Worldliness in the Church
Everybody is welcome in the church! However, there is one thing we cannot abide in the church – worldliness. Though nearly everyone agrees with this sentiment, there is a major disagreement as to what worldliness actually is.
Romans 12:2 And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God.
Ten years ago, if asked to describe a worldly church, I would have first thought of the lighting.
White lighting would be classified as holy, colored lighting would be worldly. Bright lighting is holy, dimmed lighting is worldly. Fluorescent would be classified as holy, LED…not worldly, but definitely heading in the wrong direction. After lighting I would think of pulpit attire. A preacher in a business suit is the most holy; while the guy in jeans and a t-shirt was the most worldly. Between these two extremes I could describe a very specific range of truly holy ministers and truly worldly ministers. This was not simply a matter of professionalism – this was a matter of holiness and spirituality. After lighting and pulpit attire I would think of music. Loud is worldly; while quiet is holy. Contemporary is worldly; while old-fashioned is holy. Pianos, harps, flutes, oboes, and trumpets are holy; while guitars, saxophones, keyboards, and basses are worldly. On the most extreme ends of the spectrum we have the organ (most holy) and the drum set (most worldly).
The problem was that my entire perspective had nothing to do with the Bible and everything to do with cultural subjectivity. Many times I had heard preachers read the above passage from Romans and then attempt to describe worldliness.
The Problem with Cultural Subjectivity
“Don’t be like the world! The world uses colored lights. The world wears jeans and t-shirts. The world uses guitars and drums. Don’t be like the world! Instead, be ye holy, like God is holy.” The natural implication is that God and his followers are in business suits, listen only to 18thCentury European music, and the Throne Room of God completely lacks color.
So, the problem with cultural subjectivity is that none of these things can be proven from the Bible. These beliefs came into existence just as all non-biblical systems of belief arise: historical context, individual experience, personal preference, combined with a healthy dose of ethnocentrism.
Unfortunately, this perspective does not take into account that every style of music, every style of dress, and every aspect of décor is essentially of the world. It was the world, not God, who invented the business suit, the Roman tunic, the turtleneck, and the skinny jean. None of these had their origin in a heavenly or hellish factory. They are simply designs of the world. 1970’s wood paneling is no more holy than the contemporary wood paneling of Chip & Joanna Gaines. The style of music for the 1stcentury church would not have included barbershop quartets simply because this style of music wasn’t invented until the 20thcentury.
So, why have we mistaken our own cultural subjectivity for Biblical precepts? What happens is that many of us who were genuinely converted to Christ decades ago in a wood paneled church, after a song service of mid-20thcentury hymns, during the sermon from a man dressed in a business suit, have a very difficult time with change. We associate our conversion with the context in which it happened. We forget that it is the message of the gospel that saved our souls and not the method in which it was delivered. It’s difficult for us to distinguish between the cultural surroundings of that miracle moment and the spiritual power of the moment itself. And so, we attempt to replicate the cultural surroundings in an effort to recreate the spiritual power once again.
This is why trying to change the lighting, take down the wood paneling, update the pastor’s wardrobe, or introduce new music to a church is tantamount to heresy. If we change these things, we may lose the power of God in our church. This is the fear of many good men and many good churches.
There is another problem with cultural subjectivity being the arbiter of holiness vs. worldliness. What about those who are even more conservative than you? Does this mean they are more holy than you? Are you more worldly than they? Are the Mennonites objectively more holy than the Independent Baptists because tend to dress more conservatively? Are the Amish objectively more holy than the Mennonites because they won’t use modern machinery or drive automobiles? Are the Essenes of Jewish antiquity objectively more holy than the modern Amish because they in caves near the Dead Sea and loathed all comfort? If someone believes that another group is genuinely more holy because they are more conservative in outward appearance and separation from modern culture – then that person should attempt to live in the most conservative lifestyle possible.
But, perhaps, holiness has less to do with outward appearance and more to do with an inward spirituality.’
Carnality vs. Spirituality
I Corinthians 3:1, 3-4 And I, brethren, could not speak unto you as unto spiritual, but as unto carnal, even as unto babes in Christ. For ye are yet carnal: for whereas there is among you envying, and strife, and divisions, are ye not carnal, and walk as men? For while one saith, I am of Paul; and another, I am of Apollos; are ye not carnal?
So then, how can we Biblically define worldly?Perhaps it is helpful to understand another biblical term: carnal. Carnality is always contrasted with spirituality and connotes an individual who is more concerned with the needs of his flesh than the needs of his spirit. The carnal man is focused continually on this physical, temporal, tangible world. The Apostle Paul spoke to the Christians in Corinth and explained to them that He’d like to speak to them as mature Christians, moving them into a deeper understanding of God and the grace of the Gospel, but he was hindered by their glaring carnality. They were acting like babies. Babies who are always and only focused upon their own immediate physical needs and desires. Then Paul describes the carnal man. They are full of envy, strife, and division. Carnality or worldliness then is indicated not by someone’s outward appearance but their inward sins and inability to get along with other Christians. He says, “Are you not carnal? Are you not walking like the men of the world?”
Biblically speaking, the worldly and carnal Christian is not the one who dresses in a contemporary way, lives in a contemporary house, or listens to contemporary music. The worldly and carnal Christian is the one who can’t get along with other Christians. This is the one who causes strife and division in the local church because they aren’t getting their way!
