A few years ago, I would cringe when folks started talking about worldliness. It felt lame to get so concerned over expensive weddings, edgy clothes, and sports cars. Why can’t we focus on things that really matter?, I thought. People are dying who haven’t gotten eternal life, and we’re contentedly arguing over the length of dresses and worrying over how red his Camaro is? I didn’t think that those metrics really mattered much in comparison to other, more significant issues. But more recently, I’ve begun to relook at worldliness; to think that it really is something we should care about deeply. The problem, as I am beginning to see, is that we have limited worldliness to a very small category of relatively less significant things, when biblically, worldliness is actually much more sinister. Our people have a tendency to talk about worldliness (because we think it means trendy clothes, makeup, and tattoos) as if it is a lesser sin among many. Worldliness is terrible, but not as bad as, say, adultery or murder. But as I intend to prove in this article, worldliness in the Bible is not a type of clothing but a type of heart.
In studying this and thinking about this topic, I’m genuinely concerned about worldliness again. Far from seeing it as a title for insignificant arguments over clothes, I’m beginning to join Paul and John and others who saw worldliness as a problem to be dealt with in the church—but this is because I’m beginning to have Biblical language and context for what the world and worldliness really is. Let’s take a look at what Scripture has to say about this topic.
If you have the “worldliness is trendy clothes” mindset, you may be surprised by this study. The words translated as “world” within Scripture have a variety of meanings and not all negative, as the English word “world” also does. Some uses (Hebrews 11:3, for example) just refer to the universe. Others (John 1:10, 3:16, etc.) seem to suggest humanity as a whole is being referenced. Often, however, it takes a very negative sense, and those are the times that this cursory study will focus on. I’ll give a quick sampling of what several NT authors had to say on the topic, and that should help us put some flesh on a definition biblically.
John (sometimes quoting Jesus) often uses the word negatively, sometimes as an evil spiritual force that must be resisted, sometimes as the totality of unbelieving people on earth. Consider these three examples:
For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through Him.
These things I have spoken to you, so that in Me you may have peace. In the world you have tribulation, but take courage; I have overcome the world.”
For whatever is born of God overcomes the world; and this is the victory that has overcome the world–our faith. Who is the one who overcomes the world, but he who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?
Note that in the first reference, the world is a needy mass of unbelievers to whom Jesus offers eternal life. In the second, the world may also refer to the totality of unbelievers, but here the world is something overcome triumphantly. It’s an evil force destroyed by Christ. The final reference is similar to the previous one. This time, believers have overcome the world through faith in God’s king, the Son of God. The world is again portrayed as a force—maybe more precisely, a kingdom—that must be “militarily” overthrown through faith. Notice carefully in these references that “worldly” people are not Christians! Contrary to the way we sometimes talk (e.g. “I work with worldly people [non-Anabaptist Christians]”), the world is not non-Anabaptists. It is unbelievers and the dark system of sin that controls the world. As in John 17:16 and 18:36, Christians are by definition “not of the world.” The world is those who do not believe in Christ, and who surrender to the dark side within themselves. There’s one more important reference from John, but I’m saving that to give it more space later on. Of course, there’s a sense in which Christians can both be “not of this world” definitionally, while also taking on some of the values of the passing age and therefore be worldly. And that’s super important, as we’ll see in the writings of James. But here, John is setting up a stark, two-option choice between being with Jesus and being a part of the old world.
Now for Paul. He uses this term at times to set up the new Christian community and what God did in Jesus up against everything before and after. In these next few quotations, Paul is trying to make the point that whether it’s Greek mythology, Jewish proverbs, Roman orators, or first-order rabbis, Jesus is new, unique, and unparalleled in the scope of human history. For that reason, the word “world” is the right fit to contrast with the new thing that God has done through Christ.
1 Corinthians 1:20-21
Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe.
For the wisdom of this world is foolishness before God. For it is written, “He is the one who catches the wise in their craftiness”;
As for me, may I never boast about anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ. Because of that cross, my interest in this world has been crucified, and the world’s interest in me has also died.
In the final verse here, Paul makes it clear that nothing in the current order interests him anymore in comparison to the new age launched at the sacrificial death of Christ. Connected to Gal. 1:4, Paul believed that through Messiah’s death, the “present evil age” —whether the works of the flesh in chapter 5 or the Torah observance of chapter 3—had been nullified and replaced by God’s new creation, in the hearts of His people now, and in the entire universe when Jesus returns. As in 1 Corinthians, he uses the term “world” to describe what’s past and irrelevant. Unbelievers and the system they belong to are passing away, and are simply not cool anymore in comparison to the beauty and justice coming in Christ. Worldliness, then, in Paul’s mind might be to start identifying with this corrupt age by rejecting Christ and choosing the old values and desires in any of their forms. Paul fleshes that out earlier in Galatians 5, talking about the works of the flesh—anger, jealousy, unity-breaking, lust, etc. Sin is worldliness.
One more example comes from the Apostle James. To him, the world is the system of nations, people, and economies that work against God. In the same way that Israel “prostituted” herself to the nations around by copying their practices (Ezekiel 16, for example), those in the church who adopt sinful ways of thinking and acting that align with unbelievers risk doing the same thing!
