The Line between the Church and the World III


The Bible is very clear that there is difference between the children of God and the children of the devil (1 John 3:9-10). This difference is created by God’s power through the gospel to change lives. The Lord Jesus Christ mentioned this in His high priestly prayer recorded in John 17. We find these words in verse 14, “I have given them Your word; and the world has hated them, because they are not of the world, even as I am not of the world.” The Word effected such a radical change in them that they are said to be no longer “of the world.” The believer’s relationship to Christ changes his relationship to the world.

To talk about the line between the church and the world means we have to define the terms world and worldliness. What is it that we are to be distinct from? What does it mean to be worldly? Biblically, the word world may mean: (a) the universe, i.e., the sum total of creation (Jn 17:24); (2) the earth, i.e., the inhabited world (Rom 1:8); (3) the people who dwell on the earth (John 3:16; 1 Jn 2:2); and, (4) the evil world order controlled by Satan and in opposition to God (2 Cor 4:3; John 12:31; 14:30). The one that matters for the subject at hand is the fourth—the evil world order which opposes God. The general nature of that definition presents some challenges for us in terms of application, but at its core it is rebellion against the Maker and rightful Master.

Trying to define worldliness is also a challenge, but here is my attempt to synthesize what I believe the Bible teaches on this. Worldliness is having a heart and mind shaped by the world’s beliefs and values (1 John 2:15-17; Matt 6:24-33; 13:22) so that we engage in its sinful pleasures (Eph 4:17-19, 22; 1 Peter 4:2-5) and pursue earthly treasures (Matt 6:19-24; Col 3:1-4; 1 John 2:17). Obviously, I could spend a whole sub-series unpacking this definition, but let me just broadly address the three main parts of it.

A heart and mind shaped by the world’s beliefs and values

Ephesians 4:17-19 is very clear about the condition of man’s heart and mind apart from Jesus Christ. Paul describes it in very negative terms—“futility of their mind, being darkened in their understanding, excluded from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, because of the hardness of their heart….” Because man has rejected God, his heart and mind are without light. In his blindness he believes lies and puts the wrong price tag on everything around him. Believers, on the other hand, have been enlightened by God’s Spirit so that we can know the truth and can see the true value of things (cf. 1 John 2:17, 20). Worldliness is when a believer looks at life like a lost person does and when he accepts the appraisal of the world about what really matters.

We engage in its sinful pleasures

It is important that we not trivialize worldliness. 1 John 2:15-17 paints a very stark picture that pits love for the world against love for the Father in mutually exclusive terms. How might we trivialize worldliness? By treating it as if it means something like “popular among lost people.” Being popular among lost people does not necessarily mean that something is worldly or sinful. There are plenty of popular things that are actually good. Sure, given the fallen condition of lost people, many things that are popular are also sinful. They might be popular because they are sinful, but being popular does not make it sinful. So, if someone says, for instance, that a certain hairstyle or style of clothing is worldly simply because a lot of lost people wear them, that trivializes the meaning of worldliness. If the hairstyle or clothing is immodest, then there is biblical warrant for questioning it, but in that case it wouldn’t matter if it was popular or unpopular among lost people.

The consistent witness of the NT is on the sinfulness, not popularity, of any particular practice. Just after instructing the Ephesians in 4:17-24 about not living like those who don’t know Christ, the Apostle Paul provides practical instruction about what that means in 4:25-5:14. The contrast he draws is between vice and virtue—don’t lie, but speak the truth; don’t steal, but work and share; don’t use unwholesome words, but those which edify. He focuses on matters like immorality, impurity, greed, and filthy talk. In the same way, Peter marks off the difference in terms of vices like sensuality, lusts, drunkenness, carousing, drinking parties, and abominable idolatries (1 Peter 4:3).

Churches that are serious about resisting worldliness, then, will be serious about dealing with sin. Being anti-worldly isn’t about staying away from things simply because they are popular with lost people. It is about not adopting the sinful practices of those who have not experienced the saving grace of Jesus Christ.

Pursue earthly treasures

Temporal, material preoccupation is clearly a sign of worldliness and must be resisted by believers and congregations. Frankly, assessing this aspect of worldliness has always been difficult since there is nothing inherently evil about material prosperity and it can be tricky to spot the line between having things and them having you. This is even more difficult when we apply it to congregational life. We all probably have our own views on when the line is crossed, but we’re not talking about disagreements or things we find objectionable. We’re talking about matters which cast doubt on one’s profession to be “seeking the city which is to come” (Heb 13:14).

I want to be very clear about what I am advocating so that there is little confusion (I’ve given up on pursuing no confusion when it comes to discussing separation!). I am talking about what would demand that separation take place for the sake of the gospel. The standard for making that judgment is very high. We may choose to limit our ecclesiastical fellowship for the sake of conscience or for discipleship purposes, but that’s not my point. The real point, from my perspective, is identifying the point at which a church has so compromised the gospel that we must separate for the sake of the gospel?

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