What is worldliness, and when is it sinful?
A reminder about a forgotten sin.
(First posted 1 December 2005)
hristians in earlier generations were a lot more concerned about worldliness than we typically are. Many evangelicals these days don't even seem to be aware that worldliness is still a sin.
A major shift seems to have occurred in less than three decades' time. I have vivid recollections of the two semesters in I spent in fundamentalist purgatory in the mid-1970s. Worldliness was one of the most oft-mentioned sins by chapel speakers at the Baptist college where I was enrolled.
To hear them describe it, worldliness was essentially the sin of being too cool. An acquaintance of minea rigidly old-fashioned middle-aged womanonce scolded me as a worldling for wearing contact lenses. She was certain my motives for wearing them were driven only by carnal vanity. She pleaded with me to opt for thick bifocals instead. "I like you the way God made you," she protested.
"He didn't make me with eyeglasses," I reminded her.
"You know what I mean," she said, waving her hand, as if the point should be obvious.
Sure. Makes perfect sense.
Our Amish friends take it even further. Their strategy for avoiding worldliness involves eschewing all modern conveniences.
The same sort of thinking culminates in austere forms of monasticism, where poverty, celibacy, and ascetic solitude are seen as sure means of avoiding worldly influences.
The truth is, you can live a totally cloistered life or be as unhip as a Stephen Foster song and still be worldly.
That's not to deny that worldliness poses a particular threat to those who are obsessed with being fashionable. There's no question that a fixation with being hip and trendy has made the evangelical movement itself worldly. If you need evidence of that, find the posts on "The Fad-Driven Church" in the archives of PyroManiac, or search the archives there for "Biblezines®."
Worldly simply means "pertaining to this earth." On the one hand, Hebrews 9:1 speaks of "a worldly sanctuary"i.e., an earthly and material one, contrasted with the "True tabernacle"the heavenly temple, "which the Lord pitched, and not man" (8:2). So something can be "worldly" (like the Tabernacle) without being sinful.
On the other hand, Titus 2:12 speaks of "worldly lusts," meaning passions that are set on earthly and temporal things. Love for earthly things is inconsistent with true love for God, because the passions that drive this world's philosophies and value-systems are all characterized by pride and sinful lust (1 John 2:15-17).
The sin of "worldliness" is the tendency to set one's affections on things of the earth rather than on heavenly things (cf. Colossians 3:2). "Friendship with the world is enmity with God" (James 4:4). It is positively sinful to love this present world and imbibe its values more than we love heaven and order our lives according to heavenly values (cf. Philippians 1:23; Romans 8:5-6; Matthew 6:19-21; 16:23).
In other words, worldliness is a sin of the heart.
Conversely, worldliness isn't necessarily related to movies, music styles, the latest fashions, or other typical fundamentalist taboos. Those things certainly can be worldly and obviously do have a tendency to provoke sinful worldliness insofar as they naturally appeal to our passions and tempt us to become obsessed with earthly things.
But there's an even worse kind of worldliness than that. Religioneven conservative, doctrinally-sound religioncan be worldly too.
Think about it: if a person cares less for heaven and heaven's values than for the trappings of "a worldly sanctuary"be it an ornate cathedral, a megachurch with a Starbucks kiosk in the foyer, or a lowbrow church where snake-handling provides the entertainmentthat person is worldly and living in disobedience to God.
As a matter of fact, I know some hard-core fundamentalists who are the rankest kind of worldlings, because they imagine that holiness consists only in external and cultural things, and they have not cultivated a genuine love in their hearts for that which is spiritual.
So you cannot discover whether you are worldly merely by seeing how you look or what kind of lifestyle you live. If you want to recognize true worldliness, you have to assess your desires and passions. What do you truly love? Since worldliness is inherent in the bent of the old man, when you examine your heart honestly, you're virtually certain to discover a degree of worldliness there.
The biblical instructions for how to deal with worldliness are surprisingly simple:
"Put off, concerning your former conduct, the old man which grows corrupt according to the deceitful lusts, and be renewed in the spirit of your mind, and . . . put on the new man which was created according to God, in true righteousness and holiness" (Ephesians 4:22-24).