Biblically speaking, the worldly and carnal Preacher is not the one who dresses in a contemporary way, lives in a contemporary house, or listens to contemporary music. The worldly and carnal Preacher is the one who is continually envious and jealous of other ministries. This is the preacher who causes strife and division in the global family of God because they aren’t getting their way! These are the hyper-separatists who believe it spiritual to openly criticize other ministers of the Master.
Paul goes on to describe this kind of carnality. They find it necessary to divide into groups based upon who their favorite spiritual leader happens to be. I am a follower of Paul! I am a follower of Apollos! They seem to be overly obsessed with associations, connections, and separations. Is this not carnal? Is this not what the world does?
Paul was also concerned that the Galatian church, who was battling legalism and pride, understood the difference between carnality and spirituality.
Galatians 5:19-21 Now the works of the flesh are manifest, which are these; Adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness, idolatry, witchcraft, hatred, variance, emulations, wrath, strife, seditions, heresies, envyings, murders, drunkenness, revellings, and such like: of the which I tell you before, as I have also told youin time past, that they which do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God.
In this list we see adultery, idolatry, hatred, wrath, strife, heresy, emulation (competition), among other sins as the natural indicators that someone is a carnal man – or a man who is living as if they had never been saved. However, notice that when Paul is speaking of carnality and worldliness he doesn’t address any of the outward signs of carnality and worldliness that so many others attempt to apply.
So, today a preacher can be blatantly hateful, given to bursts of wrath, promote hyper-separatism, and teach as doctrine the traditions of men – however, if he still wears a businessman’s suit, decorates his auditorium in a denominationally approved manner, and has “conservative” music – He is considered a spiritual leader? But what saith the Scripture…
Galatians 5:22-23 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance: against such there is no law.
We look back to the carnal behavior of long-dead preachers as a way to excuse our own carnality. “He said terrible things, I can say terrible things. He was secretly unfaithful, I can be secretly unfaithful.” We look to the worldly tactics of modern corporate leaders as a way of validating our own cruel treatment of employees and teammates. “This is how good business is done. Let’s ignore the words of Jesus, ‘The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them…But ye shall not be so’.” We look to the brash and arrogant style of modern politicians to justify our own ungodly leadership style. “He’s a jerk and seems to be successful. I suppose I can be a jerk too.”
Is this not the essence of Carnality? Is this not the true definition of worldliness?
The greatest problem in redefining worldliness to something as shallow as current fashions, current music, and current decorating styles is that we entirely miss the dangers of true worldliness. Like the Pharisees of the past we strain at the gnat of hairstyle and swallow the camel of vitriol. We can accept adultery, idolatry, hatred, wrath, and strife – but please don’t change your music.
Patiently Becoming and Patiently Waiting
Philippians 1:6 Being confident of this very thing, thathe which hath begun a good work in you will perform it until the day of Jesus Christ.
I have to be doubly patient. I have to be patient with me and I have to be patient with others.
When I see the worldly and carnal man described in Galatians 5:19-21I notice that he looks a lot like the old man I see every day in the mirror. When others are hateful toward me, oh…I want to return that hatred with even stronger hatred. When I’m attacked, I want so badly to retaliate as the worldly leader tends to do. I can sense the old wrath wanting to boil up in me, and I really don’t want to calm down, smile, and turn the other cheek. But something has been happening to me…
I wish I could take credit for it, but I can’t. The man in the mirror has slowly been transforming into the guy described in Galatians 5:22-23. It’s almost like he’s slowly killing off the old guy and taking his place permanently. Don’t get me wrong, the other guy keeps showing up. Most of the time at the very worst possible moment. Like Dr. Jekel or Bruce Banner, I’m not sure I will ever be fully rid of the other guy until I’m greeted by death. However, the longer I walk with Christ, the less I see of the other guy. I patiently wait for the Holy Spirit to slowly transform me from the inside out. It began when I decided to stop being conformed by this world and allow the gospel to transform and change my mind.
Not only must I patiently wait upon Christ’s work in my life, I must also patiently wait upon Christ’s work in the life of others. The same Holy Spirit that is slowly transforming me is also slowly transforming my brothers and sisters in Christ. This is the promise found in Philippians 1:6.
So, holiness? – I’m getting there because I have someone taking me there. And worldliness? – Well, it seems to have less a hold on me as I continue to yield to the work of the Holy Spirit. I simply have to be patient with myself and with my fellow servants of Christ.
So, do you think it is important for us to return to a Biblical definition of worldliness and holiness? Have you ever experienced a culturally subjective definition of worldliness and holiness as described in this article? Where have I gone wrong? What have I said that is true?
I want to hear from you! Comment Below:
Also – please share this post if you think it might be a help to another Christian who needs to wrestle with a Biblical understanding of worldliness and holiness!
For a far more thorough definition and explanation of worldliness I would suggest the book WORLDLINESS by C.J. Mahaney. Here he deals with the modern Christian’s addiction to excessive luxuries, constant entertainment, and antipathy toward modesty. This is a truly convicting read.
Heresy – Teaching for doctrine the commandments of men. – Matthew 15:9