“We are to be in the world but not of the world.” This is a phrase that has been quoted ad nauseam and usually by preachers who even preface it with, “The Bible says.” But, does it? You might be surprised to learn the phrase “we are to be in the world but not of the world” is not a verse found in Scripture. While it is true that there are a several passages that seem to portray the concept, it is also true that those using the phrase are often not explaining it as it was intended. They create their own definition of what is “of the world.” It’s most often used as a form of legalism, which is a way for a person to identify what they feel, is “of the world” and forces their preconceived bias onto others. It sounds good, it sounds pious, but behind its use is usually an attitude of self-righteousness.
To get started let’s take a brief look at just three of the passages this quote is often derived from:
“Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, love for the Father is not in them. For everything in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—comes not from the Father but from the world. The world and its desires pass away, but whoever does the will of God lives forever” (1 John 2:15-17; NIV).
“Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Romans 12:22; ESV).
“Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings” (1 Cor. 9:19-23; NIV).
So, what do we see? In 1 John 2:15-17 we see the primary point is to not “love” the world or the things in it. Our love must be for God and the things of God, not for worldly things such as lust and pride. This is speaking of a heart attitude, not a list of do’s and don’ts as so many proclaim in their feeble attempts to regulate activities we may or may not be allowed to partake in. The same is true for the verse in Romans. We do not conform to the ways of the world; we discern things so we follow God’s will appropriately. Again, not a list of things acceptable or unacceptable, it’s a heart condition, living by way of a renewed mind.
And when we look at the 1 Corinthians passage, we actually see Paul adapting himself and his actions so as to fit into different cultures and subcultures so they might be receptive to his message. In fact, he speaks of the freedom he has in Christ to do such things, to participate in various actions. Although some of what he took part in would be looked down upon from those in Christian circles, he still did them, and with a clear conscience, in order to relate to the people so as to be accepted in order that they might be receptive to what he had to say.
In these passages we see freedom to live life in the world, we see freedom to participate in actions that are not condemned in order to relate to the cultures and subcultures around us, we see we are not to love the world but we are to actively “be all things to all people.” The message behind “in the world and not of the world” is far from a phrase to enforce what a certain person or group of persons deems as acceptable or unacceptable. It is more of a statement to live one’s life freely as long as you don’t love the things of the world, you’re living for God’s will and not your own, and your mind has been renewed.
“We must also understand that being in the world, but not of it, is necessary if we are to be a light to those who are in spiritual darkness. We are to live in such a way that those outside the faith…know that there is something ‘different’ about us.”
“Being ‘in’ the world also means we can enjoy the things of the world, such as the beautiful creation God has given us, [as well as countless other things as well] but we are not to immerse ourselves in what the world values, nor are we to chase after worldly pleasures.”
Well, with all of this said, why don’t you put away your list of things “of the world” which are not explicitly spelled out in Scripture and I’ll put away mine. Believe it or not there are gray areas that are not forbidden, nor endorsed. Let’s obey as we are taught in the New Testament, but also live freely in the grace we have been given, and the freedom we now have, which we are also taught to do in the New Testament.
Featured Image: earth by Beth Scupham; CC 2.0
This was a guest post from Dr. Jeff Hagan.
Jeff is an ordained Christian minister with over 23 years of ministry experience. He has attended Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, Luther Rice Seminary, Tyndale Seminary and a handful of other institutes as well. He has earned several degrees including the Doctor of Christian Education and the Doctor of Theology.