What Does Worldly Look Like? Part 3

The goal of these articles (Part 1, Part 2) is to challenge misconceptions about the world and worldliness by taking a fresh look at our authority, the Scriptures themselves. I’ve argued that the biblical concept of worldliness encompasses much more than the matters of fashion, entertainment, and material possessions that we fundamentalists tend to focus on when we use the term.

The Study So Far

Part 1 in the series focused on select passages that suggest worldliness encompasses all of the sinful attitudes and actions of our unregenerate past. Romans 12:2 contrasts two conditions, conformity to “this world” [1] and transformation through mind renewal. Believers are in the conformed condition to the extent that we are not yet in the transformed condition. “Worldly” here is the opposite of “transformed.” In 1 Corinthians 3:1-4, Paul links the untransformed condition to immaturity and fleshliness and cites envy, strife, and divisions as evidence of that immaturity. Finally, James 3:14-15 associates contentious, self-seeking attitudes and sensuality with wisdom that is worldly (“earthly”). [2] Together, these passages alert us against a host of ungodly attitudes we seldom think of as worldly.

Part 2 emphasized the importance of understanding what “the world” is in order to understand what “worldly” means. We found that Scripture sometimes uses “world” very broadly (the created order of earth and/or all its people) but sometimes uses the word negatively in reference to a flawed subset of that order. Furthermore, some references to “world” are strongly negative in tone and identify an even smaller subset of the whole, a world within a world, within a world. This purely sinister sense of “world” is clearly an enemy believers must shun at all costs, but how do we identify what truly belongs to that world? What is its defining characteristic?

A Time-honored but Inadequate View

Part 2 concluded that the defining characteristic cannot be association with unbelievers or even popularity among unbelievers. Whatever we say “the world” of Romans 12:2, 1 John 2:15, and James 4:4 is, total nonpartcipation and nonconformity are required. Though many groups have claimed that “unbelievers and their ways” are what’s in view in Romans 12:2, none have actually lived that interpretation. They have always chosen to allow conformity of one sort or another.

Confusion on this point has persisted since at least the Reformation era, especially in Anabaptist thought.[3] The Schleitheim Confession (1572) is a poignant example.

We are agreed on separation: A separation shall be made from the evil and from the wickedness which the devil planted in the world; in this manner, simply that we shall not have fellowship with them and not run with them in the multitude of their abominations.[4]

Thus far, the Confession is on track, but it doesn’t stop there.

Since all who do not walk in the obedience of faith, and have not united themselves with God so that they wish to do his will, are a great abomination before God, it is not possible for anything to grow or issue from them except abominable things. For truly all creatures are in but two classes, good and bad, believing and unbelieving, darkness and light, the world and those who have come out of the world, God’s temple and idols, Christ and Belial; and none can have part with the other.[5]

Does Scripture really teach that unbelievers and everything they produce are the “world” believers should separate from? Even the horse-drawn carriages and subdued colors of the Amish fail to meet this standard since these, too, were once in vogue. Since Jesus and the apostles dressed like ordinary Jews, wrote in koine, frequented synagogues, paid taxes, and occasionally ate with publicans and sinners, their lives did not uphold this view either.

The “world” Scripture speaks most negatively about, and calls on believers to wholly reject, is distinct from the created order as a whole. It’s also distinct from unbelief-dominated human society as a whole. True, the latter (along with the rest of the earthly order) is flawed, and the believer’s relationship to it is shaped by that flaw. But its flaw is that it is temporal, “passing away” (1 Cor. 7:31), and the relationship this requires is not one of hostility but one of detachment.

The “world” in this sense is synonymous with “this life” (Luke 21:34) and “things on the earth” (Col. 3:2). Though it includes much that is good and worthwhile, we relate to it as “sojourners and pilgrims” (1 Pet. 2:11) whose “citizenship is in heaven” (Phil. 3:20).

World in the Worst Sense

But the enemy “world” we are called to reject and separate entirely from is not only temporal but also diabolical. Its defining characteristic is hostility to God and His will and, therefore, harmony with the Devil (διάβολος, diabolos) and his agenda. It’s a system centered not on the deeds and possessions of human beings but on Satan’s deceptions and perverted values and on the deeds that spring from them.

This view explains the strong antagonism of James 4:4 where friendship with the world is hostility toward God. It also explains how Satan can be the “god” (2 Cor. 4:4) of the world and its “ruler” (John 12.31). These verses cannot refer to mere material possessions or human cultures of the sort that produce Beethoven symphonies, Tolkien novels, and Narnia movies. Nor do they describe the planet or course of history that God alone rules. The “world” of these passages is the diabolical within what is material and human.

