking, a few were Christians, and the sin (if there was one to attribute to it) was the dependency on it and wanton disregard for how this was killing them. I can say the same for the many more diabetics who died from eating fatty, processed and sugary foods, but no one is writing articles about sin and posting pictures of a fat hand holding a Whopper or naming how we are poisoning ourselves with bad food as a sin.

        “Are we “being transformed” by the spirit of God? Having been saved by grace alone, through faith, we are a new creation. Is that manifesting itself in the way we live our lives? Are we pursuing Christ-likeness, walking in the Spirit and following in obediance?” – Convicting questions, and exactly where we all need to be as Christians.

        “But we have to consider that in some contexts, certain behaviors–though maybe OK for you individually, as per your conscience (Rom. 14)–may lead others astray or perpetuate darkness rather than light.” – So, here’s a sincere question (I hope I don’t come across as combative)… wasn’t Paul in Romans 14 addressing Christians and referencing those who were holding to the law as the weaker brothers ( One person’s faith allows them to eat anything, but another, whose faith is weak, eats only vegetables.)? Growing up in the church, Romans 14 was always used inferring that, for example, a Christian should not drink as this will cause a weaker brother (a person who can’t resist the temptation of drink) to “stumble” and fall into alcoholism. I have later come to understand this passage as a need to show grace to the weaker brother (i.e. the legalist/ fundamentalist-minded), and respect their abstaining from certain activities. At the same time, Paul calling these folks “weak” was surely intentional to raise questions in the heart of a legalist; a challenge to let go of works-based faith.

        Regarding your last point, I don’t believe my statement was too-simple or either-or. Our bent IS to demonize activities, because in doing so we can avoid looking at the unfathomable darkness of sin, and as a result make salvation about something other than Christ’s death on the cross. And still, you are correct. Grace frees us and “animates” (love that word) us to seek holiness… and that really was my original point. When our fixation with behavior overrides God’s grace and love for us… that is surface and too-simple, and frankly easier. The hard “work” of Christianity is living daily in repentance over my general condition of sin and brokenness, and responding to God’s grace with the faith He has given me to exercise and allow that to convict me over how I am living. Anything else is just distraction and even vainglorious. The result… God’s grace is transforming my cynicism, insecurity, doubt, fear, defensiveness, anger, pride and envy — matters of the heart — into something better.

        Thanks for responding. These conversations help me grow; I have a long way to go.


    2. Allow me to add a bit of… difference… into this discussion. >:)

      As someone peering into the den of hypocrisy (Christianity) from the outside, I must say responses such as these tickle me every time. Though a little fancier than what normally spews from the asinine recesses of a young adult’s mind, unmasked, this filth is still nothing more than the desperate, fulminating justifications of the gratifications of the physical world, which… “man”… (I use the designation lightly in these circumstances) dearly and pathetically clutches so close to his heart.

      How progressive you are…

      …caught up in established actions.

      The consumption of grilled sausage, mixed with a spice of Augustine, sprinkled with a bit of Miami culture, covered with some congeniality. Your four-step recipe to heaven. HA!

      What a pantomime of philosophy, of supposed “spirituality.”

      How dare you “seek holiness,” while you are still a willing slave to your NEED… “human.”


  8. When I grew up in a drug-addicted home, I looked wistfully at the only Christian home that I knew and never found them hypocritical or legalistic because they were “different.” I determined that I wasn’t a suitable friend for their daughter, although she was always kind to me. I knew that I wanted to live in the “difference” that they shared, but didn’t know how. Looking back, I can see God working in this situation. I never realized that these people were part of a “embattled, separatist” generation, nor did I ever realize that their children would disdain their parents and write articles and books about being alternative Christians to the generations before.

    Perhaps there are always faithful and unfaithful people in every generation–the wheat and the chaff in any Christian movement. Instead of being reactionary, perhaps you need only to appreciate what your parents (mine weren’t Christian) did well, mimic that where appropriate, and allow the Holy Spirit to build on it in your own lives. Why don’t you all appreciate and love your parents and pastors? Looking at Christians and their nice homes, I longed for their lives. Why must I join you in disdaining them now?


