What Does Worldly Look Like?

(See Part 2, Part 3)

In fundamentalist parlance, the word worldly nearly always refers to matters of fashion and entertainment. It involves how a person dresses; what sort of places he goes; and the things he reads, views, or listens to. Consequently, many feel that if they just stay away from certain things, they are safe from worldliness.

In some cases, the attitude goes a step further. “As long as I have the proper appearance, never go to the proscribed places, or take in the proscribed materials, I am not only free of worldliness but also basically a good Christian.” Externals-focused preaching and institutional rules [1] reinforce the attitude, and plain human laziness gives it a cozy home. For many fundamentalists, avoiding the “worldly fashions and entertainments” list is easy. They grew up with the list, have never lived any other way, and never spend time with anyone who lives differently.

The consequence is often auto-pilot Christianity. “I don’t smoke, I don’t chew, and I don’t go with those who do” is as natural, thoughtless, and non-sacrificial as breathing. And for all too many, this thinking leads yet another step downward into self-righteousness and judgmentalism. If, in some dark corner of our hearts, we feel that we have mostly mastered holy living and that it’s actually pretty easy, we become impatient with those who struggle with or do not accept our vision of what clean living is all about.

So we would all do well to look long, hard, and often at the true nature of worldliness. Limiting the concept of worldliness to matters of dress and entertainment not only misses the bull’s eye but also barely nicks the bail of straw supporting the target. In reality, there are innumerable expressions of worldliness, and many are not visible at all.

The Essence of Worldliness

Worldly is what we all are when we’re born, what we are before we repent and believe the Gospel, and what we continue to be precisely to the extent that we remain untransformed by the renewing of our minds (Rom. 12:2). “Be not conformed to this world but be transformed” does not describe two alternatives we will face as we go about living our lives. It’s a contrast between what already is (“conformed to this world”) [2] and what should replace it as we grow (“transformed” ways).

Worldliness is immaturity. To be precise, it’s spiritual immaturity, but (as 1 Corinthians shows) it’s often visually identical to emotional, intellectual, and social immaturity. It’s childishness.

And I, brethren, could not speak to you as to spiritual people but as to carnal, as to babes in Christ. I fed you with milk and not with solid food; for until now you were not able to receive it, and even now you are still not able; for you are still carnal. For where there are envy, strife, and divisions among you, are you not carnal and behaving like mere men? (1 Cor. 3:1-3) [3]

The word carnal here translates the Greek adjective sarkinos. It derives from the noun sarx, flesh, and means “fleshly” [4] in the sense of merely physical, as though possessing no spiritual life, as though the Corinthians were nothing more than bodies. Paul doesn’t teach that the body is the center of sinful desire [5] but that those who have not been made alive (Eph. 2:2) are, in a manner of speaking, limited to their bodily resources. They are entirely “of the flesh.” [6] Here, in reference to “brethren,” his point is that the immature believers in Corinth were acting mostly like unbelievers, “like mere men.”

Though the translators of the NIV unnecessarily inserted their interpretation into this text (and many others), the interpretation they inserted is correct: “I could not address you as spiritual but as worldly.” So when Scripture speaks of what is immature, what is of the flesh, what is of the old man, and what is of the world, it is speaking of the same thing. And that means our usual use of the term worldly overlooks a whole lot of territory.

Overlooked Forms of Worldliness

1. Excessive Devotion to Human Leaders and Movements

One form of worldliness we often forget about is the immaturity expressed in monomaniacal devotion to (and dependence on) human leaders and groups. As Paul put it (1 Cor. 3:4), “when one says, ‘I am of Paul,’ and another, ‘I am of Apollos,’ are you not carnal?”

Here, the word carnal translates the ordinary word for “human” (anthropos), but Paul’s point is the same: you are acting like people who have not changed much. Or, as we like to say, you’re being “like the world.”

The immature, and therefore worldly, attitude was the all-too-human tendency to have stronger faith in what we see than in what we don’t see. They could see Paul, Apollos, and Cephas (1 Cor. 1:11-12). They could not see that what really mattered was that God was accomplishing His purposes (1 Cor. 3:7) and that these men were, commensurate with their yieldedness, only God’s tools.

Whether we’re fans of Jack Hyles, Bob Jones, Bill Gothard, Doug Phillips, John MacArthur, John Piper, or just “Pastor Dave,” our ideological (doctrinal) loyalty does not belong to men but to Scripture. Allowing devotion to human leaders to close our minds to biblical data on important issues is worldliness. And, for once, it’s worldliness that is actually identified as such in the Bible.

