Should We Separate Ourselves From Unbelievers?

Daily Reflection / Produced by The High Calling

As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient. All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our flesh and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature deserving of wrath.

Ephesians 2:1-3

If we take seriously the fact that this world opposes God, should we separate ourselves as much as possible from the world and its people? And if an ungodly spirit "is now work at work in those who are disobedient," should we cut off relationship with them?

At first glance, Ephesians 2:3 appears to answer "Yes" to these questions. It reads, "All of us also lived among them at one time…" In context, "them" refers back to "those who are disobedient," the ones in whom the evil spirit of this age is at work (2:2). If we lived among them (past tense) at one time (but not now), doesn't this imply that we have separated ourselves completely from those who have not been saved by God's grace in Christ?

No, not if we read Ephesians 2 carefully. In order to understand the first part of verse 3, we need to jump ahead a bit in our examination of the text. In a few verses, Paul will reveal that God made us alive with Christ (2:5). Moreover, God "raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms" (2:6). This does not mean, however, that we have been literally raised to heaven and enthroned alongside Christ. Rather, Paul is using this vivid language to convey the wonder of what happens to us now when we receive God's grace through faith.

Similarly, when Paul speaks of our once having lived among those who are disobedient, he does not imply that we should no longer have relationships with non-Christian people. Paul himself was committed to such relationships, since his life's purpose involved sharing the Gospel with them. Rather, Ephesians 2:3 suggests that our primary community, the people who give meaning and purpose to our lives, is no longer composed of those who reject God. Our fundamental identity is now defined by our relationship with God and his people.

So, in a sense, we have separated ourselves from those who live apart from God. Yet, in another sense, we still live among them so that God might touch their lives with his grace. In the classic phrase, we are "in, but not of, the world." In light of God's mission for us, we might say, we are "in and for, but not of, the world." Through us, God is working to bring all things together in Christ (1:10), drawing to himself those who now reject him.

QUESTIONS FOR FURTHER REFLECTION: In what contexts of your life do you live among those who are not Christians? How is it possible for you to have deep, redemptive relationships with them, while not embracing their worldviews and non-Christian practices? How can you live as a child of God among those who do not know God, so that they might be drawn to God's grace?

PRAYER: Lord, thank you for leading me into relationship with you through Christ. Thank you for adopting me into your family. As I live in this world, may my life reflect the fact that I belong to you by grace. May I live with those who need this grace. Yet, at the same time, may I live distinctively as one who belongs to you. Use me to reach out to those who don't know you with love and grace. Amen.