  9. The Epistles to Diognetes (ad 130)


    For the Christians are distinguished from other men neither by country, nor
    language, nor the customs which they observe. For they neither inhabit cities of
    their own, nor employ a peculiar form of speech, nor lead a life which is marked
    out by any singularity. The course of conduct which they follow has not been
    devised by any speculation or deliberation of inquisitive men; nor do they, like
    some, proclaim themselves the advocates of any merely human doctrines. But,
    inhabiting Greek as well as barbarian cities, according as the lot of each of
    them has determined, and following the customs of the natives in respect to
    clothing, food, and the rest of their ordinary conduct, they display to us their
    wonderful and confessedly striking method of life. They dwell in their own
    countries, but simply as sojourners. As citizens, they share in all things with
    others, and yet endure all things as if foreigners. Every foreign land is to
    them as their native country, and every land of their birth as a land of
    strangers. They marry, as do all [others]; they beget children; but they do not
    destroy their offspring. They have a common table, but not a common bed. They
    are in the flesh, but they do not live after the flesh. They pass their days on
    earth, but they are citizens of heaven. They obey the prescribed laws, and at
    the same time surpass the laws by their lives. They love all men, and are
    persecuted by all. They are unknown and condemned; they are put to death, and
    restored to life. They are poor, yet make many rich; they are in lack of all
    things, and yet abound in all; they are dishonoured, and yet in their very
    dishonour are glorified. They are evil spoken of, and yet are justified; they
    are reviled, and bless; they are insulted, and repay the insult with honour;
    they do good, yet are punished as evil-doers. When punished, they rejoice as if
    quickened into life; they are assailed by the Jews as foreigners, and are
    persecuted by the Greeks; yet those who hate them are unable to assign any
    reason for their hatred.


    1. excellent.


  10. Jeremy Carnes June 20, 2013 at 1:59 pm

    This article was exceptionally stupid.


    1. Your comment, however, is a model of clarity, grace, intelligence, and insight! Well done!

      All the best,



  11. C. S. Lewis had a wonderful chapter in Mere Christianity on why Christians may not look any better than the unbelievers around them. He says it well, but to summarize, he reminds us that we don’t know where people start in life, so the amount of improvement due to the Holy Spirit’s influence in their lives may not be easy to gauge.


  12. Timely post, Brett. And a hearty challenge to me today. Grateful for this.


  13. Very good article… ironically, I wonder if any of the writers on this blog called “Mere Orthodoxy” have ever had any contact with the traditional Orthodox Christian Church (traditional meaning those also known as “Old Calendar”)? All of these things you seem to address here are right in line with what is taught and practiced in the daily lives of traditional Orthodox Christians… in fact, one part that specifically caught my attention was your lamenting the lack of difference between parties with your Christian and non-Christian friends… this is one area where I was personally taken aback (in a good way) when I went to my first “party” with other Orthodox Christians about 2 years ago… the discussion was not the lives of the Hollywood stars, but instead lives of the Apostles, and rather than heavy drinking there was heavy conversation, it was an entirely different type of event.

    Sadly, the feeling of “something missing” is a recurring complaint I hear from people I have spoken with in the literally thousands of different Christian denominations. This is because the source of all these denominations was originally the rejection of some error or wrongdoing by the Roman Catholic church (the likes of Martin Luther, etc.), which were all correct, but the reason the Roman Catholic church was in error was in one way or another related to its break from the rest of Christianity in 1054, the remnants of which remain in the traditional Orthodox church. I applaud this article and the sentiment, but rather than needing to “re-invent the wheel” almost all of these complaints and problems with modern Christianity can be solved simply by returning to “ancient” Christianity, which has been preserved unadulterated by the Orthodox Church for nearly 2000 years.

    My particular diocese is the Holy Orthodox Metropolis of Boston ( but they have churches across the country, and there are many other traditional Orthodox churches here in the USA. Note, however, that there is a stark difference between the traditional Orthodox churches (commonly called “Old Calendar” churches due to the fact that they still follow the Julian Calendar) and “New Calendar” Orthodox churches (like the more well known Greek Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, etc.). The church was never meant to be divided by nationalities, and you will not find the same experience I am referencing in a new calendar church, but if you are interested, and up for a little irony, check out a traditional Orthodox Christian church… you may just find what you rightly felt was missing in most Christian sects has been maintained and preserved, and possibly right under your nose!


    1. FYI, for more info, check out two books in Clark Carlton’s series:

      “The Way: What Every Protestant Should Know About the Orthodox Church”

      and also

      “The Truth: What Every Roman Catholic Should Know About the Orthodox Church”


  14. It always annoys me when people point to smoking as if it is a sin. If you are going to go down that line do research on sugars and processed foods and how bad they are for the body. If you bring it up because of addiction sugar is also highly addictive. If you are going to be integral to being holy and different from the world around, start with consumerism and work out how the things you are consuming are actually supporting societal decay rather than edifying our bodies/this planet that God has created. But if you like your sugar than leave other people alone for liking their smoking.
    I really feel like the only answer to your message of being integral to being different, and living by God’s wisdom instead of looking like the world is by moving to a completely green and ethical lifestyle.


