OK, when was the last time you heard a sermon warning against worldliness? I suspect for most believers it would have been a very long time indeed. There are several reasons for this. Likely it is because we are in fact a very worldly church, and we don’t like to speak to our particular sins, so we just drift along.
But there is another reason. We have tended to misunderstand what the warnings against worldliness actually mean, and/or have quite distorted the actual biblical teaching on this. That is, we have often thought that worldliness means having nothing to do with this material world altogether.
We have taken on a kind of Gnostic understanding wherein the spiritual realm is seen as good while the non-spiritual realm is regarded as bad. Thus many Christians have wanted to completely withdraw from the world, and have rightly been accused of being all about pie in the sky in the sweet bye and bye.
So my first task is to explain what the term “world” means in Scripture, and then address the biblical understanding of worldliness. Confining ourselves to just the New Testament, there are several Greek words which can be translated into the English word ‘world’.
Several Greek words, such as ge, oikoumene, and agros more often refer to the actual physical earth. The key term is kosmos, which is translated in various ways in English. Context of course is key as to how best to translate this term. In the passages I wish to consider, it usually has the sense of the fallen world system which is opposed to God.
That the warnings about worldliness do not mean our entire removal from planet earth in some sort of monastic or ascetic sense is clearly spelled out by Jesus and Paul. Jesus said in John 17:15-16: “My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one. They are not of the world, even as I am not of it.”
Paul expresses a similar thought in 1 Cor. 5:9-11: “I have written you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people – not at all meaning the people of this world who are immoral, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters. In that case you would have to leave this world. But now I am writing you that you must not associate with anyone who calls himself a brother but is sexually immoral…”
We live in this world, and God made this world, and we are to be salt and light in this world, and we are to extend the Lordship of Christ to all areas of life. But we are not to be contaminated by the fallen world’s values, beliefs, ethos and mindset.
Perhaps the best way to get a handle on this is to deal with a few passages which speak of worldliness. There would be many passages to appeal to here, but two classic texts readily come to mind. The first is James 4:4: “You adulterous people, don’t you know that friendship with the world is hatred toward God? Anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God.”
The second is 1 John 2:15-17: “Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For everything in the world – the cravings of sinful man, the lust of his eyes and the boasting of what he has and does – comes not from the Father but from the world. The world and its desires pass away, but the man who does the will of God lives forever.”
Commenting on the passage in James, Peter Davids says, “The world is not the created order or the earth, but the whole system of humanity (its institutions, structures, values, and mores) as organized without God.” And we must bear in mind that friendship back then was far more binding and serious than it is today.
As Blomberg and Kamell explain, friendship in antiquity was “a lifelong pact between people with shared values and loyalties”. Thus to “be friends with the world means to identify with its standards and priorities”. That is why James argues that we cannot be friends of God and the fallen world structure at the same time.
Consider also the 1 John passage. Daniel Akin comments: “This verse states clearly that one cannot love the world and love God at the same time. The absolute nature of this statement is striking and compels careful and serious reflection. The stakes are high. Because the Father’s kingdom is at war with the kingdom of this world, the two will never coexist peacefully. To pledge allegiance to one side is to declare opposition to the other.”
Marianne Meye Thompson is worth quoting at length here. She first reminds us that eschewing worldliness is not merely about having lists of do’s and don’ts, but “an active devotion to God that shapes all that we are and do”. She continues,
“The command do not love the world demands that we reject those ways of life which do not lead us to God or to the practice of truth, justice, righteousness and love. While this sounds easy enough in theory, it is not easy in practice. For it entails the recognition and condemnation of sin and unrighteousness. Here we can too easily fall prey to arrogant judgmentalism on the one hand or, on the other hand, to the subtle tug to let sinful behaviors pass unnoticed or unnamed in our efforts to love and accept people as they are. And yet acceptance and love of others never means that we must – or may – approve of a way of life that is inimical to God’s way of light. Certainly Jesus knew his ministry to be one that exposed sin (Jn 16:8-10). Yet a ministry of exposing the unrighteousness of the world’s ways does not stand in contradiction to a ministry of love. For precisely by exposing sin, lies and hatred, we can become channels of God’s truth, light and love, so that we enable others to live in that truth as well.”
How all this works out in practice is of course difficult, and much ink has been spilt on this theme. But clearly not loving the world means more than simply avoiding a whole list of activities: drinking, dancing, card-playing, going to movies, and so on. The biblical authors are suggesting something more substantial than this. Sure, it may well include avoiding certain activities – activities which some believers may be able to participate in with clear conscience, but which others perhaps cannot.
It is fundamentally a life sold out to God, and the decision to put him first at every opportunity, and not let the values and concerns of the world become our main concern. As I mentioned, the reason we so seldom hear these verses preached on is because they are too close for comfort. The sad truth is, much of the contemporary church is worldly, carnal, lukewarm, and obsessed with being like the world instead of challenging the world and affirming some clear differences.
So much of the church is involved in compromise, empire building, entertainment, fixation on self, and mimicking the spirit of the age and its values. Christians are called to be truly counter-cultural. To seek to live this way will of course result in plenty of criticism.
We will be accused of being intolerant, narrow-minded, wowsers, and worse. But Jesus too faced the same rejection. So how can we expect anything less? To be truly Christian will always mean being radically counter-cultural.
Perhaps a fitting way to end this piece is to quote from A. W. Tozer who wrote and spoke much about worldliness:
“When will Christians learn that to love righteousness it is necessary to hate sin? That to accept Christ it is necessary to reject self? That to follow the good way we must flee from evil? That a friend of the world is an enemy of God?”
“The church’s mightiest influence is felt when she is different from the world in which she lives. Her power lies in her being different, rises with the degree in which she differs and sinks as the difference diminishes.”
“The weakness of so many modern Christians is that they feel too much at home in the world. In their effort to achieve restful ‘adjustment’ to unregenerate society they have lost their pilgrim character and become an essential part of the very moral order against which they are sent to protest. The world recognizes them and accepts them for what they are. And this is the saddest thing that can be said about them. They are not lonely, but neither are they saints.”
“We must have a new reformation. There must come a violent break with that irresponsible, amusement-mad, paganized pseudo religion which passes today for the faith of Christ and which is being spread all over the world by unspiritual men employing un-scriptural methods to achieve their ends.”
“The bias of nature is toward the wilderness, never toward the fruitful field. . . . What is true of the field is true also of the soul, if we are but wise enough to see it. The moral bent of the fallen world is not toward godliness, but definitely away from it.”