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How should Christians relate to the world around us? Should we withdraw, or should we engage? How do we know which action to do when? It’s not question with a simple answer, is it?
On the one hand, there are plenty of reasons why we might think we should withdraw from the world. Paul tells believers in his letter to the Ephesians: “you were dead because of your offenses and sins, in which you once walked, according to the age of this world” (Ephesians 2:1–2), and so “we were, by nature, children of wrath”, deserving of God’s righteous judgment (2:3). But Christians are people who have been rescued from the evils of the world. God has “raised us together with Christ, and seated us together with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus” (2:6–7). So we should “no longer walk as the gentiles walk: in the futility of their minds” (4:17). Instead, we should “take off the old humanity, according to the former way of life, which is being corrupted according to deceitful desires” (4:22), and instead “put on the new humanity, which has been created according to God in the righteousness and devotion that come from the truth” (4:24). Our behaviour must be completely different from the world’s—no sexual immorality, impurity, or greed. “It’s because of these things that the wrath of God is coming on the children of disobedience. So don’t become partners with them” (5:6–7). All of these things that Paul says in Ephesians seem to give us plenty of reasons to withdraw from the world and have nothing to do with it.
But on the other hand, there are also plenty of reasons for us to engage with the world. Christians are people who are caught up in God’s great plan “to sum up all things in Christ: things in heaven and things on earth, in him” (1:10). God is achieving this plan through the preaching of the gospel, the “word of truth”, which brings salvation to people. Christians are people who have come to believe and trust in Christ the missionary, the one who “came and preached the gospel: peace to you who were far away, and peace to those who were close” (2:17). Paul the apostle is caught up in this mission; he is a “minister of the gospel” whose task is “to preach to the gentiles the gospel” (3:7–8). And God’s people, too, are caught up in this “work of ministry” and mission; we should be “speaking the truth in love” and so seeing the body of Christ grow (4:14–15). So gospel ministry and mission is central to our identity as Christians. And all of these things give us plenty of reasons to engage with the world—so that people might hear the gospel, come to Christ, and be saved.
So what should we do? Should we withdraw, or should we engage?
There are various ideas about how Christians should organise our communities and spend our time when it comes to relating to the world around us. The American writer Rod Dreher, for example, has advocated for what he calls “The Benedict Option”. He believes modern Western society is facing another “Dark Age”. He sees virtue and reason as disappearing fast, and being replaced in our society by evil and irrationality. What is the right response, according to Dreher? It’s to strategically withdraw, adopting “a strategy that draws on the authority of Scripture and the wisdom of the ancient church to embrace ‘exile in place’ and form a vibrant counterculture” (p. 18). He believes that withdrawal is vital, not only to our survival, but to our mission in the world. We will change the world if we are different and separate. However, others are more upbeat about the value of engaging with the world. There are plenty of voices today urging Christians to engage winsomely in the “public square”—in politics, in the media, on social media, etc.—seeking to commend Christianity to our secular world and so win them to the gospel.
In his letter to the Ephesians, the apostle Paul doesn’t answer every question we might have about how Christians should organise our lives and communities, or what to do (or not do) with the “public square”. He does, however, give us a powerful image, an image that gives us a strong foundation for making decisions about these things. It’s the image of “light”. In Ephesians 5:8–9, Paul has reminded his readers that “once you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord”. We’ve been transformed from darkness to light, and now we’re to live according to this new identity. This involves following the “fruit of light”, that is, what is “good and right and true”. But the image of light doesn’t just help us to live our own individual Christian lives. It also helps us to relate to people around us. That’s what Paul is talking about when he continues to use the image of light in these verses:
Don’t participate in the unfruitful works of darkness, but rather expose them. For the things that are done in secret by them are shameful even to mention. But all the things that are exposed by the light become visible; for everything that becomes visible is light. This is why it says: “Get up, sleeper, and rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.”Ephesians 5:11–14
Each sentence in these verses tells us something important about how Christians should relate to the world around us.
In verse 11, Paul speaks about two options for relating to the world around us:
Don’t participate in the unfruitful works of darkness, but rather expose them.Ephesians 5:11
It’s important we understand precisely what the two options are here. The fundamental question is not actually “Do we withdraw, or do we engage?”. That is, the key decision we face as Christians is not a political or social question, e.g. “Do we follow the Benedict Option or engage in the public square?” Rather, the more fundamental question for each of us is this: Are we going to be partners with the darkness by doing its deeds, or are we going to expose the darkness? And of course, when you put it that way, the answer is clear: We can’t be partners with the darkness. So we must expose it!
The word “expose” means showing up the darkness for what it is. It means bringing the works of darkness to light and so demonstrating how wrong and dark they are. How do we do that? Do we expose and convict the darkness of our world by speaking up, calling it out, lobbying politicians, or crafting clever social media posts that demonstrate how irrational and corrupt the secular world really is? Well, there is a place for these things. Speaking up and calling out evil might be necessary to protect vulnerable people who are being harmed by evil and dark deeds. Demonstrating the irrationality of the world can help us to engage with worldviews, which in turn can help us to preach the gospel to people who hold those worldviews. But actually, when Paul talks here about “exposing” the darkness, he’s not talking about “calling it out”.
Paul is saying here that we expose the darkness simply by walking as children of light. It’s not primarily about what we say. It’s about how we live.
Don’t even mention it
For the things that are done in secret by them are shameful even to mention.Ephesians 5:12
One key reason that we don’t just expose the darkness by talking about it is that talking about the darkness is shameful. We don’t want to be spending too much time talking about the evils of the world. In fact, it’s better to be naïve about the darkness. So don’t be afraid if you don’t know enough about the darkness. You don’t need to know everything about the evils of this world before you can expose them. That’s because the first, primary way to expose the world is not by clever well-informed worldview engagement, but by living rightly: by living as children of the light, being good, and right, and true.