    1. The body requires sucrose to survive.

      The body does not require tobacco to survive.

      But continue on, vehemently justifying your physical needs, and feigning your “spirituality.”


  15. easiest way to think is: what would Jesus do in your position?.. Would he go to that or this party, would he smoke, would he drink, how would he behave? I think then answers are clear but if you have not read the Bible then you might not know how Jesus lived his life and you would not know how his light should reflect in you…


    1. What would Jesus do in your position is not a good question to ask…Looking at what Jesus did, he healed people, he preformed miracles, he forgave sin, he died for the sins of the world, he rose from the dead, he was given the place of authority at Gods right hand… The end of Hebrews 5 talks much about the immature Christian, he (immature christian) is unable to discern good from evil. As we grow in Christian Maturity in primarily three basic areas: Understanding Gods redemptive history revealed in his words, have a growing prayer life and living in genuine Christian community, we will be able to live as we ought “Soft difference”


  16. Darryl Willis June 21, 2013 at 8:57 am

    marquito: I don’t think it was confusing. For one (and I suppose Brett can defend his own writing–so this is just how I read it), he doesn’t necessarily condemn smoking, drinking, or cussing–he just says those activities prove nothing about our authenticity or accessibility. And they don’t.

    Furthermore, there is at least some biblical support for speaking only things which build up rather than tear down. Considering that most curse words are words that show contempt for other people or reflect violence (see Dallas Willard’s Divine Conspiracy) I can’t imagine why I would want to use some words! Nothing to do with legalism or arrogance–I just think some words are abusive and do not reflect the character of Jesus.

    An example: My father was one of the gentlest men I know and volunteered at a residential drug rehab–the inmates loved him, he didn’t curse, drink, or smoke. They didn’t consider him inaccessible, arrogant, or a pharisee–he did not have to engage in these behaviors to prove anything (and he didn’t attack or condemn those who did).


    1. Thanks Darryl. I agree with the thrust of Brett’s article, but I do question the use of his examples. And I hope I don’t come across as defending smoking, drinking and cussing. It is the heart I’m concerned with; what abundance is coming out of my heart and how I’m allowing God to speak to me. We get so caught up in behavior modification. And when we do, we just feed our inner Pharisee.


      1. I agree with you, Marquito–after I posted my comments I hoped I wasn’t coming across as critical. I didn’t think you were defending those activities particularly. The only thing I didn’t like was the reference to zombie movies… (yech!) 8^)

        (Never did like movies that I revisited in my sleep as the main character, feet stuck in goo and unable to move…)


        1. HA! Yeah it’s not for everyone. And, no offense taken brother.


  17. Appreciated
    the article! Loved the responses back as
    well. After reading the response’s I was
    contemplating what was said as compared to what the word of God says about
    certain things. For instance, if our culture says it is OK to commit adultery
    but the word of God says, “You shall not commit adultery,” Exodus 20:14. Does our
    culture take precedence over what the word of God says? I totally agree we cannot
    judge another person’s heart and we don’t know where they are with their walk
    with Christ is, Matthew 7:1, but the Bible clearly says “by their fruit you will know them,” Matthew 7:16. Fruit
    is a “visible” expression of the life of the tree. We can discern where a person is in their
    life by watching and discerning the kind of fruit they are producing in their
    lives. Good fruit, Galatians 5:22-23, verses bad fruit, fruit of
    the flesh. The Bible does list the works
    of the flesh, Galatians
    5:19, compared to
    the works of the Spirit, 1 Corinthians 13:4-8 in someone’s life. In the parable
    of the sower and the seed it is clear those are four types of Christians and I believe
    it is a parable talking about four groups of believers in the church since unbelievers
    would not be receiving the Word , Mark 4:15, unbelievers are not “hearing the word, Christians
    are hearing the word, as the parable
    says. It clearly shows that one-fourth
    of the people were the only ones hearing the word, receiving the word, the seed
    was going deep into their spirit’s and good fruit was being produced. Does the Bible not say, “Well done “good and
    faithful” servant…enter into the Kingdom of Heaven, Revelation 1:12-18. The Bible says to clearly stay away from
    the works of unfruitful darkness and not to fellowship with others choosing to
    live that lifestyle, 2 Corinthians 6:14. Is
    that condemning or judging a person? No,
    it is discerning and not fellowshipping with them so as not to become part of
    their ungodly lifestyle. Do we love them
    unconditionally ABSOLUTLY but I don’t have to sleep or drink with you or whatever
    that may entail to love you in Christ or think that is going to somehow win you
    to Christ. We are all accountable for
    our own decisions. Remember, “We are
    always free to make our own choices but we will never be free of the consequences
    of the choices we make, so choose wisely!
    Who is Lord of your life? God or the enemy of our souls? We have to make
    a choice who we are going to serve, Joshua 24:15. Are you going to follow cultural traditions
    or the Word of God? Jesus said the world
    would know we are Christians by the love we have for one another, John 13:34-35. I love my brother and sisters,
    so called Christian’s or those who do not profess a faith in Christ, unconditionally. I choose to be a Christ Follower and live
    according to the Word of God in my own everyday life now and forever.


