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What is Worldliness?

Category Articles
Date November 11, 2002

Spurgeon once said that Methodism was a noble thing for the unconverted but terrible for the children of God. The same observation might be made of Anabaptism. Just as Spurgeon was converted at a Primitive Methodist chapel, I was awakened from spiritual darkness through sermons from an Anabaptist tape ministry. I even learned much from these sincere people and their devotion to practical, holy living. But serious doctrinal problems underlie Anabaptist theology, and error invariably affects practice.

The question of what constitutes “worldliness” is one such area. I once believed, with the Anabaptists (and fundamentalists), that worldliness involves drinking, smoking, watching movies, and other pursuits. But when I got a better grasp of biblical teaching, I saw worldliness in sharper perspective. The Reformers and the Reformed didn’t frame the question “What is worldliness?” around fundamentalist taboos. Luther savored good German beer, and Calvin indulged in such diversions as bowling. Spurgeon himself was known for his love of fine cigars! What, then, is the difference?

In essence, the Anabaptist and fundamentalist conception of worldliness can be traced to a misreading of two key biblical terms: world and flesh. “Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world,” writes John. “If any many love the world, the love of the Father is not in him” (1 John 2:15). Paul offers the same warning: “Be not conformed to the world” (Romans 12:2). Both Paul and John disparage something called the “world.” The same thing happens with regard to “the flesh”: “For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh) dwelleth no good thing” (Romans 7:18). “So then they that are of the flesh cannot please God” (Romans 8:8). It’s easy to read the Authorized Version’s translation of the terms cosmos and sarx and conclude that by condemning the “world” and the “flesh” Scripture is talking about the earth and the body.

But a more careful approach takes into account the biblical affirmation of creation as “good” (1 Timothy 4:4) and “very good” (Genesis 1:31). Creation, matter, earth, and body are not inherently evil or dubious. Such a theory, more in line with Platonic and dualistic thought, cannot be reconciled with the clear biblical statements in Genesis and 1 Timothy. Hence we should be suspicious of any blanket definition of world or flesh that seems to draw from these philosophies rather than from Scripture.

When we read the scriptural condemnations of “the world,” it makes more sense to think about the world as a system, an ethical and philosophical edifice erected in opposition to God and His revelation. “Where is the wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the disputer of this world? Hath not God made foolish the wisdom of this world?””¦The world by wisdom knew not God” (1 Corinthians 1:21). And while flesh can mean “body” (“The Word was made flesh”; “Flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee”), in the context we’re considering it means man’s sinful nature. In the words of Gordon Clark:

Paul”¦has often been misunderstood as teaching asceticism.”¦By careless reading, the word flesh, which Paul uses in a derogatory sense, can be mistaken for body, but a little attention to Paul’s remarks makes it clear that he means, not body, but the sinful human nature inherited from Adam [emphasis added].”¦Paul was no ascetic. He knew how to be abased and how to abound. The stringency of his example and precepts is not motivated by a desire to free a divine soul from a bodily tomb, much less by the idea that pain is good and pleasure evil.” (Gordon H. Clark, Thales to Dewey [Unicoi, TN: Trinity Foundation, 4th edition, 2000], p. 158)

Following a faulty definition of these two terms, obviously, will lead us to a faulty understanding of worldliness. And perhaps the most convincing evidence that the Anabaptist and fundamentalist view is faulty is that it would lead us closer to Paul’s opponents than to Paul. Consider these passages:

Wherefore if ye be dead with Christ from the rudiments of the world, why, as though living in the world, are ye subject to ordinances (touch not; taste not; handle not; which all are to perish with the using), after the commandments and doctrines of men? Which things have indeed a shew of wisdom in will worship, and humility, and neglecting of the body; not in any honour[,] to the satisfying of the flesh. (Colossians 2:20-23, emphasis added)

Now the Spirit speaketh expressly, that in the latter times some shall depart from the faith, giving heed to seducing spirits, and doctrines of devils; speaking lies in hypocrisy; having their conscience seared with a hot iron; forbidding to marry, and commanding to abstain from meats, which God hath created to be received with thanksgiving of them which believe and know the truth. (1 Timothy 4:1-3, emphasis added)

In the first text Paul warns the Colossians about pagan teachers roaming the religious scene (some believe these teachers were Gnostics; others say they followed a syncretistic blending of faiths). They whipped up a false humility by devising their own acetic commandments (touch not, taste not, handle not) and imposing them on their followers. Note that, strange as it may seem to those of us who’ve imbibed fundamentalism, it’s quite possible to neglect the physical body while still satisfying the flesh””the sinful nature.

The second text is even more strongly worded. False teachers who impose man-made, monastic, anti-body rules have “departed from the faith,” have their conscience “seared,” and are influenced by “devils.” Now, our modern fundamentalists and Anabaptists aren’t quite so bad. Still, James Boice was right to point out that to mischaracterize worldliness “is to trivialize what is a far more serious and far more subtle problem.” (James Montgomery Boice, Whatever Happened to the Gospel of Grace? [Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2001], p. 42)

So if worldliness isn’t watching Chariots of Fire or enjoying bodily pleasures, what is it? A closer examination of such texts as Romans 12:2 or 1 John 2:15, reveals that, while real worldliness has several facets, its essence is an acceptance of the presuppositions of the world. This is the heart of Paul’s exhortation in Romans 12. After urging his readers to be not conformed to the world, Paul adds that we are to be “transformed by the renewing of [our] mind.” Paul, in a manner certainly inconsistent with the anti-intellectual pietism of our day, places the emphasis on our thinking. He does this because from the heart (i.e., the mind””see Clark’s Religion, Reason, and Revelation, chapter 2) flow the issues of life (Proverbs 4:23, cf. Matthew 15:17-20). Worldliness is primarily an epistemological issue.
The mind is the battleground of the conflict between the seed of the woman and the seed of the serpent. Paul insists that “though we walk in the flesh, we do not war after the flesh (for the weapons of our warfare are not carnal but mighty through God to the pulling down of strong holds), casting down imaginations [arguments, NKJV], and every high thing that exalteth itself against the knowledge of God, and bringing into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:3-5). This is what lies behind the apostle’s warning that we be not deceived by “philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments [first principles or presuppositions] of the world, and not after Christ” (Colossians 2:8).

Christians must not bow to the presuppositions of the world because Christ is not only their Savior but Lord of their intellects. Knowledge, for the Christian, is inseparable from Christ and His revelation. He is the Logos (John 1:1), the “wisdom of God” (1 Corinthians 1:24, 30), in whom “all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” are hid (Colossians 2:3).

When Christians think in a manner inconsistent with these great truths, they are being worldly. Some Christians evince their worldliness by defending the faith via a compromise with the assumed autonomy of their opponents’ minds. Some do it by changing the corporate worship of God into a self-help program. Others, like the Anabaptists, deprecate matter itself as almost sinful, and even ascribe evil to inanimate objects (“devil’s brew,” “wicked backbeat,” etc.).

All this is not to say that worldliness has nothing to do with our outward actions. There are such entities as sins, and Christians, who have been redeemed from sin, are called to walk worthy of this redemption. To use salvation as a shield for sin is wrong. But misguiding, superficial definitions of worldliness, as well as the relegation of the intellect to the darkest corner of our pietistic life, is no less wrong””and that’s one sin we would be best to avoid.

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