When I was young, “worldliness” was a vice. Let me explain. As a teen, my church never tried to prove worldly things were wrong with a specific Bible verse which disallowed my participation—they would just say “it’s worldly” as in “we abstain from worldly amusements.” Worldly amusements meant the kind of entertainment that “the world” engaged in—things like dancing, bowling, shooting pool, or riding ferris wheels at the carnival. We Christians simply did other things for pleasure than “the world.” It was not that Scripture was ignored though. They taught the Bible said, “Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world. If any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him” (2 John 2:15). There—love God, not worldly things. Without explicitly stating these things were “sin” the implication was clear—people who love worldly things didn’t love the Father.
I thought worldliness was a vice because we were supposed to be different from the world and different was good. We were told God had called us to “come out from among them and be separate” and we were to “touch not the unclean thing[s];…” (2 Cor. 6:17). We all understood that being “called unto holiness” meant separation from the world in every way –from what we did on Sunday, how we dressed and the entertainment we participated in. Like Israel was called to be set apart from the surrounding pagan nations, we too were called to be different from our pagan neighbors, school chums and other “worldly” people. Some even urged us to go a step more—to even “shun even the appearance of evil” (1 Thess. 5:22) by abstaining from things that might appear to be wrong (like one family who never drank their soft drinks out of a bottles in case someone might see them and think they were guzzling beer…they never explained how drinking from a glass proved it was not beer). While some of these things seem remarkably extreme today, the idea was that being “like the world” was a vice we should avoid…a slippery slope that might cause us to fall into deep miry clay. Staying far back from the edge of worldliness was the safest strategy for preserving purity, holiness and godliness.
Many Christians today do not consider worldliness a vice to be avoided, but a virtue to be embraced. A few weeks ago when I explained this concept to one of our leading students she paused, cocked her head and thought awhile, then furrowing her brow said, “Why, yeah—I’ve never thought of it any other way—being like the world is a good thing to me, I’ve never thought of it any other way.” A week later a leading layperson in our church said, “When I’m at a reception and people are drinking alcohol and I’m not drinking, I feel like [not drinking] is being judgmental and looking down on others.” I later asked a freshman guy, “Do you think a non-Christian should be able to tell you are a Christian by things you don’t do?” His answer: “No—I think they should be able to tell you are a Christian by the loving things you do do, not what you don’t do—you should be able to relate to them by being like them.” Following up I asked, “Is there anything that you think a Christian shouldn’t do that a non-Christian might do?” His reply: “Well, a Christian shouldn’t be judgmental—we should be loving and accepting of all people, that’s the biggest difference.” A middle-aged minister in my denomination recently preached, “The only observable difference between you and your unsaved friends should be your loving attitude—not whether you don’t drink, don’t smoke, don’t chew, and don’t go with girls that do.”
So, I’ve been pondering how the vice of “worldliness” became a virtue. Maybe you can help me think more about this. Is this a good change or a bad one? To what extent is this why so many talk past each other on other matters? Their foundational assumptions differ and these deeper values underlie their views on the surface matters of behavior and the “dos and don’ts” of church life. Are Christians supposed to be different in some “observable” way from the world? If so, how? If not, why?
copyright Keith Drury, 2008
Keith Drury served The Wesleyan Church headquarters in Christian Education and Youth leadership for 24 years before becoming a professor of religion at Indiana Wesleyan University. He is the author of more than a dozen books of practical spirituality, including Holiness for Ordinary People, Common Ground and Ageless Faith. Keith Drury wrote the Tuesday Column for 17 years (1995-2012), and many articles can be found on his blog “Drury Writing.”
Keith Drury retired from full time teaching in 2012. Keith is married to Sharon and has two adult sons and several grandchildren. He is retired in Florida with Sharon and enjoys cycling.