  18. “It is our hearts that need to be searched, not our behaviors and activities.” What could possibly express more of what is in our hearts than the very activities and behaviors we take part in? I’m thoroughly convinced that we will do the things that we think about most.

    I agree completely, that it isn’t about a checklist, but it is about becoming like Christ. Like you said, when the love of God in us, it inevitably begins to change how we behave and act. The problem with the checklist is that someone can go through the checklist without ever experiencing being “born again” as Christ states to Nicademus. That was the overall problem of the Pharisees and Saducees of that time, almost perfect obedience to a law pointing to a God they didn’t understand. Surely the whole purpose of the Law of Moses was the foreshadowing of the great and wonderful Atonement of our Lord Jesus Christ.

    But to say that we can’t be judged according to how we act? Or what we choose to associate ourselves with? I cannot agree with that at all. I believe that it is our choices, that ultimately define us for who we are. We can believe anything we want in our minds, but if our choices don’t reflect that faith, who’s to say that is truly what we believe if we couldn’t even believe it enough to act on it.

    This is why I believe the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) is so paramount. Christ is instructing us on being. Not only following this “checklist”, which absolutely exists in the form of commandments, but also on being a disciple of His.

    It isn’t meant to be easy to be a disciple of Christ. Peter and the apostles we’re beaten and glorified God that they could participate in such an honor in Christ’s name (Acts 5:41) Peter said that our trials of our faith are “more precious than of gold” (1 Peter 1:7) because in them we find our belief in Christ. And surely that belief comes from acting on that faith.

    If we are to so vaingloriously call ourselves disciples, how could we ever think it would be easy for us, if it was never easy for Christ? Or any disciple that is written of in holy writ? From Moses putting his faith to action of listening to the Holy Spirit by putting his staff in the water to part the red sea or the woman that fed the prophet Elijah over her own son. (1 Kings 17:7-24) I believe that’s the reason for the statement in Matthew 7:15. “Strait is the gate and narrow is the way, which leads to life and few will find it.” And then a few verses down it warns of false prophets yet says by their fruits you shall know them. What are fruits of people? Their actions, what they do, the good they do in the world.

    I think what you do for those men is marvelous. Love and the Word of God in all of it’s true forms is what has the power to stir the souls of men.

    But what I think is a uniform problem overall, is the unity of the body of Christ. The Christian church is a disorganized group of people who are interpreting the Bible differently. All saying that this is the way. I’m sure there are thousands of different branches of Christianity. Is it any wonder that a young Christian, or even experienced Christian would be confused as to what to do or how to act? But that is an entirely different matter which could bring up, I’m sure, pages of discussion!


    1. Tanner, what we do and how we behave is important. However, it is not the starting point. It in fact cannot be our starting point as Christians, because when it is my faith is then based on my works instead of Christ’s work on the Cross. Speaking for myself, I know my own heart and how quickly and easily, moment by moment, I want desperately to make everything about me; even my faith in Christ. That means I can’t trust myself, my motives, my desires, and yes, my actions and behavior as a primary starting point for my faith. If I do have behavior as a starting point (subconsciously or otherwise), I can then sit as judge over pretty much any kind of behavior, and post a photo of a smoker on a blog because that is considered a horrible sin today (even by secular standards). My works, behavior, life change, etc… are a response to my understanding of God’s unlimited love and grace for me. The love of Christ defines me. My sonship to my Father defines me. If I could only follow that sermon on the mount, but there were some seemingly impossible directives Jesus gave there. And that may actually be the point.
      I still struggle with all of this and I don’t claim to have arrived; just thinking out loud. Thanks for your kind words brother.


