Worldly Lifestyles or Christian Freedom?

John ArmstrongAmerican Evangelicalism, Church History, Culture

a77_church1 For as long as I can recall I have listened to Christians debate the concept of worldliness and worldly lifestyle. A recent flier that invited me to a Christian conference, with a host of speakers and topics, put this point clearly when it said:

A cultural divide is certainly entrenched among evangelical churches today, many adopting charismatic, worldly-entertainment style music, while others stand firmly with traditional, reverent worship. And what is true of worship culture has extended to the everyday activities of individual Christians, those in contemporary churches tending to embrace much more worldly lifestyles and aspirations. There is a great need for clear definitions and explanations of the biblical doctrine of separation from the world as universally held and practiced by Bible believers for centuries, until recent decades.

Some of the offerings at this large conference include the following:

We are commanded in our evangelism to call souls out of the world and then to keep them unspotted from it, but the new trend is to preach salvation without calling people from worldliness . . . [This speaker] will critique the new-style “comprehensive Calvinism,” and its dangers, including reference to widely applauded and imitated exponents.

Evangelicals are increasingly lurching away from time-honored detachment from worldly activities, and into friendship with the world . . . [This presentation] will seek to dismantle some of the confused reasoning of our day, and present biblical reasons for categorizing various activities as either acceptable to believers or “worldly.”

I could give more but reading this gives me the feeling that “worldliness” and “separation” will be the big themes in this major conference. What do I make of this?

1. There can be little doubt that modern evangelicals have become way too cozy with moral compromise at some critical points.

2. Worldliness is not defined in these statements but an assumed definition is quite clear throughout. (More in a moment.)

3. Certain evangelical leaders will very likely be named and exposed as dangerous exponents. And who are these “new style comprehensive Calvinist[s]” that are to be referenced? I can guess since I know some of them personally. I really have no idea, of course, but given the track record of this event, and I have listened to tapes of previous conferences, this would be an educated guess.

The fundamental problem here is in the use of the term “worldliness.” The word “world” has two meanings in Scripture. We can rule out the physical planet, the created order, in this case. So the only thing this word world can refer to here is the “spirit of this present world.” The problem is that these speakers assume worldliness is embracing the cultural forms and styles of the present age. But when the Bible refers to worldliness it is to best be understood as any thought or idea that stands in contrast with, or in opposition to, the kingdom of God, or the reign of Christ. Worldliness, understood biblically, refers to assumptions about the self, about God and about what is evil. Racism is worldly. Idolatry, in every form it takes, and it may take many forms including the love of one’s own definitions, is worldly. Based on reading this material I seriously doubt this is what these sponsors have in mind at all.

Why do I conclude this? Read the first paragraph that I quoted above. Here is what is said: “charismatic, worldly-entertainment style music, while others stand firmly with traditional, reverent worship . . . .” It is quite clear here that exuberant, charismatic forms of worship are considered worldly. This would include a whole lot more than a few compromised Calvinists I assure you! An increasingly large segment of the whole church, at least outside the West, would fall under this condemnatory statement.

As much as I love classical music and traditional hymns this kind of blanket criticism just will not work. It has nothing to do with “worldliness” biblically defined. It also has nothing to do with where the worldliness the Bible does speak about is to be truly found, namely in the unseen inner being of a Christian who seeks to follow Christ and the ways of the world that stand in stark opposition to Christ.

The second obvious feature of this event is the emphasis on separation. This emphasis allows the event to divide Christian from Christian. In this case they are not just dividing any Christian from any other Christian but specifically one Calvinist from another. (You could fill in the blank here with any other group and find the same thing!)

While I have no doubt that there are reasons for separation, such as other gospels (like that preached by the Mormon Church as one example), I find this form of second- and third-degree separation from fellow Christians to be a complete denial of the biblical teaching on love and grace. Yes, I know this response will bring howls of mocking protest. But when I read a sentence like this one I am still amazed: [the biblical doctrine of separation] “universally held and practiced by Bible believers for centuries, until recent decades." A little bit of church history would disabuse such a claim but serious, academically credible church history is not a strength in these contexts.

Sadly, events like this will draw crowds of people. And people will go away fully armed to “expose” other Christians as “worldly." Paul said to the Philippians that some “proclaim Christ from envy and rivalry, but others from goodwill. These proclaim Christ out of love, knowing that I have been put here for the defense of the gospel; the others proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely in intending to increase my suffering in my imprisonment. What does it matter? Just this, that Christ is proclaimed in every way, whether out of false mot
ives or true; and in that I
rejoice” (Phil. 1:15-18a).

By citing these words of Paul I am not making the point that my motives are pure and those of my brothers at this conference are wrong. I am rather judging myself by reminding my own soul that the motives of these men (and they are of course all males it must be noted) may be good, and mine may be wrong, but the real issue here is that Christ is proclaimed. These men do proclaim Christ, some of them do this very well. And some do very good pastoral work and this work is being used by God to win people to the faith. For this I rejoice. I just wish they would not assume with such fervency that their definition of what is “worldly” is the whole truth about their brothers (and sisters). There really are some questions that can’t be answered as easily as these men think. That’s my view anyway.