The New Testament idea of “separation from the world” (Romans 12:2, 2 Corinthians 6:14-17) has meant different things to different theological traditions. This post is about what “separation from the world” means for Anabaptism. For Anabaptists, this concept is very closely tied to what we call the “two-kingdom concept.” Basically, we believe that, today, there are two spiritual realms that humans can belong to: the kingdom of God or the kingdom of this world.
The kingdom of God
The kingdom of God is made up of those who see Jesus as their Lord and example for how to live. Such people are part of a kingdom that doesn’t have physical borders, armies, and so on, but instead has peaceful outposts in every land. Ideally, every Christian church would be such an outpost, but, sadly, not all churches follow the way of the kingdom as Jesus instated it.
The kingdom of this world
On the other hand, the kingdom of this world comprises societies and nations here on earth, which aren’t fully committed to following Christ. In fact, the kingdom of this world includes every nation today, since all earthly nations use violence and act in other un-Christlike ways. The reason God ordains these governments (see Romans 13), even though they don’t follow Jesus’ perfect way, is that God wants all people, whether they belong to his kingdom or not, to have good governments for their own protection.
The two-kingdom concept in Anabaptism
We believe that these two “kingdoms” have different values, methods of government, and goals/ideals. While earthly nations want to consolidate wealth and power into their own hands, God’s kingdom wants to enrich every person everywhere, especially spiritually. So, even though a citizen of God’s kingdom will necessarily live inside an earthly nation as well, and should be a good citizen, he or she will need to be careful not to be drawn into the unhealthy tendencies of that nation. Being too involved with the workings of that nation will have a negative effect on us.
That principle, essentially, is the basis for “separation from the world.” We need to keep the mindsets of God’s kingdom while being careful not to think like earthly nations do.
What is “the world”?
I’ve already kind of answered this question, but it merits further attention. In the New Testament, the term “the world” can mean different things. Generally, though it includes whatever is outside of the perfection of Christ. As opposed to Christ’s realm (which is often called “the kingdom of heaven” as well as “the kingdom of God”), the world doesn’t operate by the high standards of Jesus and those who truly follow him.
But “the world” is not so much the individual people who don’t consider Jesus to be their King. Actually, we want all people to experience the goodness and freedom of the kingdom of God, so we don’t want to stay away from them. Instead, “the world” is the large-scale systems that people live under—governments, monetary systems, big business, and even such things as sports and fashion industries.
These are systems that aren’t intrinsically bad, but they have the wrong focus. They are systems that can corrupt even the best-intentioned of us, if we get too involved in their politics and mindsets. That’s “the world” that we need to maintain a healthy distance from. We can’t ever entirely get away from them, but we need to live in such a way that insulates us from their influence.
As I pointed out in the last section, the world incentivizes power, greed, selfish pleasure, and violence. That’s not to say that people who aren’t part of the kingdom of God are bad people, though—actually, there are many honorable and worthy people who aren’t Christians, and there are many Christians who live like “the world.” Again, this doesn’t have to do with specific people as much as what large societies, whether capitalist, socialist, feudal, or anything else, enable and encourage. Anyone who doesn’t live according to good principles, but instead just does what is normal in their society, is likely to end up being “worldly,” or thinking like the world.
How should Christians separate from the world?
So how does separation from the world happen? It would be great if we humans could integrate fully with the world, and merely choose not to be influenced by the negative mindsets around us. If there are crude or racist people that we associate with, we could simply not be influenced by them, and we could instead be respectful and impartial. Unfortunately, what we associate with tends to influence us to be more like it. That’s why I try to be careful not to spend much time with those who use dirty language or racist jokes. I value them as people; I just don’t want to end up thinking or acting like them.
Separation from the world is a closely-related principle. For Christians, we need to stay away from the centers of worldly mindsets that feed on greed and power, so that we aren’t influenced to think like the world thinks. This might mean that we choose a profession that makes less money, so that we aren’t tempted to value wealth too highly. We might take care to send our children to religious schools rather than schools where the lowest common denominator might be the norm. We might choose to live simply and buy inexpensive possessions, so that we aren’t drawn into maintaining a respectable front and status symbols. We will be generous and might offer hospitality to our neighbors, so that we can be living for other people rather than for our own gain.
Anabaptist separation from the world
For Anabaptists, we encourage some further ways of staying separate from the world. Most of us don’t vote, or at least wouldn’t hold a political office, the goal being that we wouldn’t get drawn into worldly politics. Most of us limit the amount of video entertainment that we consume, because it can be hard to filter out the bad while taking in the good. Most of us try not to be defined by the current clothing and hair styles, trying to intentionally dress in ways that reflect our values rather than the world’s values.
These aren’t foolproof ways of living a principled life. In fact, for many Anabaptists, these ways of staying separation from the world can become their main focus rather than the principle itself. Ironically, then we might start being “separate from the world” in order to maintain a respectable front for the people around us—and we would fall prey to the mindsets of the world, thus undercutting the very point of those practices to begin with.
However, where this principle is lived out as it should be, we can insulate ourselves from the mindsets of greed and power around us, while not drawing away from the individual people around us who need Christ’s love and our friendship.