LifeWay Research President Ed Stetzer says the church often is confused about how to view "the world."
What do you think of when you hear the phrase “the world?” Does it elicit a positive or negative response?
The Scripture has a lot to say on the subject of “the world” that, on a cursory reading, can seem contradictory. Consider, for example, what the apostle John says. In John 3:16 he wrote: “For God so loved the world … ” But then in 1 John 2:15 he wrote: “Do not love the world or the things that belong to the world. If anyone loves the world, love for the Father is not in Him.” He records Jesus’ words in John 12:47, “For I did not come to judge the world but to save the world,” but relates Jesus’ admonition in 15:19, “If you were of the world, the world would love its own. Yet because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you.”
It seems like poor John can’t seem to make up his mind about “the world,” and whether we should love it or hate it.
Of course, John wasn’t confused. The Scripture draws a distinction between the people of the world and the fallen system of ideas that work in rebellion against God. In that sense, we are to both love and hate the world (Prov. 8:13). Part of what that means is living in the world (being present and active where God has sent us) but not being of the world (being influenced by and accepting a system profoundly opposed to God). Many Christians, however, are so fearful of being of the world that they completely isolate themselves from anything in the world. Under the banner of “separation,” they’ve gone underground and disappeared from sight. That’s not how we are supposed to live as citizens of God’s kingdom—and it denies the missional nature of the church.
Perhaps a change of terms will help clarify the issue for us. For a moment, let’s use “the people of earth” for “the world” (where we live) and the phrase “the attitude that rejects God’s love, law and leading” for “the world” (its fallen system). Now, let’s paraphrase: “Be among the people of earth (in the world), but not of the attitude that rejects God’s love, law and leading (of the world).” This simple contrast should bring a great deal of clarity to a potentially confusing line of thought. Now read John 3:16 to say, “For God so loved the people of earth … ” and 1 John 2, “Love not the attitude that rejects God’s love, law and leading, nor the things that take priority over God’s love, law and leading. If anyone loves the attitude that rejects God’s love, law and leading, the love of the Father is not in him.” It becomes apparent that John and other New Testament writers are dealing with two separate matters: a place of residence and the people God loves, and a condition of the heart that opposes God.
The Bible specifically tells us to live with “worldly” people. That’s exactly what always got Jesus in trouble—hanging out with drunkards, sinners, prostitutes … you know, the “bad” people. Paul emphasized the same point to the church at Corinth. The church had become confused about some things the apostle had taught earlier. In reaction, they began to disassociate with the world (people) around them. But Paul wanted them to understand that the solution to their problems—and they had lots of them—was not withdrawal from the people around them:
“I wrote to you in a letter not to associate with sexually immoral people—by no means referring to this world’s immoral people, or to the greedy and swindlers, or to idolaters; otherwise you would have to leave the world. But I am writing you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother who is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or a reviler, a drunkard or a swindler. Do not even eat with such a person” (1 Cor. 5:9-11).
Paul’s words make two things very clear. First, he has absolutely no intention to separate Christians from non-Christians. To him, the concept was laughable because it would negate the whole reason Christians live in the world. Second, someone who claims the name of Christ must be held to an incredibly high standard. If such a person forgets where his or her loyalty lies and adopts an attitude contrary to God’s love, law, and leadership, faithful followers of Christ are to disassociate themselves from that person. They must choose. (This, incidentally, is the forgotten part of the biblical doctrine of separation. We are not instructed to separate from the lost, but from church members who live out and indulge in their deep depravity, until such time they give evidence of repentance.)
Some of us will choose to not participate in any of the world’s systems, and opt for insulating ourselves in a self-made Christian bubble, a life constructed so that we can live out our days without ever even bumping into someone who doesn’t believe or live as we do. Safely detached from the spiritual lepers outside, we can glory in Christian preschool through graduate school, Christian music, Christian romance novels, Christian leadership books, and even Christian Halloween candy. Thank God for those Christian Yellow Pages. The only thing we will not have is the personal influence of the Gospel in the lives of those who do not know Christ. It’s difficult to make disciples of people we won’t even talk to. In a perverse twist of our Lord’s expectation, many Christians find themselves of the world by means of some kind of pseudo-sacred imitation, but not in it.