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Being In, but Not of the World
What in the world is worldliness, and how do we avoid it?

In John 17:13–18, Jesus affirms the paradoxical reality that He is not of the world, but that He came to it and is in it. He also suggests that His disciples should parallel His relationship to the world. Just as the Son of God was sent to the world in Jesus Christ and so was in the world, but He was not of the world because He faithfully fulfilled the will of His Father, so the disciples are sent by Son to be in the world but not of the world.

I wonder, if Jesus withdrew Himself every time He heard … an objectionable word…?

In John 17:17, Jesus also prays for His disciples that the Father may “sanctify them by the truth.” In the context of John 17, this statement is the culmination of His prayer for His disciples that they should be appropriately in, but not of the world. That is to say, to be sanctified is to be in, but not of the world. The challenge of being in, but not of the world is a perennial one for Christians, Christian ministry leaders, and churches. But what does it mean to be in, but not of the world?

In my experience in conservative Evangelical and Pentecostal churches, the emphasis often falls on not being in the world. In other words, being not of the world means not to be in the world. The result is that to be sanctified means to be not in the world.

This way of being not of the world takes the following forms. The first is isolation from culture. Negatively, we don’t watch TV, don’t go to movies (at least R-rated movies), etc. More positively, we leave the room when people use profanity, take our children out of the secular public schools, and seek Christian alternatives such as the Christian school or home school.

This way of being not of the world reminds me of the time the men’s Bible study I attended had a birthday party for one of the members. The party was fairly tame even by Christian standards; we had dinner, some cake (and Kimchi as I recall), and we watched the Clint Eastwood movie, The Outlaw Jossey Wales. The pastor of our church happened to attend the party and as we watched the movie the Wales character used some slight profanity. The pastor became visibly uncomfortable and shortly afterward excused himself from our party.

Now, I am not suggesting that we should intentionally expose ourselves to vulgar language, but, at the same time, was the pastor’s action really what Jesus had in mind when He prayed that we should be in, but not of the world? I wonder, if Jesus withdrew Himself every time He heard someone utter an objectionable word, if He would have been able to remain with the “tax collectors and sinners” long enough to be accused of consorting with them by the Pharisees.

This way of not being of the world defines “worldliness” in terms of a fairly routine list of don’ts (such as don’t smoke, drink, cuss, dance, vote Liberal Party, etc.) and do’s (such as go to church, pray, read your Bible, have contact with non-Christians rarely and only for the purpose of venturing out to work, a necessary secular activity, and for conducting evangelistic sorties).

A second way of being non-worldly is Christianizing and, thereby, sanitizing cultural products for Christian consumption. In this respect, one can find a Christian parallel for almost any consumer product, form of entertainment, and even vacations. Here, I have in mind Christian radio, Christian music of every conceivable genre, Christian movies, Christian TV, Christian cruises, Christian camps, and on and on. Of course, many of these provide safe, nurturing, and worthwhile alternatives for Christians, but they seem to forget that while we are to avoid being of the world, we are also to be in the world and that being in the world means more than just living on the planet earth.

A third way of being not of this world is pining for heaven. As a pastor I served with would often say, “I can’t wait to leave this bag of bones and go to heaven to be with Jesus.” Christians then seek to be not of this world by focusing on “spiritual” things and longing to escape from this earth by going to heaven. I am sure going to heaven to be with Jesus will be great, but that is not for what Jesus prayed to the Father on our behalf. He prayed that we would know an intimate fellowship of love with Him and the Father through the Holy Spirit and with all others who are His disciples, but He prayed that we would enjoy this fellowship in this world (see John 17:13–26).

My concern is that the above emphases miss Jesus’ call to be in the world and they can even sometimes mask our deeper acceptance of and influence by the culture and, thus, cloak our being more or less of the world.

For example, the pastor of a church I attended for a number of years routinely preached against drinking alcohol, watching R-rated movies, skipping church, etc., but fixated on church growth techniques (do this program, get that growth result), recording and graphing attendance statistics, tracking individual parishioner’s tithing patterns, and developing building programs for the purpose of boosting church growth. My point is that although he warned his congregation of the worldliness of partaking of strong drink, he drank deeply of the “spirits” of our age; namely, his philosophy of church ministry clearly reflected the broader assumptions of our capitalist culture that extols growth and technique to achieve ever increasing levels of growth. Thus, on a deeper and more profound level, he was quite worldly. Yet, because he refrained from a rather small list of don’ts, he believed he was not worldly and was being holy. I think this is the kind of holiness with which C. S. Lewis’ Screwtape might have been content to foster among Christians.

Well, if the above ways of being not of the world tend either to forget Jesus’ call to be in the world or to succumb to a more profound worldliness, then what is worldliness and what does it mean to be not of the world, but in the world?

Worldliness, or being of the world, seems to be the evil ways people relate to each other on a personal or individual level and the evil systemic structures that govern our broader social interrelationships. Consider that the first instance of worldliness was Adam and Eve’s partaking of the forbidden fruit which led them to the great revelation of their nakedness and consequent shame before each other. Their worldliness was behaving in a way toward each other, God, and the world (remember they ate a piece of forbidden fruit) that God did not intend for them. The result of their worldliness was alienation from each other (they tried to cover the shame of their nakedness with fig leaves), God (they hid in the bushes from God), and creation (they must now earn their way by the sweat of their brows). Had they refused to be of the world, they would have continued to live in the Garden in sublime fellowship with each other and their God.

To be non-worldly then is to refuse to participate in evil forms of existence in this world.

Jesus provides fine examples of how to be in, but not of the world.

In John 4, He comes to a well and there encounters a Samaritan woman of questionable ethnic, religious, and moral background and then engages her in conversation. In other words, He treats her as a person whom God loves and desires to redeem.

On other occasions, He ate with “tax collectors and sinners.” To the religious crowd, that is the Pharisees, He was being worldly (even His disciples were shocked when they found Him conversing with the Samaritan woman at the well). For the Pharisees His association with persons of such dubious moral and religious quality was simply beyond the pale of acceptable behavior for a holy man. However, by eating with the “tax collectors and sinners,” Jesus transcended worldliness and was in fact being holy. Moreover and ironically, the Pharisees were being worldly.

Worldliness in this context is ranking the worth of people according to their conformity to a list of spiritual and moral standards of first century elite Jewish religious culture, judging people by their position on the social and political hierarchy, and justifying marginalization and indifference toward people based on the above. In contrast, Jesus embodied being in, but not of the world when He met and talked with the woman at the well and ate and enjoyed fellowship with the “tax collectors and sinners” and thereby transcended the gender, moral, and spiritual bigotries that first century Jewish people used to justify their marginalization of such people.

The Apostle Paul provides an additional example of what it means to eschew worldliness. In his letter to Philemon, Paul encouraged Philemon to be in, but not of the world when he asked him to treat Onesimus, a runaway slave, according to the Gospel (that is, as a beloved Christian brother) and not according to the standards of Roman law (that is, as a delinquent slave deserving punishment). Jesus and Paul show us that being in, but not of the world means to treat each other according to the grace and love of God we have received in Jesus Christ.

I am not discounting the obvious sins that we should avoid, but I am interested in thinking about the deeper and broader structural patterns of evil. The perennial challenge for the Christian is to negotiate the appropriate intersection between being in, but not of the world. An initial step in this process is to recognize that we sometimes forget that we avoid being of the world by appropriately being in the world.

Steven M. Studebaker, Ph.D. is Assistant Professor of Systematic and Historical Theology, McMaster Divinity College. He can be reached at studeba@mcmaster.ca.

 

 
 
 
 

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