2. Stubborn Resistance to Unfamiliar Ideas

Not all change is growth, but all growth is change. That means if I’m going to be a better person in a week, a month, or a year, I’ll have to behave differently, discover something I didn’t know, or change my mind about something I thought I knew. Once in a while, it may mean changing my mind about something I’ve believed and defended for years.

Believers who reflexively balk at any new or different idea condemn themselves, at best, to stagnate at their current level of worldly immaturity. The “I already know everything I need to know” attitude is itself a worldly attitude and one that tends to fester and breed increasing worldliness.

James 3:13-17 contrasts “works … in the meekness of wisdom” with wisdom that is “earthly, sensual, demonic.” The former is “from above” (3:17), and the latter is worldly.

These verses are packed with ideas worth exploring, but one item is of special importance here. James informs us that wisdom that is from above (the kind that is not worldly) is pure but also “peaceable, gentle and willing to yield.” Surely this wisdom includes a measure of willingness to listen thoughtfully to ideas other than those we already champion. And the alternative subbornness is an “earthly, sensual, demonic” attitude.

Proverbs puts the issue more bluntly:

Whoever loves instruction loves knowledge,
But he who hates correction is stupid (Prov. 12:1).

The word stupid translates ba’ar, which implies an unsophisticated, beastly mentality (AV, “brutish”). It’s in stark contrast to the thoughtfulness that characterizes maturity.

Another Proverb emphasizes that even when delivered in the form of a rebuke (not the easiest way to be challenged by ideas we hadn’t considered), wisdom fuels openness.

Rebuke is more effective for a wise man
Than a hundred blows on a fool (Prov. 17:10).

It’s hard to see how loving instruction and benefiting from rebuke could be compatible with knee-jerk ranting in response to any “different take” on an issue. Stubborn, impulsive resistance to all unfamiliar ideas is worldly.

3. Thin-Skinned Combativeness

Another frequently overlooked form of worldliness is quickness to take personal offense, often coupled with personal counterattacks.

The NT contains an amazing quantity of personal conflict words in discussions of what ought to be put behind us as we grow in Christ.

Looking again at worldly Corinth, we find that Paul not only laments envy and strife (1 Cor.3:2) but also divisions (schismata) and factions (hairesis) involving the Lord’s Supper (11:18-19). Furthermore, the “works of the flesh” in Galatians include “contentions [eris], jealousies [zelos]… dissensions [dichostasia], heresies [hairesis].” And James cites “envy” and “self-seeking” as evidence of earthly, sensual, and demonic wisdom; and links “wars and conflicts” to lust and pleasure (4:1-3).

With so much flesh-driven combativeness involved in the old worldly life, quickness to take offense and go on the counterattack must play a major role. If a believer is quick to feel wounded, to say “them’s fightin’ words!”, and start dueling, what he has is a worldliness problem.

And So Much More

Worldliness has so many forms that require our vigilance! Beyond those explored above, there’s the instability that goes with being childish (Eph. 4:14-15), the “spirit of fear” that exposes immaturity in our faith (2 Tim.1:7-8, Mark 4:40), and the petty criticism that betrays childish implacability (Matt. 11:16-19), to name a few.

So we are in danger of practicing a separation from “worldliness” that keeps us distant from certain fashions, modes of entertainment, and people; but allows us to tote worldliness comfortably along with us on the inside. If we make that mistake for long, we will discover that instead of being “in the world but not of it” we are “of the world but not in it.”

Notes

1. Institutions (as “voluntary societies”) are free to make whatever rules they want. If they like, they can require male students to sleep wearing neckties. For a good explanation of the rationale, see Kevin Bauder, “Tolerance in Voluntary Societies.
2. The verb is a negated present imperative. In many contexts, this verb does not indicate ceasing an activity that is in progress (“stop being conformed”), but this sense fits Paul’s thought here. The command “be transformed” doesn’t make sense unless there is something that needs changing, and the nearest likely referent would be conformity to the world.
3. Unless otherwise noted, Scripture quotation are from the New King James Version.
4. Cf. ESV “people of the flesh,” NAS “men of flesh.”
5. Caveat: I am not confident that I have the right answer to the question of why Paul uses the expression “flesh” to refer to the tendency to sin. If you have a better one, I’d really love to hear it.
6. He uses the term in this sense in Rom.8:1-9. The “carnal mind” (phronema tes sarkos) here is an unbeliever’s mind.

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Aaron Blumer is a native of lower Michigan and a graduate of Bob Jones University and Central Baptist Theological Seminary (Plymouth, MN). He, his wife, and their two children live in small-town in western Wisconsin where he has pastored Grace Baptist Church since 2000. Prior to serving as a pastor, Aaron taught school in Stone Mountain, Georgia, and served in customer service and techinical support for Unisys Corporation (Eagan, MN). He enjoys science fiction, music, and dabbling in software engineering.

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