1 Corinthians 5:9-10 I have written to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people – not at all meaning the people of this world who are immoral, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters. In that case you would have to leave this world.
Paul is grappling here with the complex and delicate question of what it means in practice for the followers of Jesus to be IN the world but not OF the world.
The two basic things Jesus requires of those who have turned to him as their personal Saviour and who therefore acknowledge his Lordship over their lives, is that they seek to live HOLY LIVES as he did, and that they seek out every available opportunity to TELL OTHERS about his saving grace.
The first of these two requirements calls us to be not OF the world; the second requires that we be very much IN the world. What Paul is saying here to the Christians in the godless, immoral seaport of Corinth (not much different from Sydney!) is that they are not to find refuge in a ‘monastic’ lifestyle, but rather that in their day-to-day rubbing shoulders and interacting with the people in the market-place, LOOKING FOR OPPORTUNITIES TO TALK ABOUT JESUS, they themselves must be very careful not to let the ambient UNgodliness impact their shared life in Christ.
The four things he singles out for them to avoid are things that have almost become defining characteristics of OUR culture. (I have been using the present lockdown to catch up on some long overdue reading, and have just read ‘The Vanishing Conscience’ by John MacArthur Jnr – it is quite a disturbing and challenging read!) Immorality is condoned in the private lives of celebrities and in popular literature, movies and TV shows. Greed is what allows our consumer economy to operate and is reflected in our collective addiction to gambling in one form or another. Swindling or extortion is easily glossed over in the lack of honesty that pervades our business operations. As for idolatry – the giving to any interest or pursuit the prime place in our lives that belongs to God alone (and churches can do this too!) – we could all do with some solid heart-searching!
It’s not easy to be IN the world but not OF it; but it is essential if we are to be of use to the One who loved us enough to die in our place. James put it like this: “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress (ie IN the world) and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world (ie not OF the world).” (James 1:27).
As a wise man once said: “The appropriate place for the ship to be is in the sea; but problems arise when the sea starts getting into the ship!”