You adulterous people! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God. Or do you suppose it is to no purpose that the Scripture says, “He yearns jealously over the spirit that he has made to dwell in us”?
“The world” that we aren’t supposed to befriend isn’t non-Anabaptists or even unbelievers. It is the system of thought that runs against Christ’s ways. Note the preceding verses, in which context worldliness is fighting within the church and selfish prayers.
John, Paul, and James each saw the world as dangerous, and avoiding it as important, and their practical examples of worldliness were different every time. Sometimes it is defined as selfish pride; sometimes anger, boasting, quarrels, false teaching, or even insisting on Jewish practices like circumcision for standing with God. It is surrendering to the passé, deadly ways of living that oppose God in all areas of life. I don’t deny that one can dress or choose their car in a way that aligns with the values of the present evil age. But we need to get our definitions straight, and not talk about worldliness as though it is primarily something to do with the way we dress.
John writes in his first epistle, 2:15–17,
Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, love for the Father is not in them. For everything in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—comes not from the Father but from the world. The world and its desires pass away, but whoever does the will of God lives forever.
Ray Van Neste writes in his short commentary on the book of 1 John:
John does not mean the planet earth or humanity in general, as if this were a call to a dualism, renouncing the physical realm or a tribalism restricting care to only one group. Rather, John uses “world” (Greek, kosmos) throughout the book to refer the realm of rebellion against God (see 1Jn 4:4–5) which does not know God (3:1), hates believers (3:13) and “lies in the power of the evil one” (5:19). This identity is made even clearer as John describes the content of the world in 1 John 2:16: the desires of the flesh, the desires of the eyes, and the pride in possessions. These things are “not from the Father,” but arise instead from sin. These are dispositions of the heart which are bent on self. John is at least partially saying, “Do not love the things which will destroy you.” The “desires of the flesh” are sinful desires broadly including but not limited to improper sexual desires, gluttony, and drunkenness. “Desires of the eyes” refers to the longing for what one sees without consideration of whether it is good or appropriate, as when someone says, “I saw this and just had to have it.” These are the desires of the world, and Christians must not be ruled by them because they are contrary to the desires of Christ. We do not love them, for we live according to our loves.1
John defines loving the world as practicing three kinds of idolatry, perhaps connected to the fall story in Genesis 3, where Eve chooses to disobey God by giving in to three temptations that sound similar to these three: illicit desire of fleshly appetite, food that “looked good to the eye,” and pride in wanting to be like God. That was the first sin, and stands as the stereotypical Sin. John here possibly invokes that passage to make his broader point: that the old way of sinning that started with Adam and Eve is on the way out, and that those who do “the will of God” are a part of God’s coming new creation, the “forever” future.
So, worldliness is not one kind of sin, as opposed to another kind. It is another way of talking about sin that stresses the stark nature of the choices we face: on the one side, the idolatrous desires and values of a passing world. On the other, the sureness and hope that comes through trust in Christ, who “rescues us from the present evil age.”2 In light of the fact that worldliness can creep into our thinking in all areas of life, we should look for worldliness within ourselves no matter how we dress. It’s a matter of desires, of loves, of idolatrous thinking, not shorthand for certain categories of outward appearance. The plainest guy with suspenders and long sleeves may well be worldly. On the other side, the young person who doesn’t think she needs to worry about “worldliness” anymore since it’s just some “dumb” standards about clothes may be blind to the fact that part of what’s pulling her in a certain direction is a heart drawn to values antithetical to Christ’s kingdom. We need to think of the important indicators of worldliness that Paul, James and John talk about often, like anger or strife in the church, lack of sexual purity, greed, or just plain spiritual apathy. We must learn to not think of the world as being “out there” and successfully avoided in our conservative church, but rather something that creeps into our minds and that we must constantly eradicate through the power of the Spirit.
We should be worried about the influence of the world when a conservative Anabaptist lady can’t stop spreading rumors about people within the church. We should call out worldliness in the plain guy who is constantly angry at his fellow employees for not doing things his way, not give him a free pass on worldliness because he has suspenders.
On the other hand, those of us who aren’t as caught up in seeing worldliness as clothes might welcome a post like this as another nail in the coffin of the obsession with externals. But simultaneously, you might be missing the fact that worldliness really is something we are to guard against. You might be congratulating yourself on your escape from a plain obsession while full of anger, religious pride, and selfishness and be just as worldly. No, wearing plain clothes doesn’t make you immune to worldliness, but neither does dressing in some other way! Instead, we must all humbly and carefully check our hearts for competing loves that fit more with the passing age than they do with our Messiah.
Worldliness is not less of a problem than we thought—it’s much bigger than we thought, and I fear that “the god of this world” has tricked us into hiding our worldliness beneath a facade of plainness, and thereby missing the true danger of worldliness. And on the other hand, younger people who see through the mistaken view of worldliness might see no need to worry about the very real danger that their choices, their loves, and their hearts are being pulled toward “the present evil age.”
Worldliness is very real. It’s not about a visible line (expressed through clothing standards or other externals) that distinguishes “our group” from “everyone out there.” It’s a line of allegiance that cuts right through each of our hearts.