Several passages emphasize the ideological and spiritual character of this diabolical “world.” Galatians 4:3, Colossians 2:8, and Colossians 2:20 speak of the stoicheia of the world (translated “elements” or “basic principles”), probably meaning foundational ideas. [6] And Ephesians 6:12 associates the world with a spiritual network.

For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age [or world, αἰών, aion, Rom.12:2] against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.

Some manuscripts omit “of this aion,” but all include κοσμοκράτορας (kosmokratoras) which is rendered “rulers” in “rulers of the darkness.” The word means, literally, “world rulers,” [7] and the context identifies them as diabolical, purveyors of the “wiles of the devil” (διάβολος, diabolos, 6:11). Taken together, these passages paint a picture of the diabolical world as a system of ideas and spiritual opposition to God.

The Diabolical World and the Flesh

“The flesh” is also an integral part of this diabolical world system, as Ephesians 2:1-3 shows.

And you He made alive, who were dead in trespasses and sins, 2 in which you once walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit who now works in the sons of disobedience, 3 among whom also we all once conducted ourselves in the lusts of our flesh, fulfilling the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, just as the others (Eph. 2:1-3, emphasis mine).

Note that walking “according to the course of this world” [8] is the same thing as walking “according to the prince of the power of the air” and includes obedience to the flesh. It encompasses what Paul described as “unfruitful works of darkness” (Eph. 5:11, see also 1 Thess. 5:5) and what Peter called “former lusts” (1 Pet. 1:14). Everything that opposes God, intentionally or otherwise, is part of this temporal and diabolical world system and calls us to a relationship not of detachment but of rejection. [9]

On the other hand, what does not oppose God is not part of this diabolical system, however temporal it might be. So the classic dictum that the believer has three foes—the world, the flesh, and the Devil—is true but easy to misconstrue. The world, in the evil sense, includes the flesh and the Devil; and the world, in the temporal but innocent sense, is not the believer’s enemy at all.

Conclusion

What, then, does “worldly” look like? Since Scripture uses “world” not only in reference to all that is temporal but also in reference to all that is diabolical, what “worldly” looks like depends on which “world” you have in mind. What is merely temporal calls for a response of detachment, but what is diabolical calls for a response of rejection.

Consequently, if we aim to be biblical, we will only use “worldly” in a strongly negative sense in reference to what Scripture identifies as contrary to the will of God. And if we aim to be persuasive when we allege that some place or practice is “worldly” (in the evil sense), we must do more than point out its human origins or trendiness or association with unbelievers. We must show how Scripture calls us to reject it.

Finally, our teaching and preaching regarding the world and worldliness should mirror the emphasis of Scripture. When speaking of what is merely material and merely human, we should emphasize its temporary, fleeting nature. When we speak of the evil world we are called to resist, we should emphasize the attitudes and actions of lust, pride, dishonesty, contention, anger, malice, and self-indulgence that Scripture emphasizes. Since this diabolical world is spiritual and ideological in nature, we carry it with us everywhere we go; and even in a church sanctuary, wearing a choir robe and singing Handel, worldliness may raise its ugly head.

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1. Scripture quotations are from the New King James Version.
2. “Earthly” translates ἐπίγειος (epigeios), a term very similar in meaning to κοσμικός (kosmikos), translated “worldly” in Titus 2:12. See also Heb.9:1 (κοσμικός) and Php 3:19 (ἐπίγειος).
3. Michael S. Horton offers a thoughtful analysis of differing views of the world as culture. He traces what he calls the “Christ against culture” view to the Anabaptists and Schleitheim (Where in the World is the Church, 2002, pp. 41-42).
4. Mark A. Noll, ed. Confessions and Catechisms of the Reformation. Regent College Publishing. 2004 edition. p. 52.
5. Ibid., pp. 52-53.
6. The stoicheia of the kosmos have been interpreted in many ways including angelic beings, unregenerate tendencies within men (BAGD), and remnants of Judaistic worship outmoded by the advent of the church. In any case, they are not physical objects or popular activities.
7. BAGD. Note NASB, “world forces” and ESV “cosmic powers.”
8. The Greek is τὸν αἰῶνα τοῦ κόσμου (the aion of the kosmos).
9. “Have no fellowship,” Eph. 5:11.

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

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