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 Corinthians 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.
It is easy for us to continue missing the mark on both of these implications. Often our lives as Christ-followers look no different from the system of the world. We too often settle for a truncated holiness that has a shiny gloss of Christian spirituality, but is for the most part inoffensive to the world, while overlooking greed, arrogance, and injustice. John described the world's system - the attitude that rejects God's love, law, and leading - very clearly. After he implored us not to love that attitude in 1 John 2:15, he continues (paraphrasing): "For all that is in the people of the earth (the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes and the boastful pride of life) is not from the Father, but is from the attitude that rejects God's love, law and leading." Verse 17 then confirms the eternal contrast: "The attitude that rejects God's love, law, and leading is passing away, with its lusts; but the one who does the will of God abides forever."
But in this "world vs. world" dichotomy, we find a subtlety that often blinds Christians. On the average Sunday morning, there is as much of the world in the church's building as there is in the world outside it. Why? Because "worldliness" does not reside in Tennessee, Canada, or Russia, i.e., the earth; it resides in human hearts and attitudes - in both believers and non-believers the world over. That is why separation from the world is not a matter of avoiding people, but a constant warring within ourselves against the attitude that would see us reject the love, law, and leadership of God over our lives.
As the sent church of God, we must love the people who live on this earth with the love of Christ, expressed in words and deeds, while hating the broken and sinful systems of the world that war against the Kingdom of God.
This becomes an important distinction in regards to contextualization, the focus of this series (see parts one, two, < ahref="http://www.christianpost.com/article/20100805/knowing-and-making-known-the-gospel/index.html">three, and four and five). Contextualization reminds us that we genuinely need to be IN the world while not being OF the world.
I express it as being: biblically faithful, culturally relevant, counter-culture communities for the Kingdom. Or, for this conversation, we are:
-biblically faithful (driven by scripture)
-culturally relevant (living in and among the world with people in cultures)
-counter-culture communities (not being of the world's system, values, or morality)
-for the Kingdom.
As it turns out, John wasn't confused at all - but the church often is.
Ed Stetzer, Ph.D., is President of LifeWay Research and LifeWay’s Missiologist in Residence. Ed is a contributing editor for Christianity Today, a columnist for Outreach Magazine and Catalyst Monthly, serves on the advisory council of Sermon Central and Christianity Today's Building Church Leaders, and is frequently cited or interviewed in news outlets such as USA Today and CNN. Ed is Visiting Professor of Research and Missiology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois, and Visiting Research Professor at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. Ed blogs daily at EdStetzer.com.