  19. I guess for me, living in a low-income community in Mexico, where marginalization, iniquities, bad education, oppression and tyranny occurs daily,

    the question would be ¿What does the Gospel mean in here?, ¿What do we mean with Salt and Light?.

    I don’t want to offend you guys, but I can trust an american christian who smoke, drink, etcetera, and it is at the same time trying to avoid a consumerist/colonizing way of being.

    What does the Cost of Discipleship mean in our unjust world.

    Maybe my contribution it is too simple, but that’s what I think about it.



  20. busdriver4jesus July 1, 2013 at 2:47 pm

    If your “Christian” friends look, talk, act, sound etc. exactly like the world, you need to meet some Christians (without quotation marks!).


    1. But wasn’t one of the criticisms that the Pharisees leveled against Jesus that there were times He acted like the world, at least as they defined such actions? He ate with sinners and traitors, He went into their homes, He let a woman with a bad reputation wash His feet?

      There are things that, in themselves, are sinful. Adultery is a sin, stealing is a sin, murder is a sin, worshiping anyone or anything other than God is a sin. There are absolutes.

      Some things, though, are not so clear-cut, and depend on the person’s conscience. Paul wrote about eating meats, perhaps those of animals that had been used in sacrifices to false gods, and says that it depends on the conscience of the person whether they should eat or not.

      I was in a pretty legalistic church when I was a kid, where things like smoking and drinking and going to movies was strictly taboo. I’ve re-thought many of those things, while also seeing that there are reasons to be circumspect about many of those things, too. But rethinking whether drinking is in itself a sin or not does not mean that I can also rethink whether bowing to a false god would be sin or not. The first may be a matter of conscience and an ability to be in control, but the other is wrong no matter what.

      And, finally, there is simply the need for God’s grace. As messed up as the Corinthian church seems to have been, they were still a part of the Church. But it was the Galatian church, which was beginning to believe that works were needed for them to have salvation and be right with God, who were on the verge of falling into apostasy.


  21. Im pastoring a Hispanic congregation and our main goal is disciple. Wow I read this information and with out doubt really bless my life. … Powerful.


  22. Well thought out, and true. We tend to want to “fit in” rather than be “salt and light”


  23. What a great discussion.


  24. Starland sound July 11, 2013 at 1:19 am

    To bad people don’t read their bibles any more, there’s so many answers to all of this in there.

    A lot of stuff the writer describes is referenced as traits that are not those of Gods holy people in the bible, but earmarks of “children of the devil” (1 John 3:7-10)

    Just sayin.


  25. Stuart Blessman July 19, 2013 at 12:15 pm

    Permissible but not beneficial. When is the discussion between two believers centered around “beneficial” and not one party hard-standing “unpermissible” and another defending?


  26. Thank you for the thought-provoking article. I have been contemplating this topic a lot lately, and I can say that I have witnessed both extremes. I believe there is a happy medium (not a compromise, but an accuracy) that needs to be sought, and now I am trying to pinpoint the problem that prevents us from reaching that balance.

    I have witnessed the biting cynicism of Christians whose main focus is proclaiming their differences from the “world” and seeking to widen that gap, without inviting others over to the other side. I also know Christians who have reacted against this legalistic culture by decreasing that gap instead of bridging it, resulting in actions that display no difference from a “worldly” life. I’m wondering, is the problem the fact that Christians have lost the “sense” behind the difference?
    Is the main problem that we do not understand the logic or motivation behind right living? If we don’t understand or know how to articulate the value of right living ourselves, we won’t bother passing that information or motivation on to others. If we aren’t motivated for the right reasons, our actions become a checklist and not a journey. We either blindly live under the “everything’s permissible as long as you’re loving others” clause, or we blindly follow rules.
    We not only need to be able to explain the benefit of the practical aspects of Biblical living and the meaning behind the big-picture life decisions, but we also need to understand how the two connect to each other. If we understood better the spiritual, emotional, physical and mental benefits and significance of right living, looking to this age and the next, would that make a meaningful difference in our actions?
    I would love to hear your thoughts.


  27. […] wrote for Mere Orthodoxy, his thinking seems far more nuanced this time.  In fact, when I read Have Christians Lost Their Sense of Difference, I found myself agreeing with almost every word.  We’ve swung so far away from legalism that […]


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