Because that’s how light works.
But all the things that are exposed by the light become visibleEphesians 5:13
If you’re standing in a dark room, what’s the best way to expose the darkness? It’s not by standing in the room and giving a speech about how dark it is. The best way to expose the darkness is by turning the light on! Because when you turn the light on, the darkness flees. That’s why one of the best security measures for a building is to install lights: it’s hard to do the wrong thing when the light is shining on you. Light takes away fear too. When it’s dark, it can feel as if there are monsters under the bed. But when you turn the light on, they’re no longer there. And as Paul has said, the world is dark, and we are light in the Lord. So living as children of light: doing right, being godly, speaking truthfully—this is how the dark deeds of our world are exposed.
Darkness is opposed to light. But when you think about it, light always has the upper hand. It’s not as if there’s an epic struggle between light and darkness. It’s not Star Wars, where the dark side is powerful and menacing and the light side is never sure whether it can conquer the darkness. In the real world, light always wins. When it’s dark, you can switch a light on. But when there’s light, you can’t switch the dark on. There’s no real contest. Light makes things visible—light exposes dark. And when you walk as children of light—being good, and right, and true—then that is what happens. The dark deeds of the world are shown up and exposed. The darkness is seen for what it is.
But Paul has even more to say:
for everything that becomes visible is light. This is why it says: “Get up, sleeper, and rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.”Ephesians 5:14
The light of the gospel isn’t only a light that exposes. It doesn’t just show up the evil and lies of our world. It’s a light that transforms! The light of the gospel changes the darkness into light. Paul here is referring to some key passages in the Old Testament, especially Isaiah 60:1–2. So Isaiah 59 describes how God saves Israel from their darkness: that is, their sin and death and judgment (see Isaiah 59:9–10). Then Isaiah 60 describes how God’s light and glory shines on Israel, which means they too should get up from the dead and shine to the world. This is what has happened to us as Christians. As Paul has already said in Ephesians, Christ has been raised from the dead (1:20), and we have been raised with Christ (2:6)—raised from being dead in our sins (2:1). And, says Paul here, as we wake up from death, and live the new life God has given us in Christ, we reflect the glory of Christ who shines on us, and so through us, Christ shines on others.
If you’ve been a Christian for any length of time, you will have seen examples of this playing out. You will know how Christ “shines” through your life to others, even in simple, ordinary things. If you are in Christ, then despite your failings and the fact that you’re nowhere near perfect, Christ shines in and through you. If you are trying to live for him and walk his way, then however imperfect you are, your life is different from the world. It’s seen in seemingly little things: things like the security and hope you have because of Christ, the way you can be friends with people who are different from you, the strength from Christ that enables you to be humble and gentle, the genuine love that flows from Christ’s love for you, the way you can deal with anger through God’s grace, the way you can speak words that build up rather than tear down, the power you have to forgive, the thankfulness that flows from knowing Christ, and more. This is light. And in a dark world, this light shines brightly. By exposing the darkness, this light helps others to see the greatness of Christ. And it even brings them to know and trust him.
This is because, as we live for Christ, we also speak the gospel—because that’s how people are saved. People need the truth. However, we don’t speak the gospel in a vacuum. We need to be speaking the truth of the gospel in the context of loving relationships: “the truth in love”. This is light shining in the darkness. And it will make a difference. Christ will shine on you, and through you to others.
Being light, not being liked
It’s important to be clear, however: this passage is about being light, not about being liked. Sometimes we can confuse the two. It’s possible in your own Christian walk and service of others—or in your church’s ministry and mission—to aim for the goal of being liked. You might think that if people like you, or if they like Christians, and if they see how likeable you are, then they will be won to the gospel of Jesus Christ. And so you can be tempted to set your sights, first and foremost, on being liked. You can judge all your ministry and evangelism by that standard: do people like it? You can care most of all about PR, looking good, and coming across well.
But this is not what Paul is talking about here. He is talking about something far more powerful and confronting than just being liked. He is talking about being light. Light doesn’t adopt a strategy to be liked and accepted by the darkness, does it? Light exposes the darkness. When you switch on the light, the light doesn’t just mount a plausible argument directed towards the darkness, aiming to convince the darkness that light is actually quite similar to darkness, but with added benefits. Rather, the light floods the room with light and exposes the darkness. If your aim is to be liked, then the best you will do is make darkness feel warm and cosy. But if your aim is to walk as a child of the light, then that light will expose the darkness. And this is powerful.
It won’t always be a warm reception, of course. When the darkness is exposed it often hates the exposure and reacts against it. The darkness might hate you, and there’s no promises that it will always be rosy and easy. It can be scary when the darkness reacts. Yet Christ is powerful and victorious and seated above all powers and authorities. And if you are in Christ, you are raised with him. You are light.
So this is Paul’s command to believers: Wake up, rise from the dead. Live as light. And Christ will shine on and through you.
Consider areas of your life where Christ has worked in you to make you “light” in a dark world. Give thanks to God.
Are there areas of life where you are afraid of the darkness of this world? How might the image of “light” help you to be more confident to live as a new creation in Christ and share him with others?
This post is part of a series of 70 reflections covering every sentence in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. It’s also available in audio podcast format. You can see all the posts in the series, and connect to the audio podcast using the platform of your choice, by following this link.
The academic details behind these reflections
In this series, I don’t go into detail justifying every statement I make about the background and meaning of Ephesians. I’ve done that elsewhere. If you’re interested in the reasons I say what I say here, and want to chase it up further with lots of ancient Greek, technical stuff, and footnotes, check out my book Reading Ephesians and Colossians After Supersessionism: Christ’s Mission through Israel to the Nations.