Together we’ve been looking at what I believe to be some of the more glaring weaknesses of conservative Reformed and Presbyterian circles. Perhaps we might look at these as our seven deadly sins.
I confess that my thoughts about these matters aren’t grounded in extensive research or the product of statistical data. Rather, they arise from my own experience, however limited, as a child of the Reformed faith and now as a pastor of the same.
It should also be said that while I’ve tried to capture our corporate shortcomings, in no way am I suggesting that we all are guilty of these things all of the time.
This series is admittedly diagnostic. Repentance that always stays general and never gets particular is dangerously close to not being repentance at all. It is helpful, indeed necessary, to locate specific areas where we collectively miss the mark.
But diagnostics are never the goal. Repentance is more than godly sorrow; it’s turning to God in Christ for the mercy of forgiveness and the power to change. Admitting our tendencies is one thing. Growing in grace is another.
Having considered legalism, familiarism, conservatism, elitism, and tribalism, we now turn the page to a sixth ism: what I call retreatism.
Though an uncommon word, retreatism is easy enough to understand. A quick dictionary glance defines it as “the attitude of being resigned to abandonment of an original goal or the means of attaining it.” Another puts it this way: “A word describing the cowardly compulsion to flee.”
Retreatism is a concept that comes from the field of battle, when a battalion withdraws prematurely out of fear. When applied to the church, retreatism is the practice of creating Christian ghettos or holy huddles, to the effect that our witness in the world is almost nonexistent, largely due to the fact that the only people we know are people like us.
Driven by fear of worldly influences, this mentality is driven by protection more than influence. Not wanting to be sucked into the spirit of the age, retreatism creates Christian subgroups for nearly everything. The result is a community that rubs shoulders with only itself, content to stay on the fringes as much as possible, just hoping to stay uncontaminated from the culture around it.
A community that immediately comes to mind that fits this diagnosis is the Amish. Wishing not to be conformed to this world, they have chosen to deliberately and sharply distance themselves from the world next door. They are content with a simpler life.
There is something attractive about them. In a culture run wild, the Amish are a breath of fresh air. There is much we can learn from their choice to stand out in these times. Paul is clear: “Do not be conformed to this world” (Rom. 12:2). So is John: “Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life—is not from the Father but is from the world. And the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever” (1 John 2:15–17).
But is withdrawal what Jesus had in mind? Are holy huddles and Christian ghettos what God intends for us? Does he wish for us to completely separate ourselves, to build up walls and disassociate ourselves from everything that doesn’t fit our Christian criteria?
I don’t think retreatism is what Jesus had in mind for the church. In his high priestly prayer, our Lord prayed the following: “I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep from the evil one” (John 17:15). Notice, Jesus said that his desire was not that his church create its own separate cities, but that the Father would protect us from Satan.
Perhaps you are thinking: But we aren’t Amish! We haven’t retreated! We drive their cars, shop in their stores, share their highways, and maneuver among non-Christians all the time.
But I contend that we have retreated, just in more subtle ways.
Symptoms of Retreatism
Our retreatism isn’t seen in the clothing we wear (that’s a topic for another time), or in the technology we use (or don’t use), or in what we drive down the highway.
But I’m afraid we are guilty of losing our saltiness. We have created so many little subcultures that I’m not sure we’ve really learned how to give an answer for the hope that is within us.
When is the last time someone asked you the reason for the hope within you? Could it be that very few people ask because the only people we spend time with are people just like us?
Retreatism assumes that we are safe just as long as sufficient protectors are in place. If we huddle up and create our own groups, then we’ll be less like to be contaminated.
The problem with that assumption, of course, is that it assumes that worldliness is all outside of us. But the Bible teaches something different. Worldliness is in all of us. I could lock myself in a room, away from every outside influence, and I’d still have my flesh to contend with.
Could it be that we are fooling ourselves into thinking that because we have Christian schools and Christian churches and Christian businesses and Christian music that we’re all safe and sound? Or that these things, as institutions, are the definition of holiness?
I fear that we define godliness by what we’re not more than by what we’re called to be. As long as I don’t go to that school, then I’m good. As long as I don’t belong to that denomination, then I’m godly. As long as I don’t vote that way, then I’m ok.
But worldliness is a powerful thing. It’s not just what happens out there, to other people. It’s alive and well in here. Paul warned about people who will have an appearance of godliness while denying its power.
Sometimes we can even justify sin as long as it takes place in our bubble. All that really matters is that we don’t commit the really big public sins that people in the world fall prey to. So while we shake our heads in disbelief at such atrocities as homosexuality, we put up with and even laugh off evils such as pride, drunkenness, and gossip.
Another result of retreatism is that we tend to be lousy at welcoming outsiders into our fellowships. Whether it’s fear that they might shake up our traditions or just plain skepticism, we often come across as standoffish instead of warm and inviting.
It may be that we are living out of fear rather than faith. Fear that worldliness might creep into our churches. We want to protect our kids. We don’t want to be contaminated.
But the Bible teaches we already are contaminated. Sin makes every one of us unclean! Yet this is why the gospel of God’s free grace is so remarkable, so astounding, so surprising. Even while we were God’s enemies, Christ died for us!
He died and rose again to cleanse our guilty consciences. He came to make the unclean clean. The gospel liberates us from an us-and-them mentality. It frees us to love our neighbors, to engage them, to listen to them, and to share with them the good news of salvation to everyone who believes.
We are in grave danger of losing our influence in the culture. Part of this stems from the culture’s influence on us, to be sure. But much of it comes from the sin of retreatism, of shrinking back in fear instead of standing up for what we believe in.
May God grant us the grace to know what it means to live in the world but not of the world, but also to repent for how we’ve confused piety for fearful protectionism.
After all it was Jesus who said, “You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people’s feet. You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Matt. 5:13–16).
Rev. Michael J. Schout is the pastor of Grace URC in Alto, MI. He welcomes your feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org.