Matthew 5:13-16 means hiding and fitting in aren’t options
Two thousand years after Jesus warned us against losing our savor or hiding our light (Matthew 5:13-16), sociologists made an interesting discovery. They found that when a distinct, separate group of people is surrounded by a larger society – say, for example, immigrants newly arrived in Canada – their different values and beliefs will cause some conflict. To reduce this conflict with the surrounding culture, this small group will react in one of two predictable ways. They will either compromise their beliefs and become like the culture around them, or they will retreat within their own camp. They can then keep their beliefs and still avoid conflict since no one outside their camp will know what they believe.
In other words, sociologists found out small groups tend to either lose their “saltiness” or hide their light “under a bowl.”
Israel and us
This was true of Israel too. In Old Testament times the Israelites consistently lost their saltiness. Though they were a nation set apart, they wanted to be just like the nations all around them and wanted to worship those gods. The Lord would rescue them, sending them a Gideon or Elijah, but once the prophet of the day was dead it wasn’t long before the Israelites were back at it, trying to fit in with the nations around them.
These passages might have us thinking Israelites were among the dumbest people who ever lived – they never seemed to learn from their mistakes!
Then came the exile, and that changed things. The remnant that returned from exile had lived for years in a foreign land in the middle of a mixing bowl of other cultures, and yet they had held onto God through it all. Their saltiness had been preserved.
But, to riff off of Martin Luther, Satan doesn’t care what side of the horse you slide off of, just so long as you do fall. Yes, the Israelites may have stayed loyal to the one true God, but they did so by creating walls to keep others out – more and more rules and requirements were added on top of the law of God. Instead of worshipping other gods, they became isolationists – they became Pharisees!
Instead of losing their saltiness, they were now hiding their light under a bowl.
While it took the Israelites hundreds of years to switch from one sin to the other, Christians today often bounce from one to the next inside of a generation. If a young man has grown up in a church that knows the Bible but is insular and closed, he goes looking for something more open. He looks for a church that is less judgmental, more tolerant, and more loving…and if the minister’s sermons have more anecdotes than scriptural insights, so be it.
In Canada, one of the biggest Protestant denominations is the United Church, despite the fact that leaders have gone so far as to deny the Lord’s resurrection. So why would any Christian be attracted to this church? Because their light is not under a bushel – they’re out in the community involved with issues like poverty, gender, and the refugee crisis. Their light is plain to see, even if their Christian distinctiveness, their saltiness, is lost.
Blacked out light
But what use is a church that doesn’t teach Christ is risen? The United Church has been corrupted by the culture around it, and if we don’t want to end up like them then our best course of action is clear – we must retreat from culture!
This is the natural overreaction and the one that the older generation might have to most watch for. Christian schools, originally started to prepare our youth to interact with the world, can easily be turned into Christian shelters, whose new purpose is to hide our kids from the world. If someone was so inclined they could fill up all their time with church activities leaving no time for friends and neighbors outside our fellowship. A job in a godly company can be a blessing, but for the flee-from-culture-Christian it can also be another way to avoid interaction with non-Christians. Head too far in this direction and we can be left knowing the good news but not knowing anyone who needs to hear it – once again, our light will be hidden.
In the world, not of it
Christ knows us and our weaknesses. He understands it is in our nature to gravitate to being either salt or light. But it can’t be orthodoxy vs. outreach. He won’t settle for one or the other. Jesus wants prepared Christians to bravely venture out into the world to tell others about Him – He wants salt to be light. And He wants passionate Christians who are already interacting with our secular culture to learn and know and stand by what God says about baptism and homosexuality and predestination and spanking and creation – He wants light to be salt.
Our tendency to fall one way or the other is a reason God has placed us in congregations – there salty souls and bright lights can encourage and equip one another, recognizing how vital it is to be both salt and light, and how wrong it is to contently be just one or the other. Then the younger sister who knows how very important it is to reach out to our surrounding community can, in humility, recognize that while she is right about the need to be a light, there is a lot about God that she doesn’t know and could learn from studied, salty congregation members. And an older man, who knows how very important it is to stand up for the truths about God evidenced in creation, infant baptism, and our confessions, can, in humility, recognize that there are others, maybe amongst the young people, who can teach him a thing or two about being a brighter light to the world around us.
Being noticeable, and passing on what’s noteworthy: it is our calling and our privilege together. May God enable and encourage his Church to this glorious task in the year ahead.
This editorial is based largely on Dick Keyes’ “Chameleon Christianity,” which is highly recommended. A version of it first appeared in the Dec. 2015 issue.